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Illinois to face Louisiana Tech in Heart of Dallas Bowl; matches Conference USA, Big Ten teams

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Illinois will face Louisiana Tech in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on Dec. 26, the first bowl trip for the Illini since 2011.

Illinois beat Penn State and Northwestern to close the season at 6-6. The Illini's defense forced five turnovers in beating the Wildcats 47-33 on the road.

Louisiana Tech (8-5) lost to Marshall 26-23 on Saturday in the Conference USA title game. The Bulldogs had won seven of their last eight games prior to that loss to the Thundering Herd.

This is the second meeting between Illinois and Louisiana Tech, which is roughly a 3½-hour drive from Dallas. The Bulldogs trounced the Illini 52-24 in 2012, in coach Tim Beckman's fourth game at Illinois.

"Our players have been fighting. They've been trying to put the fight back in the Illini," Beckman said. "Our players are very excited."

PHOTO: Louisiana Tech quarterback Cody Soko (19) makes a pass in the NCAA college football, C-USA Championship game on Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014, at Joan C. Edwards Stadium in Huntington, W.Va. Marshall would win the C-USA title by a score of 26-23. (AP Photo/The Herald-Dispatch, Sholten Singer)
Louisiana Tech quarterback Cody Soko (19) makes a pass in the NCAA college football, C-USA Championship game on Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014, at Joan C. Edwards Stadium in Huntington, W.Va. Marshall would win the C-USA title by a score of 26-23. (AP Photo/The Herald-Dispatch, Sholten Singer)

The Bulldogs are led by quarterback Cody Sokol, the Iowa transfer who has thrown 29 TD passes, and running back Kenneth Dixon, who has rushed for 1,236 yards and 21 touchdowns.

Louisiana Tech improved by four wins in its second season under coach Skip Holtz. The Bulldogs lead the nation with 164 points off turnovers.

"I am so proud of the job that coach Holtz and his staff and the players have done this year. We really had some adversity," Louisiana Tech athletic director Tommy McClelland said. "All the feedback so far is that this is a home run for us...this is where we wanted to be all along and we're there."

Illinois lost five of six games during one stretch this season. But the Illini beat Minnesota at home and closed with encouraging wins over the Nittany Lions and Wildcats

There was concern that Illinois might get left out of a bowl if the Big Ten had just nine spots for 10 eligible teams.

But Michigan State's invitation to the Cotton Bowl opened up a 10th spot, the Citrus Bowl, for the league.

"There were a few Big Ten teams that were having a little bit of a sleepless night last night. There were some things that had to play out," Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said.

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