Wednesday, December 15, 2010
After missing out the past two seasons, Illinois is back in a bowl game.
The drought between bowl appearances has been much longer for Baylor.
With both schools in the midst of a resurgence, the Illini and Bears meet in the Texas Bowl in Houston on Dec. 29.
Baylor (7-5) clinched its first winning season since 1995 and earned a bowl bid for the first time since losing 10-3 to Washington State in the 1994 Alamo Bowl.
"It is exactly what we had to do or felt like we needed to do as a football team," coach Art Briles told Baylor's official website. "We needed to take a step in the progression of our program and we did that.
"It's been 16 years since we've been in a bowl game and our people are pumped, and rightfully so, because when you've looked on the outside for a long time and you finally get a chance to step in the door, it's a good feeling,"
It's been all or nothing in terms of bowl appearances of late for Illinois (6-6), making its first since losing 49-17 to sixth-ranked Southern California in the 2008 Rose Bowl.
The Illini have recorded eight losing seasons and played in two bowls -- both BCS games -- since beating Virginia 63-21 in the 1999 MicronPC.com Bowl in its last non-BCS bowl appearance.
"It's an opportunity for us to get back in the bowl business," coach Ron Zook said. "(Our players and staff) are looking forward to this opportunity."
With each led by a versatile young quarterback and dynamic running back, Baylor and Illinois have been able to lean on their respective potent offenses to overcome inconsistencies on defense.
"If you look at the teams statistically, and kind of what we've done throughout the last couple years, there are a lot of similarities," Zook said. "Probably going to be a lot of points thrown up on the board."
Opponents have averaged 24.3 points against an Illinois defense that allowed 67 points in a loss to Michigan and 38 while being upset by lowly Minnesota at home.
Averaging 32.6 points and ranked 12th nationally in total yards per game (478.5), Baylor has the potential to present another challenge for the Illini.
Bears quarterback Robert Griffin III ranks seventh in the country averaging 315.5 yards of total offense, but he threw one touchdown and three interceptions in three straight losses to No. 16 Oklahoma State, No. 18 Texas A&M and ninth-ranked Oklahoma to conclude the regular season.
Despite Griffin's recent lack of production, Zook is still concerned about the sophomore.
"We've played a couple pretty good quarterbacks; (Denard Robinson) at Michigan, (Terrelle Pryor) at Ohio State. I think (Griffin is) a little bit of a cross between the two," Zook said. "But he's a great player. There is no question, as he goes, I think they go."
Senior Jay Finley's 1,155 yards rank second on Baylor's single-season rushing list. He ran for 250 yards on 26 caries in a 47-42 home win over Kansas State on Oct. 23.
Kendall Wright's 66 receptions for a career-high 825 yards lead a group of four Bears receivers with at least 40 catches.
"It's going to be a great challenge," Zook said.
The same could be said for a Baylor defense that allowed more than 40 points six times in 2010.
Under the direction of first-year offensive coordinator Paul Petrino and led by All-American Mikel Leshoure, Illinois averages 32.1 points.
Leshoure may opt to leave early for the NFL after leading all Big Ten running backs with 1,513 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns.
Leshoure, who ran for a school-record 330 yards on 33 carries in a 48-27 win over Northwestern at Wrigley Field on Nov. 20, ranks eighth in the country with 126.1 rushing yards per game.
Though Nathan Scheelhaase was 11 of 29 for 101 yards passing the last two games against Northwestern and Fresno State, the freshman rushed 43 times for 228 yards in those contests.
"They're a dangerous football team, very dangerous," Briles said. "It's a big concern from us."
Baylor won 34-19 at Illinois in the teams' only previous meeting during the 1976 season.