Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Instant analysis: Illinois 38, Baylor 14
By Adam Rittenberg
The Big Ten improves to 2-0 in the bowl season and 2-0 against the pesky Big 12 as Illinois held off Baylor in Houston.
Here's a look back at Illinois' 38-14 victory in the Texas Bowl.
How the game was won: Nathan Scheelhaase's precision passing complemented a typically dominant rushing attack as Illinois steamrolled Baylor's overmatched defense for much of the game. The Illini came out firing and overcame a few defensive hiccups midway through the second half to hold off Robert Griffin III and the Bears. Running back Mikel Leshoure (29 carries, 184 rush yards, 3 TDs) was brilliant in what could be his final college game, and the Illini defensive line made enough big plays to contain Griffin. Illinois' specialists also stepped up nicely.
Player of the game: Scheelhaase. The redshirt freshman showed impressive growth between the end of the regular season and the bowl game, completing his first 13 pass attempts and finished the game 18-for-23 for 241 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. He wasn't a huge factor in the rushing game but he didn't need to be on this night, as he set a season high for completions. Honorable mentions go to Leshoure and Liuget, who commanded double and triple teams.
Turning point I: Baylor seemed to be rolling on the game's opening drive before Illinois' Travon Bellamy scooped up a backward pass by Griffin and raced 44 yards, setting up a field goal. The Illini defense played brilliantly the rest of the half and Illinois surged out to a 24-0 lead.
Turning point II: After the Bears had closed to within 24-14 early in the fourth quarter, Illinois' defense forced a three-and-out, stuffing Griffin on third-and-1. The Illini run game then took over, as Leshoure and teammate Jason Ford bowled over Baylor on a 7-play, 66-yard touchdown drive.
Stat of the game: Scheelhaase completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes in each of his final three regular-season games (21-for-50 combined) but connected on his first 13 attempts Wednesday night. The redshirt freshman had completed more than 13 passes in only five regular-season games.
Record performance: Leshoure set Illinois' single-season rushing record with 1,696 yards. He broke Rashard Mendenhall's mark of 1,681 yards set in 2007 with a fourth-quarter scamper.
What it means: Illinois can brand the 2010 season as both a success and a potential turning point for coach Ron Zook and his program. The Illini needed a winning season and a good finish after dropping three of their final four regular-season contests. Talent has never been the problem for Zook's crew, but the team made strides in all three phases after the 3-9 disaster in 2009. It'll be interesting to see what happens with NFL prospects Leshoure, Liuget and linebacker Martez Wilson. While it's unrealistic to think all three juniors will return, Illinois could be a factor in the Leaders division next fall if it can reload.