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Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Instant analysis: Illinois 38, Baylor 14

By David Ubben

A 38-14 loss is not how Baylor pictured its return to the postseason turning out, but considering the way Baylor's offense opened the game, it could have been worse. A few bounces the other way could have made this game come down to the final drive, too.

How the game was won: Baylor's offense sputtered early (missed field goal, two lost fumbles and four punts in their first seven possessions), while Illinois scored on its first four possessions and led 24-0 after opening the second half with a touchdown. The early lead was too big for a late Bears rally to overcome, thanks to Illinois' running game, which overpowered Baylor for most of the game and racked up 306 yards on the ground.

Turning point: Baylor grabbed a solid hold on the game's momentum with a 39-yard touchdown pass from Robert Griffin III to Kendall Wright that cut Illinois lead to 24-14, and the Bears followed that with a defensive stop to get the ball back down 10 early in the fourth quarter. Baylor got stuffed on a 3rd-and-1 for a three-and-out and Illinois came up with the ensuing muffed punt. Seven plays (six runs) later, Illinois was in the end zone with a 31-14 lead to put the game out of reach.

Stat of the game: Nathan Scheelhaase's completion percentage: 78. The redshirt freshman quarterback completed just under 57 percent of his passes on the year entering the Texas Bowl, ninth in the Big Ten. He was a perfect 13-of-13 for 170 yards in the first half and made Baylor respect the pass. The Bears defense has had plenty of struggles in 2010, but when Illinois can throw the ball efficiently, it's much more difficult to defend. Because of Scheelhaase's play, the Bears experienced that firsthand. He finished 18-of-23 for 241 yards.

Player of the game: Illinois' offensive line. Baylor needed to get a push up front to slow the Illini running game, and it didn't happen. That's because the Illinois big men up front paved the way for Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford. Baylor didn't tackle particularly well, but often, no Bears defender was getting a shot at ballcarriers until they were 4-to-7 yards upfield. That's a credit to Illinois. LeShoure racked up 184 yards on his own and Scheelhaase added a late 55-yard touchdown run.

Second guessing: Baylor's decision not to try and make a 24-point deficit a three-possession game. It's a mild complaint, but Baylor has a mobile quarterback that's particularly difficult to defend in the red zone and has lots of playmaking receivers who can get open in tight spaces on two-point conversion attempts. The Bears only got to within 24-14, but if that lead had been 24-16, you wonder if it might have applied enough pressure on the Illinois offense to produce a different result. Maybe not, but it's worth considering.

Record performance: Baylor running back Jay Finley broke the single-season rushing record during the game, and Griffin broke the career passing yards record.

What it means: It's a disappointing loss for Baylor, but the Bears are a program looking to make strides year upon year. Getting to a bowl game was a big one, and it was especially good for fans to be able to make a short trip to Houston to see a program with a big opportunity, similar to the basketball team's appearance in the Houston regional back in March. With Griffin returning in 2011, the Bears figure to make another run to the postseason.

On a conference-wide scale, it's another black eye for the Big 12, who drops to 0-2 in the bowl season with a pair of losses to Big Ten teams after Missouri dropped a 27-24 game in the Insight Bowl on Tuesday night.

That's a big disappointment for a conference favored in nearly every bowl game and had a reasonable chance to go 8-0. That's an afterthought now, and if the Big 12 can't get some wins later on in the bowl season, a league already low on prestige after being raided during this summer's conference realignment gets even more so.