Texas Bowl Preview
Dec. 22, 2010
Illinois (6-6, 4-4) will make its first bowl trip since playing in the 2008 Rose Bowl when the program takes part in the Texas Bowl, one of the Big Ten's newest bowl partners. The Illini will face Baylor (7-5, 4-4 Big 12) of the Big 12 on Wednesday, Dec. 29, at 6 p.m. ET in Houston, Texas. Illinois has posted a 6-9 bowl record and will play a postseason game in the state of Texas for just the second time in school history after participating in the 1991 John Hancock Bowl in El Paso. Head coach Ron Zook will take part in the fourth bowl game of his career and his second at the helm of the Illini. The Big Ten will be making its first appearance in the Texas Bowl, which was first played following the 2006 campaign.
Baylor is 8-8 all-time in bowl games, and the Bears will be playing a bowl game in Houston for the fourth time. Baylor beat LSU 14-7 in the 1963 Bluebonnet Bowl at Rice Stadium, but then fell to Oklahoma State 24-14 in the same postseason contest 20 years later at the Astrodome. Baylor would earn another Bluebonnet Bowl “W” in 1986 with a 21-9 victory over at Rice Stadium. The last time Baylor played in a bowl game was when the Bears fell to Washington State, 10-3, in the 1994 Alamo Bowl. Baylor's last bowl win came in 1992 with a 20-15 win over Arizona in the John Hancock Bowl in El Paso, Texas.
The Texas Bowl will be just the second meeting between Illinois and Baylor. The Bears won the only prior meeting between the two teams, 34-19, at Memorial Stadium in Champaign in 1976. Illinois is 18-31-3 all-time against the Big 12 Conference.
The Illinois’ offense rated third in the Big Ten this season in rushing (242.3), fourth in scoring (32.1), seventh in total yards (385.8), and 11th in passing (143.4). The 2010 campaign was a tale of two halves so to speak as the Illini averaged 42.8 points and 435.8 total yards over the last six games, while posting just 21.3 points and 320 yards per outing in their first six contests. All-American RB and first-team All-Conference honoree Mikel Leshoure ranks eighth nationally with 126.1 yards per game and earned the Big Ten rushing title this year with 121.6 yards in each conference game. He ranks second on Illinois’ single-season rushing and touchdowns list with 1,513 yards and 17 TDs and unquestionably had the conference’s game of the year with a school-record 330 yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries against Northwestern at Wrigley Field. Leshoure is just 169 yards shy of Rashard Mendenhall’s single-season school-record total of 1,681 yards. Despite the team’s passing numbers, redshirt-freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has matured every game and has become quite the effective leader for the Orange and Blue. During the second half of the season, he passed for 802 yards, 13 touchdowns and just one interception while rushing for another 525 yards and two TDs on 110 carries. His pass efficiency rating over the final six games improved from 110.24 to 148.51. Junior wideout A.J. Jenkins has Illinois' only two 100-yard receiving games this year and leads all Illini receivers in receptions (50), yards (694) and touchdowns (7). The Illini are impressive in the red zone. In fact, they rank third in the nation in red zone scoring percentage, picking up points on 45 of its 48 trips (31 TDs, 14 FGs) inside the 20 this season for a 94 percent clip.
On defense, Baylor was ninth in the Big 12 in scoring (29.8), total yards allowed (427.2), and defending the rush (160.2), as well as 10th against the pass (267.0). The Bears’ ranking improved in the red zone, allowing opponents on the scoreboard in 45 of 54 chances or 83.3 percent of the time, good for seventh in the league. In its last three games, all of which were losses, Baylor gave up 55 points to Oklahoma State, 42 points to Kansas State, and 53 points to Oklahoma in that order. Senior safety Byron Landor leads the unit as a first-team All-Big 12 member, followed by second-team honoree Phil Taylor (DT) and honorable mention selections Tevin Elliott (DE) and Antonio Johnson (LB). Landor, who became the first player in program history to earn Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week honors twice in the same season, ranks second in the nation among non-linebackers with 115 tackles, and has seven games with double-digit tackles, including a pair of 15-plus tackle efforts. Taylor has 52 tackles on the year, including seven behind the line of scrimmage, to go with a pair of sacks, a forced fumble and two broken-up passes as well.
The Bears’ offense was second in the Big 12 in total yards (478.5), third in rushing (200.5), and fifth in passing (278.0) and scoring (32.6). Baylor boasts a dual-threat quarterback in Robert Griffin III, who had one 100-yard rushing game this season, but threw for 200+ yards in 10 of 12 games, including three 300-yard passing performances. His 66.3 completion percentage ranked second in the conference while his 266.2 passing yards per game was fourth-best. He and running back Jay Finley, who was fourth in the Big 12 at 96.2 rushing yards per outing, combined to total 1,746 of Baylor's 2,406 rushing yards (72.6 percent) this year. Like Illinois’ Leshoure, Finley also registered a school-record performance this year, running for 250 yards against Kansas State on Oct. 26. In the air, Baylor has seven 100-yard receiving games this year, lead by junior Kendall Wright with four. Wright was fifth in the league with 68.8 receiving yards per game and seventh with 5.50 catches each time out.
Illinois’ defense ranked fourth in the Big Ten in rushing (131.3), fifth in passing (212.8) and total yards (344.2), and sixth in scoring (24.2). The Orange and Blue certainly had its hands full earlier this year against another dual-threat quarterback in Michigan’s Denard Robinson. Illinois gave up 257 yards rushing, 419 yards in the air and 676 total yards in the 67-65 triple-overtime loss to the Wolverines. Much like their offense, the Illini seemed to respond better in the second half of the season, forcing 17 of its 25 turnovers in the last six games of the season. Junior linebacker Martez Wilson has been the leader of this defensive unit all year long. A first-team All-Big Ten honoree, Wilson ranked third in the conference and 48th nationally in tackles per game (8.8) and paced the team with 10.5 TFLs and 4.0 sacks as well. He has led the Illini in tackles in seven of the last nine games and has recorded double-digit stops in six of 11 games in 2010. Junior defensive tackle Corey Liuget was a second-team All-Big Ten selection and blossomed into a top-shelf defensive tackle this season, collecting 54 tackles with 8.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hurries. Senior linebacker Nate Bussey, junior safety Trulon Henry, and junior safety Tavon Wilson all were All-Conference honorable mention picks. Bussey led the Big Ten in fumbles recovered and ranks second on the team with 69 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss. Henry has been very good in his first year at Illinois, notching 52 tackles, two TFLs, a team-high three interceptions, while Wilson has made 37 tackles with two TFLs, one interception, a team-high seven PBUs and two fumble recoveries.