Rapid Reaction: Illinois 38, Baylor 14

December, 29, 2010
12/29/10
9:07
PM CT

Here's a quick look at Illinois' 38-14 Texas Bowl win over Baylor on Wednesday night.

How the game was won: Illinois’ defense came to play. After allowing an average of 39.3 points and 429 yards over its last four games, the Illini’s defense stepped up its game and dominated Baylor throughout the first half. The Bears’ high-powered offense was held without a point on seven first-half possessions and only converted 1-of-4 third-down conversions in the first two quarters. While Illinois’ defense did its job, the Illini’s offense followed suit. Illinois scored on its first fours possessions with three Derek Dimke field goals and a Mikel Leshoure touchdown to give it a solid 16-0 advantage.

Turning point: It was only the sixth play of the day, but the game changed when Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III’s bubble screen pass was thrown backward and dropped, and Illinois’ Travon Bellamy recovered the ball and went 44 yards the other way. The Bears had been moving the ball with ease at that point and look destined for at least a field on the possession. Instead Illinois capitalized with a field goal, the Illini’s defense grew some confidence, and before you knew it Illinois had built a 24-0 lead.

Star of the game: Illinois junior running back Mikel Leshoure stole this honor in the second half from his teammate redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Leshoure scored twice in the final two quarters to seal the win for the Illini. Leshoure finished with 183 rushing yards and three touchdowns. With his day, he surpassed Rashard Mendenhall’s school record for rushing yards and touchdowns in a season. The question now is whether Leshoure will enter the NFL draft early just as Mendenhall did after having a big day in the Rose Bowl in 2007.

Stat of the game: Illinois redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase completed all 13 of his pass attempts in the first half. He was 13 of 13 for 169 yards, which surpassed his total passing yards in eight of his games this season.

SportsCenter highlight of the game: Illinois freshman wide receiver Darius Millines’ second career reception is one he’ll never forget. Scheelhaase launched the ball 30 yards as Millines was crossing the middle of the field. Millines saw the pass, stopped, leaped higher than Baylor’s defensive back, snatched the ball in the air and held onto as he was fell backwards to the ground. Leshoure was second in the running when he went Superman over the goal line for his second touchdown.

What it means: This likely will save Illinois coach Ron Zook his job. A 7-6 record and a bowl win certainly looks more impressive than a 6-7 record and a bowl defeat. It would have been Zook’s fifth losing season in six years. Instead, he should be back, and the Illini could take a step up in the Big Ten next season with Scheelhaase and plenty of others back, even if Leshoure leaves for the NFL. For Baylor, it’s a tough defeat to swallow. The Bears looked dominant on their first drive, but didn’t return to that form until in the second half and it was too late. Like Illinois, Baylor is expected to bring back a lot of start power next year and could become a Big 12 contender, especially with the teams departing the conference.

Scott Powers is a general reporter for ESPNChicago.com. He is an award-winning journalist and has been reporting on preps, colleges and pros for publications throughout the Midwest since 1997.

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