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Illinois' Reilly O'Toole saving his best for last

You’d better believe Reilly O’Toole reported to Illinois in 2011 with every intention of becoming the school’s starting quarterback. Immediately? Maybe not. But this was a kid who’d led Wheaton Warrenville South to a pair of state titles and been named the Sun-Times’ (and most everyone else’s) Player of the Year. His time in the sun as a college quarterback surely was coming.

You’d better believe it hurt like heck when it didn’t come. Nearly four full seasons into his time with the Illini, O’Toole seemed destined to be remembered as a well-liked, team-oriented guy who’d filled in whenever Nathan Scheelhaase or, in 2014, Wes Lunt couldn’t go.

“It’s hard. It was always hard,” he said. “But it was always worth it, too.”

And then came O’Toole’s November to remember. After Lunt returned from injury against Iowa and played poorly enough to get the hook, O’Toole finally grabbed hold of the starting job and didn’t let it go. Needing victories at home against Penn State and at Northwestern for the Illini to reach bowl eligibility, O’Toole went two-for-two, giving him three wins as a starter this season. He completed 66 percent of his passes over the final two games and hit the Wildcats with a big-time 147 rushing yards.

“It seemed like a movie,” he said of returning to the Chicago area in the role of a starter for a must-win regular-season finale.

And now, a final scene not many expected to see: Friday’s Heart of Dallas Bowl against Louisiana Tech. In addition to O’Toole, five players, units and trends to watch for:

1. Already having lost arguably its two best offensive linemen for the season, Illinois is down to seven available bodies for this game, including one reserve who has yet to play a snap from scrimmage. Senior left guard Michael Heitz is the only member of the line who is finishing the season where he began it. Yikes.

2. Louisiana Tech had 25 sacks over its last eight games and ended the regular season tied for 29th in the country with 32 sacks in all. Its individual leader: former Illini starter Houston Bates, who played three seasons in Champaign and earned his degree before transferring closer to his family in Covington, La.

3. The Bulldogs defensive front is disruptive in general. Tech ranks sixth nationally with 102 tackles for loss and has had five games with double-digit TFLs. Third-and-longs won’t be friendly to O’Toole, who is limited as a downfield passer.

4. Bulldogs junior running back Kenneth Dixon has rushed for 3,347 yards and 52 touchdowns in his career. He has topped 100 yards in three straight outings and had a trio of three-TD games over the last month of the regular season. Any questions?

5. Illinois senior running back Donovonn Young’s career never took off quite as he hoped it would, but the Texas native had his best two games of the season in the victories over Penn State and Northwestern that got the Illini bowl-eligible. Like O’Toole, one of his closest friends, Young has a chance to go out with a bang.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg