DALLAS (AP) — Illinois learned all about Louisiana Tech's knack for getting turnovers this season. Even the Bulldogs' offense got involved.
Trailing by three with less than 9 minutes to play in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, the Illini thought they had gotten the break they needed when they sacked Cody Sokol, causing him to fumble. But after Jihad Ward returned it inside the Tech 20, running back Kenneth Dixon forced him to fumble and Sokol recovered.
Four plays later, Dixon scored to put Louisiana Tech up by two scores on the way to a 35-18 win Friday.
"That's the game of football to me," Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. "I think they've been very opportunistic in what they've done this year. We need to become that (much) better on our defense. No question those were big, huge plays."
Tech scored earlier when Xavier Woods returned an interception 69 yards for a touchdown, dropping Illinois to 6-7 after winning its last two regular-season games to become bowl eligible for the first time in Beckman's three seasons.
Louisiana Tech, winner of Conference USA's West Division, finished 9-5 after going 4-8 in Skip Holtz's first season as coach.
The Illini outgained the Bulldogs 451 total yards to 247. But they missed two field-goal attempts and were hampered by nine penalties for 68 yards. Houston Bates, a former Illinois defensive end who transferred after last season to his home-state Bulldogs after graduating with a year's eligibility remaining, had 4½ sacks and 5½ tackles for losses to earn most valuable player honors.
"He hit me hard a couple times, but it was fun going against a friendly foe," said Illinois quarterback Reilly O'Toole, who became Illinois' primary quarterback as a senior beginning in late September after playing sparingly his first three seasons. "Obviously, we wish we could have made a few more plays. But congrats to him. He is a great kid."
O'Toole was briefly knocked out of the game late in the first half following a hard tackle. He was replaced by Wes Lunt, the transfer from Oklahoma State whom he replaced early in the season. But O'Toole returned and played until the final minutes.
"Why not leave it all on the field?" O'Toole said. "So, yeah, that was my mindset. My last game ever. So I'm not going to shy away from contact."
Illinois got within three points on David Reisner's 43-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, but, like so many Bulldogs opponents this year, couldn't hang on to the football. Louisiana Tech went into the game in first place among FBS schools with 40 forced turnovers. With Friday's two Illini turnovers, Tech converted turnovers into 198 points this season.
"The way the guys played, Kenneth and Cody and throughout the whole season, it's truly outstanding," said Bates, who weeks ago said playing against his former school in a bowl would be a fairy-tale finish to his career. "It's something I'm going to live for the rest of my life. And if I die tomorrow, my life would be complete."
Tech led 21-9 lead at halftime after O'Toole's pass was returned for a touchdown by Woods midway through the second, but Illinois responded with a 3-yard scoring run by Donovonn Young. The 2-point conversion failed, though, but Reisner banked in a field goal to cut the Bulldogs' lead to 3.
O'Toole threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Jon Davis early in the second quarter. He was 24 of 39 for a season-high 295 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
Taylor Zalewski kicked a 27-yard FG in the first quarter for Illinois, which committed eight first-half penalties for 53 yards and missed two field goals attempts and an extra point.
Sokol, who began his collegiate career in the Big Ten at Iowa, completed 14 of 28 passes for 247 yards and one touchdown.
On Woods' interception, the pass was thrown ahead of Dudek, whose uniform appeared to be held by Tech's Bryson Abraham just before Woods made the grab.
"Reilly threw the ball where I was supposed to be," Dudek said. "which I probably would have been had I not been held, but the ref didn't call it."
Dixon became Louisiana Tech's career rushing leader in only his third season but ran for only 63 yards after averaging 95.1 going into the game.
"We had a great scheme for it," Beckman said. "They had a great running back. As a whole, our defense got better in the second half of the season stopping the run."