Illinois football to play in Heart of Dallas Bowl

The Illini football team presents the Land of Lincoln trophy during the basketball game against American on Saturday. The Illini won the trophy by beating Northwestern.

By Sean Neumann

The Illini football team (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten) was selected to play in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl against Louisiana Tech (8-5, 7-1 Conference USA) on Dec. 26.

It will be Illinois’ first trip to a bowl game since winning the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl over UCLA, 20-14.

Louisiana Tech defeated the Illini 52-24 at Memorial Stadium in the teams’ last meeting in 2012.

This will also be Tim Beckman’s first bowl game as the head coach of the Illini.

“I hope (the players) hold their chests high, because that was the goal: to get to a bowl game,” Beckman said. “Hopefully we’ve built something or are starting to build something that continues.”

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Illinois was 4-6 heading into its final two games of the season, needing to win its final two games to become bowl eligible. The Illini strung together back-to-back wins over Penn State and Northwestern in the final two weeks to qualify for a postseason game.

Beckman received assurance from Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas that he will remain the Illinois head coach next season after concerns over his job security following a 38-27 loss to Purdue in October.

“(The media) didn’t think we had a chance,” Beckman said. “It’s kind of a giggle now. When people doubt you and you prove them wrong, for our football players, it was very rewarding.”

The Illini coach said the turning point late in the season was when reality hit the Illini players following a 30-14 loss to Iowa at home.

“After the Iowa game, we talked and really had a reality check and asked, ‘How good are we?’” Beckman said. “We were honest and we talked about it. Everybody was honest.”

Thomas said there is no doubt the Illini brand and the University’s broad alumni base across the country helped the team in receiving the bowl bid. The athletic director was busy this weekend talking up the program.

“I was in constant talks with the Big Ten,” Thomas said. “One bowl rep told me he spoke to me more than he spoke to all the other Big Ten schools combined.”

The Illini defense was key to the team’s final two victories, forcing five turnovers against Northwestern after allowing Penn State just 14 points the week before.

While Beckman has allowed his team to enjoy reaching a bowl game, the Illini will begin focusing on Louisiana Tech going forward in practice before traveling to Dallas on Dec. 22.

And for the Illini players, they know how important a bowl game is to both the program and its players.

“It’s very important that you cherish moments like this and that you remember it and make it mean something,” linebacker Earnest Thomas III said. “This could really start something and get something rolling for this team and this program.”    

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter@Neumannthehuman.