Illini kicks off B1G bowl season with loss to LaTech

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Coming into the 2014 postseason, the Big Ten as a conference was looking to get back some of the respect its lost over the last several years.  After Game 1?  Hey, at least there are nine, possibly 10 more remaining.

It wasn’t pretty as mistakes in all three phases littered the playing field, but Louisiana Tech, which had jumped out to a 21-9 halftime lead, was able to pull away to a 35-18 win over Illinois in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl.  The win marks Tech’s first bowl victory since the 2008 season, and their ninth win this year after winning just four in 2013.

Were it not for one key fourth-quarter sequence, though, it might’ve been the Illini doing some postseason celebrating for the first time since 2011.

With just over nine minutes remaining and trailing 21-18, the Illini forced a fumble at around the Tech 40-yard line that was recovered by Jihad Ward and returned to the Tech 16-yard line.  However, Ward fumbled before he went down and the ball was recovered by, oddly enough, quarterback Cody Sokol, the player who originally fumbled it.  Five plays later, one of which was a 70-yard pass to Carlos Henderson, a Kenneth Dixon one-yard touchdown run with 6:15 remaining stretched the lead to 28-18 and essentially put the game out of reach.

The scoring icing on the cake was a 28-yard touchdown run by Blake Martin with 3:43 remaining.

While Sokol completed just 14 passes, he threw for 247 yards.  Dixon ended up scoring twice, one each rushing and receiving, in accumulating 142 yards from scrimmage.

Sokol’s counterpart, Reilly O’Toole, took a severe, game-long beating but still passed for 295 yards and a touchdown.

Houston Bates, who transferred from Illinois to Tech earlier this year, totaled 4.5 sacks in the game, with another being wiped out late in the game by a penalty.  The senior came into the game with 5.5 this season.

While the Big Ten is 0-1, Conference USA moved to an impressive 4-1 with Tech’s win.  Through 11 bowl games, that conference as well as the ACC (1-0) are the only ones that are above .500.

Illini trailing LaTech by double digits despite doubling-up on yards

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It’s not often the case that a team that’s nearly doubled up its opposition in total offense finds itself on the wrong end of a double-digit lead.

Yet that’s the situation Illinois finds itself in Friday afternoon, trailing Louisiana Tech 21-9 despite an overwhelming 291-154 advantage in total offense.  There were three big problems for the Illini, though: penalties, turnovers and shooting themselves in the kicking foot.

On the former front, the Illini were flagged eight times for 53 yards; Tech was only penalized once for five yards.  On the latter front, it was a pair of missed field goals and an extra point as well as a botched opening kickoff that added to the Illini’s misery.  And the turnovers?  It was actually turnover, singular, but it was a huge one: with the Illini driving toward missed field-goal range, a Reilly O’Toole pass — with a blatant hold on the receiver by the defense going uncalled — was intercepted and returned 69 yards for a touchdown by Xavier Woods.

Tech came into the game leading the nation in turnovers forced, with the pick-six increasing that total to 41.  It was also the Bulldogs’ fifth defensive touchdown of the season.

Another issue for the Illini?  Tech running back Kenneth Dixon took a perfectly-executed wheel route and turned it into an 80-yard touchdown.  Dixon finished the first half with 115 yards from scrimmage.

Houston Bates, who transferred from Illinois to Tech earlier this year, had three first-half sacks.  The senior came into the game with 5.5 this season.

CFT Previews: Your Dec. 26 Bowl Viewer’s Guide

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Taking a quick-hit look at the Dec. 26 bowl menu, which features two teams each from the ACC and Big Ten, the first time those two conferences have taken part in the 2014-15 postseason

WHO: Illinois (6-6) vs. Louisiana Tech (8-5)
WHAT: The 4th Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl
WHERE: The Cotton Bowl, Dallas, Tex.
WHEN: 1 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: Illinois saved its season — and likely head coach Tim Beckman‘s job — by winning its last two games to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011, the year prior to Beckman’s arrival.  Louisiana Tech is also playing in a bowl game for the first time since 2011, and the first time under second-year head coach Skip Holtz.  The first month of the season, though, it didn’t look like Tech would reach the postseason as the Bulldogs stumbled out of the gate at 2-3; they righted the listing ship over the last two months, however, as they closed out a 6-2 run to end the season with a Conference USA West division title and a spot in the league title game.  Those two losses to close out the season, incidentally, were by a total of six points — on the road in overtime against Old Dominion (30-27) and against Marshall (26-23) in the conference championship game.  One thing to note about the Illini: they went 4-3 with quarterback Wes Lunt starting and 2-3 when he didn’t start.  On the bowl depth chart, however, the quarterback position is listed as Reilly O’Toole or Lunt, in that order.  Another thing about the Illini, which doesn’t bode well for the Big Ten school: they were 109th in points allowed per game (33.9), while the Bulldogs were 13th in scoring offense (37.5 ppg).
THE LINE: Illinois, +6
THE PREDICTION: Louisiana Tech 41, Illinois 27

