Illinois v. Louisiana Tech
Cotton Bowl — Dallas, TX
December 26, 2014 — 1:00 pm Eastern (ESPN)
Why You Should Watch
What better way to nurse a Christmas hangover than Boxing Day football? This is the first bowl game featuring a Power Five team since the Las Vegas Bowl… though the Group of Five school is justifiably a six-point favorite in this showdown. This is also the only bowl game still played at the venerable Cotton Bowl — even the Cotton Bowl Classic itself has ditched the venue despite the fact it was renovated and expanded as recently as 2008. Instead of the traditional matchup of top-25 teams that this stadium used to host annually on New Year’s Day, it’ll feature the Conference USA runner-up and Big Ten team that barely squeaked into the postseason after finishing fifth in the West Division with a 3-5 conference record. Watch for the chance to see another game played at one of college football’s most historic venues, if nothing else.
What Each Team Brings to the Table
The Illini are an odd team to assess. They finished the year on a two-game streak, knocking off Penn State and Northwestern to become eligible for a bowl invitation. They also beat Western Kentucky and Minnesota throughout the season, showing they could match up against talented teams. But Illinois also served as the only conference victory Purdue managed to secure this season, and none of their losses were close. They’re mediocre at passing the ball, with Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt and senior Reilly O’Toole splitting time at quarterback. They’re abysmal at running the ball, one of the 15 worst teams in the country in terms of rushing yardage per game. And the Illinois defense is somehow even worse than their offense, allowing 34 points per game in the regular season.
Louisiana Tech enters the game with its own flaws, but they were far more competent in the nuts and bolts of football than Illinois. The Bulldogs understandably lost to Oklahoma and Auburn on the road; they also somehow lost to mediocre FCS squad Northwestern State at home. The team wasn’t as prolific as in the past, ranking just 45th in passing yardage and 82nd in rushing yardage. They still managed to throw for 10 more yards and rush for 34 more yards per game than the Illini. Louisiana Tech looked far better on the scoreboard as well — not only was Tech among the most prolific offenses in the country with an average of 37.5 points per game, but the defense was also stout enough to allow the team to outscore opponents by an average of 12.3 points per outing. The Bulldogs are already battle-tested against far better Power Five competition.
What is Likely to Happen
Louisiana Tech was the best team in the nation at generating turnovers, snagging 25 interceptions and stealing 15 fumbles from opponents in 13 games — four more than second-place TCU. Illinois only lost 20 turnovers during the season, so they’ve proven they can secure the ball against tougher defenses. But the Big Ten representative hasn’t proven it can score against that level of defense, averaging just 17 points per game against the six toughest defenses on its 2014 schedule. This game could get ugly quickly for the Illini in Dallas, with Louisiana Tech scoring early and often against a porous defense and the Bulldog secondary making life miserable for whichever quarterback(s) end up under center for Illinois. Look for Tech to run away with its first bowl victory since Derek Dooley was coaching the WAC-affiliated Bulldogs to a win over Northern Illinois in the Independence Bowl.
Louisiana Tech 41, Illinois 17