Texas Bowl 2010: 10 Things To Know About Illinois vs. Baylor

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst IDecember 6, 2010

Texas Bowl 2010: 10 Things To Know About Illinois vs. Baylor

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    Get ready for a high-octane showdown in this year's Texas Bowl, as Mikel Leshoure and the Illinois Fighting Illini head to Reliant Stadium in Houston to take on Robert Griffin III and the Baylor Bears. Though they go about it in different ways, each team can light up the scoreboard, and neither is especially strong on the defensive side of the ball. Add immunity to the elements to that mix and you get a potential barn-burner.

    This game pits the Big Ten against the Big 12 in the land where everything is bigger, or so they say. Read on for 10 things you need to know about this bowl showdown.

1. Home-Field Advantage: Baylor

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    It is a mere 187 miles down TX-6 for Baylor to reach Reliant Stadium, so the crowd is likely to be pro-Bears when the two teams take to the field. Neither team played especially well or poorly this year based on home or away status, but with the electricity of bowl season in the air, having the crowd on their side will surely help Baylor out in this one.

    Illinois, for the record, went 2-4 in road or neutral-site games this season, while Baylor was 4-3 at home. Both teams faced some tough customers in those phases of their schedules.

2. Back in Bowl Action

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    Baylor has not been bowl-eligible since they appeared in the 1995 Alamo Bowl, and the 15-year interim has been tough for staunch football fans in the Baylor community to stomach. The team is on its fifth coach since then, and it seems possible that Art Briles would not have survived another season of the drought.

    The Bears stumbled to the finish but will surely feed off their fan base's excitement at having something to cheer about in late December for the first time in a decade and a half.

3. Robert Griffin III, Superstar

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    Illinois got a big taste of the Big Ten's breakout star quarterback when sophomore Denard Robinson gashed them for 367 all-purpose yards in a wild three-overtime loss to Michigan. Now they must prepare to contain Baylor's sophomore stud, Robert Griffin III. Griffin is less akin to Robinson than to Terrelle Pryor, with the intelligence and tools of a pure passer in addition to some impressive athleticism outside the pocket.

    Griffin passed for almost 3,200 yards on the season, and his leadership helped the team score over 32.5 points per game. He also notched 29 combined touchdowns rushing and passing while throwing only eight interceptions.

4. Balance Is Key

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    As good as Griffin has been this season, the Bears' offense hinges on its ability to keep opponents honest. Jay Finley, a senior who waited years for this opportunity to run in a bowl game, averaged over six yards per carry this season en route to 1,155 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. Baylor ranked 20th in the nation is passing yards per game and 23rd in rushing yards per game for the season.

    When that balance evaporates, it can get ugly, so the Bears must continue to commit themselves to mixing up their play-calling well enough to hold Illinois's aggressive defense at bay.

5. Rocky Road To Houston

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    On October 30, Baylor beat arch-rival Texas to move to 7-2, and with three ranked Big 12 opponents waiting for them over the final stretch of the season, they had a lot of upward mobility toward a very impressive bowl appearance.

    Instead, the Bears lost all three game in ugly fashion. All three opponents (Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Oklahoma) scored at least 42 points on the way to easy wins, and the Bears tumbled into the lesser bowls. The late-season swoon left a bad taste in the team's mouth, and Briles must now rally his troops in time for the game on Dec. 29.

6. Run, Mikel, Run

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    Mikel Leshoure earned first-team All-Big Ten honors this season, after rushing for over 1,500 yards and carrying an Illini offense predicated almost entirely on the run. Leshoure averaged six yards per carry and announced himself as an eventual NFL Draft prospect, although he would do well to come back and improve his stock as a senior in 2011.

    Leshoure's play-making ability was critical for the Illini this season, as they had a hard time getting anything going in the passing game.

7. Very Special Teams

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    Illinois was able to stay in games with more well-rounded opponents all season as a result of good field position and strong overall play from their special-teams units. Punter Anthony Santella was named first-team All-Big Ten, and kicker Derek Dimke earned second-team honors. The Illini also got some great plays in the return game, helping set up an otherwise stoppable offense for key scores.

8. Here's a Name To Remember: Scheelhaase

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    For a skinny freshman, Nathan Scheelhaase had a pretty good season as the starting quarterback for Illinois. The team struggled to pass the ball consistently, but Scheelhaase teamed with Leshoure to form a lethal double-threat in the ground game.

    Scheelhaase threw nine interceptions on the season, but six came in two losses to Missouri (his debut) and Michigan State. His performance against Purdue on Oct. 30 is the perfect template for the matchup with Baylor: He completed 16 of his 20 passes for 195 yards and four touchdowns, ran for 121 yards more and did not turn the ball over.

    The ability to control the clock by taking care of the football and running it successfully in any down-and-distance situation is key to the Illini's hopes of winning.

9. Mr. Everything

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    Martez Wilson has anchored the Illini defense all season, and continues to make plays in every facet of the defensive unit. He leads the team with four sacks, 105 total tackles and three forced fumbles.

    He has an interception, a fumble recovery and even a blocked kick this season. His presence from sideline to sideline makes it tough for opponents to develop an offensive rhythm, even though most everyone but Wilson can be had in man-to-man match-ups with good offensive counterparts.

10. What Kind Of Year Has It Been?

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    Ron Zook has moved the Illini a bit forward during his time as head coach, but he is no program savior just yet. The team has no signature win this season, no single game to point to with any heightened sense of pride. They played Ohio State tough, but lost 24-13.

    Their most impressive wins were over Penn State and Northern Illinois, solid schools but nothing to brag about. They had ugly, devastating losses to Michigan and Minnesota during the final stretch of the season, when they might otherwise have made a push for an appearance in the Outback or Gator Bowl. Zook's seat is not on fire just yet, but is certainly heating up and could ignite if the team falls flat in Houston.