One More Gift Under The Tree?

The Illini have a tough test against a talented Louisiana Tech team to finish with a winning season. Here are a few things to look for in this game.

Illinois is hoping that Christmas comes a day late this year. And the number one item on their wish list is a bowl victory against a good Louisiana Tech team.

It’s pretty well known at this point that Illinois almost didn’t make a bowl game in the first place. Whether it was being 4-6 and being in two must-win games to close the season or having to wait for the final FBS playoff rankings to come out and hope that a Big Ten team landed in the Citrus Bowl, the Illini are extremely grateful just to be in a bowl game.

But if you ask head coach Tim Beckman, just being there isn’t the goal.

Beckman is grateful that the team got 15 extra practices in which they could not only prepare for the bowl game, but also get valuable reps for their younger players and other reserves.

But really, this game weighs heavily on the momentum Illinois hoping to build heading into next year.

Athletic Director Mike Thomas has already stated that Beckman will be returning as head coach next season, and all indications are that taking steps forward will be a must yet again. The Illini have a huge opportunity before them Friday.

It’s an opportunity to finish with a winning record, an opportunity to build much-needed positivity and momentum into the offseason and the spring, and an opportunity to make a statement in front of a crucial recruiting audience.

But Louisiana Tech won’t make things easy on Illinois. The Bulldogs are an 8-win team that is diverse on offense and mixes up looks on defense. Led on offense by Iowa QB transfer Cody Sokol and running back Kenneth Dixon, La Tech will push the tempo and force the Illinois defense to be sharp and disciplined with plays happening quickly.

On defense, former Texas DC Manny Diaz brings much of that same aggressive style to the table. The Bulldogs will bring the blitz to put pressure on the quarterback and force quick decisions from the signal-callers for Illinois. One familiar face in particular is former Illinois DE/OLB Houston Bates, who has tallied 5.5 sacks for La Tech this season.

On offense for Illinois, Reilly O’Toole has been named the starter at quarterback, and deservedly so after leading Illinois to the bowl game down the stretch. However, with the time and opportunity to prepare, it wouldn’t be surprising to see OC Bill Cubit mix up the personnel as well as the play calling to keep the Bulldogs guessing.

With only seven active offensive linemen for the game following a brutal string of injuries this season, the additional bowl practices have been a godsend in terms of preparing a patchwork offensive line which includes a lot of young players and reserves. Redshirt freshman Christian DiLauro has risen to the occasion in a big way and has anchored the right tackle position well the second half of the season.

Freshman receiver Mike Dudek is less than 40 yards from eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark for the year and would join elite company as one of just a handful of Illini receivers to surpass that mark. Dudek’s success this year is impressive under normal circumstances, but to perform how he has as a true freshman is a testament to his preparation and mental toughness that is undoubtedly uncommon for a freshman.

Defensively, it will be extremely important for Illinois to maintain gap discipline and limit big plays. When the two teams faced off in Beckman’s first season at Illinois, the Illini took a beating on defense, giving up numerous plays of 20+ yards. Down the stretch this season, Illinois surrendered less big plays and got off the field much more often on third down.

One other key for the Illini defense will be generating a pass rush. Louisiana Tech will be keying in on junior Jihad Ward, who has turned up his game a few notches down the stretch as his skills have caught up to his athletic ability. With attention on Ward, players like Jarrod Clements, Kenny Nelson, and Joe Fotu should get some one-on-one matchups and will need to be able to capitalize on them.

Senior punter Justin DuVernois has turned into one of the Illini’s greatest weapons this year. A game changer in the field position battle, DuVernois is top-20 in the nation in punting average, and toward the end of the year (especially against Northwestern) showed consistency in putting the ball inside the opponent’s 20 yard line. If Illinois can get that same consistency and performance out of him for one more game, it can heavily shift fortunes in their favor.

Illinois is an underdog in the matchup. The La Tech Bulldogs have held pretty steady as a 6-point favorite in the game according to Las Vegas. An Illinois team with much to prove and a chip on their shoulder isn’t paying attention to the odds-makers, but they know what a win would mean for the program and for a group of seniors who have battled like crazy just to get to this point.

Which Illinois team will show up on Friday? Tune in at noon on Friday to find out.

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