The Illinois Fighting Illini and Baylor Bears have made it back to the postseason, as they are set to square off in the fifth annual Texas Bowl at Reliant Stadium.
This will be just the second bowl game Illinois has played since 2002, with the most recent being a 49-17 loss to USC in the Rose Bowl following the 2007-08 season. The Fighting Illini had an up-and-down season, winning consecutive games only once and finishing the regular season with a 6-6 record.
Illinois is known for having a widespread alumni base, but Baylor is playing within a three-hour drive of its campus.
"Our guys," Illinois head coach Ron Zook said at the Texas Bowl press conference, "they like being the underdog, they like being the opponent, they like to be in the visitors' (locker room). We're going to really find out what that means now because I know that we're kind of in hostile territory. But we are excited."
On the other sideline, Baylor is going bowling for the first time since 1994.
"It's been 16 years since we've been in a bowl game and our people are pumped," Baylor head coach Art Briles said, "and rightfully so, because when you've looked on from the outside for a long time and you finally get a chance to step in the door, it's a good feeling."
Still, the Bears faded down the stretch, dropping each of their final three games after a 7-2 start. They haven't had much success against Big Ten teams, posting a 2-9-1 mark all-time.
Baylor won the only previous meeting between these two schools, a 34-19 decision back in 1976. In last year's Texas Bowl, Navy thumped Missouri 35-13.
Illinois' offense is predicated on the running game, as the team enters this contest ranked 13th nationally in rushing with 242.3 yards per game. Against Northwestern in the Big Ten finale at Wrigley Field last month, Mikel Leshoure ran for a school-record 330 yards and two touchdowns en route to a 48-27 win. His 330 yards were also a single-game high in the nation this season, as the Illini rumbled for 519 rushing yards combined.
On the season, Leshoure has averaged 126.1 rushing yards per game and has scored 17 touchdowns. He is the straw that stirs the drink for the Illinois offense. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is also a threat with his legs, as he ranks second on the team with 815 rushing yards (67.9 ypg) to go along with four TDs. In the passing game, Scheelhaase averages just 131.9 yards per game, though he has thrown 17 touchdowns against only eight interceptions. A.J. Jenkins heads up the receiving corps with 694 yards and seven TDs on 50 catches.
Defensively, Illinois has proven very tough to run against, ranking 29th nationally and fourth in the Big Ten with 131.3 rushing yards per game allowed. Overall, the team ranks 38th in the country in total defense (344.2 ypg) and 53rd in scoring defense (24.2 ppg). The unit started to leak a bit down the stretch, allowing an average of nearly 40 points over its final four games, three of which were losses.
Junior linebacker Martez Wilson is a wrecking ball, having notched a team-high 105 tackles, which also ranks third in the conference. Wilson also leads the team with four sacks and three forced fumbles this year. Junior defensive back Trulon Henry has a team-best three interceptions under his belt in his first year at Illinois since transferring from junior college.
Baylor's offense is capable of picking up yardage in huge chunks, as the Bears rank No. 12 in the nation in total offense (478.5 ypg). They have a potent air-ground combo to keep defenses off balance in quarterback Robert Griffin and running back Jay Finley. Griffin is completing 66.3 percent of his passes on the year and has thrown 21 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. He averages 266.2 passing yards per game and has also been an asset on the ground with eight rushing touchdowns and a shade under 50 rushing yards per game.
Finley averages 6.3 yards per carry and 96.2 yards per game on the ground, and he has scored 11 times. Kendall Wright paces the receiving corps with 66 catches for 825 yards and six TDs. Defensive lapses forced the Bears into catchup mode during their final three games, but when they are balanced, their offense has proven hard to stop. Griffin tossed an uncharacteristic two interceptions in the regular-season finale against Oklahoma, which really took the Bears out of their rhythm.
When asked to evaluate Illinois, coach Briles spoke about the importance of slowing the Illini ground game.
"They're a dangerous football team, very dangerous," Briles said. "They're third in the nation in time of possession. That tells you something there. It means they're making first downs and running the football. It's a big concern from us on both sides of the ball, actually."
Similar to how Illinois struggled down the stretch, Baylor's defense yielded an average of 50 ppg during that three-game skid to close out the regular season. With plenty of time to prepare for this matchup, coach Briles is hoping his defense can rediscover its early-season swagger. In their first four victories of the season, the Bears had allowed an average of 7.25 ppg. But once they got into their Big 12 schedule, the Bears had trouble stopping opponents. Senior safety Byron Landor ranked fourth in the conference with 115 tackles, while defensive end Tevin Elliott posted a team-high five sacks and nine tackles for loss.
Neither team should have too much trouble scoring in this matchup. Illinois will try to get the ground game going and control the tempo with Leshoure. Look for Griffin to try and counter with some big gains through the air for Baylor, which could force Scheelhaase to become a bigger part of the Illini gameplan.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Baylor 42, Illinois 31
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