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Illini football faces a tough foe

While there has been no shortage of football in Champaign-Urbana over the last two weeks, on Saturday, for the first time in a while, there’s likely to be an actual game.

Much has been written, including much here in Smile Politely, about large scale athletic programs scheduling games against unheard of and undermatched schools. Last week’s pointless drubbing of Charleston Southern was a sadly perfect example of that trend. A passing glance at this week’s opponent, the Bulldogs of Louisiana Tech University, on Saturday night might give the impression of another so-called “guarantee game.”  

That impression would be wrong.

Louisiana Tech, or, as Beckman prefers to prounounce it, “LAH tech,” presumably because he’s an aficionado of postal abbreviations, is a public university in Ruston, Louisiana. Louisiana Tech’s teams are the Bulldogs, and they have a completely awesome mascot featuring the head of a cartoon bulldog wearing a collar that says “Tech.”  La. Tech’s head coach is Sonny Dykes, which just sounds perfect for a football coach in Ruston, Louisiana.

Don’t let the fact that you didn’t already know any of this lull you into believing that Louisiana Tech will be a pushover.

Louisiana Tech has a little shorter resume that most teams in the country, having played only two games this year thus far. This is not a result of an odd schedule, but weather: Louisiana Tech had a game against Texas A&M postponed by Hurricane Isaac.

In the two games they have played, Louisiana Tech has been offensively explosive, putting up over 600 yards of offense. Not total. 600 yards in each game. They’re averaging 56 points on a balanced approach, splitting the running and passing yardage roughly equally.

Perhaps most troubling for Illinois is pace of play that the Bulldogs like to press. Coming into the season, Illinois’ defense was expected to be a returning bright spot, but a lot of faith was shaken in Tempe. When faced with Arizona State’s hurry offense, the defense struggled mightily. The Sun Devils racked up the points as the defense frequently found themselves out of position or struggling to communicate with one another while the yardage tally climbed. La. Tech likes to push the tempo, too. How the Illini defense responds this time is the big, perhaps outcome determinative, question.

So far this year, La. Tech has played at Houston and at home against Rice. Both games saw Louisiana Tech putting up huge points, but also giving up a tremendous amount of yardage and points on the defensive side. When the Bulldogs walk off the field this year, the scoreboard greatly resembles a basketball game. Houston also plays an uptempo offense, and the game between the two set a college football record for the most offensive plays run in regulation: a staggering 209 snaps, resulting in an also-record 78 first downs.

Doubters may think that La. Tech’s success thus far is not representative of the challenge that the Bulldogs may pose for the Illini, but rather is more reflective of the fact that La. Tech hasn’t yet played a big school. That’s a dangerous assumption.

La. Tech won seven in a row to end their regular season last year. Even amongst bigger programs, La. Tech fared well, taking Mississippi State to overtime and beating Ole Miss by 20. The Bulldogs not only won their conference (the Western Athletic Conference — I know, Ruston, Louisiana isn’t very far West — don’t get me started on college football conference geography), but matched up against 15th ranked TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl, a bowl position that Illinois couldn’t have dreamed of last year.

Illinois fans will be closely watching who takes the field and who does not, particularly at quarterback. Prevailing wisdom is that Nathan Scheelhaase will return from his two game break and use this game to shake off the rust before Illinois opens the Big Ten schedule against Penn State next week.

The game is at 7:00 p.m., and will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network. If you’re at home, I won’t hold it against you if you flip back and forth to the annual Why Can’t They Both Lose Bowl that is otherwise known as Michigan at Notre Dame.

Oddsmakers predict this game as a close one (Illinois is favored by only one point, despite home field advantage), but who knows what that means: they said the same about the Arizona State game. All we can do is watch. Saturday, finally, a football game returns to Champaign-Urbana.

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