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WHO: Rutgers (7-5) vs. North Carolina (6-6)
WHAT: The inaugural Quick Lane Bowl
WHERE: Ford Field, Detroit, Mich.
WHEN: 4:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: In games that Gary Nova has thrown fewer than two interceptions, Rutgers is 26-7 since 2011.  In games that Nova has thrown two or more interceptions, RU has gone 2-10, with the last of those wins coming in November of 2012.  North Carolina, meanwhile, was 49th in the country and fourth in the ACC with 12 picks during the regular season.  After jumping out to a 5-1 mark in their first season in the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights stumbled to the regular-season finish line with a 2-4 record, with all four of those losses coming by at least 18 points and three of them coming by 20-plus.  The bad news for RU?  They’re 92nd in the country in points allowed per game (30.9), while UNC is 36th in scoring offense (33.8 ppg).  The good news for RU?  UNC’s defense is even worse, finishing the regular season 119th in points allowed (38.9 ppg).  Even worse for the Tar Heels, they’re 105th in passing yards (263.5 ypg) and have given up 34 or more points in eight of their 12 games this season.  In other words, this has all the makings of a good old-fashioned postseason shootout, one that would bring back memories of the old BYU Holiday Bowl appearances from years gone by.
THE LINE: Rutgers, +3
THE PREDICTION: Rutgers 48, North Carolina 45

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WHO: North Carolina State (7-5) vs. UCF (9-3)
WHAT: The 7th Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl
WHERE: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Fla.
WHEN: 8 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: If you find defensive football soothing to your palate, this bowl game has the potential to be extremely soothing, especially when it comes to the AAC representative.  UCF is ninth in the country in points per game allowed at 17.9, while North Carolina State is a middling T-68th (27 ppg).  In three of their last four games — all wins, incidentally –the Knights allowed a total of 14 points.  Neither offense figures to offer much resistance as NCSU finished the regular season 61st in scoring (29.8 ppg) and UCF finished 71st (28.2 ppg).  Since losing its first two games of the season to Penn State and Missouri, UCF reeled off wins in nine of their last 10 games.  NCSU, after winning its first four games, went 3-5 in the last two-thirds of the season, although they close out by winning three of four to become bowl-eligible for the first time under second-year head coach Dave Doeren.  UCF is currently riding a three-game bowl winning streak after losing the first three postseason games in the football program’s history, with each of those wins coming by double-digit margins.  The player to watch offensively is NCSU’s Jacoby Brissett, a dual-threat quarterback who posted nearly 3,000 yards of offense (2,344 passing, 498 rushing) and 25 touchdowns.  Arguably the most impressive part about the Florida transfer’s season is that he threw just five interceptions in 344 attempts, the third-fewest picks in the country, behind USC’s Cody Kessler (4, 413) and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota (2, 372), among the 62 quarterbacks who attempted at least 340 passes.  UCF, though, was tied for ninth in the country with 18 interceptions.
THE LINE: North Carolina State, +2
THE PREDICTION: UCF 20, North Carolina State 13

Wes Lunt expected to be back under center for Illini vs. Iowa

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As 4-5 Illinois looks to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011, the triggerman of the Illini’s once-potent offense is back.

In early October, Wes Lunt sustained a fractured fibula in his left leg and was expected to miss 4-6 weeks.  Coming up on the outside end of that prognosis, Lunt is indeed set to return as the former Oklahoma State quarterback, barring an unexpected development, will start in Saturday’s game against Iowa.

One group in particular will likely be excited over the return of Lunt.

“The guy’s got a really good arm and he’s really accurate,” offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “If I’m a wide receiver, I’m going to feel a little bit better.”

In Lunt’s five starts — he sat out the Sept. 27 Nebraska game with a different leg injury — the Illini have gone 3-2. In the four games he missed, they’re 1-3.

As noted by the football program in its notes package for the Iowa game, Lunt was on his way to a quite prolific season before being sidelined.

At the time of his injury, Lunt ranked in the top 20 in the nation in completions per game (25.4, 10th), passing yards per game (313.8, 14th), passing touchdowns (13,17th), passing yards (1,569, 18th), completion percentage (66.5, 20th) and passing efficiency (154.8, 20th), and was tied for fourth in FBS with 14 passing plays of 30+ yards.

Lunt also tossed 13 touchdown passes in his five games and just three interceptions in 191 attempts. His two replacements, Reilly O’Toole and Aaron Bailey, have thrown five touchdowns and seven interceptions in 130 attempts.

With Lunt, the Illini averaged 30.4 points per game.  Without him, it dipped to 21 ppg.

Illinois QB Wes Lunt expected to return for Iowa game on Nov. 15

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Great news, Illini fans. Head coach Tim Beckman said Monday starting quarterback Wes Lunt is expected to return to action… for Illinois’ game with Iowa on November 15.

There is the little matter of a visit to No. 13 Ohio State on Saturday night where Lunt will not be available, but this is good news nonetheless.

“Great. Awesome,” Beckman said of Lunt to the Chicago Sun-Times. “We feel like there is a great possibility [for him] to be back after the open [week].”

Lunt was lost for four-to-six weeks with a leg fracture suffered during the Illini’s loss 38-27 loss to Purdue on Oct. 4.

In all actuality, the Ohio State game is more than likely a loss regardless of Lunt’s availability. But getting him back for the home stretch is absolutely critical.

The Illini will need to win two of their final three games (assuming a loss to the Buckeyes) to reach a bowl game, more than likely a requirement to push the three-year Beckman era to four. Beckman is 10-22 at Illinois and 2-18 against the Big Ten, but reaching six wins would represent continued progress from his 2-10 debut and 4-8 follow-up in 2013.

Lunt leads the team with 1,569 passing yards and 15 touchdowns on 127-of-191 passing. Reilly O’Toole has received the bulk of the action in Lunt’s absence; he’s completed 127-of-191 passes for 1,569 yards with 15 touchdowns and five interceptions and rushed for 75 additional yards with one touchdown.