Fighting Illini To Houston For Texas Bowl

The Fighting Illini football team has officially accepted an invitation to play in the Texas Bowl Wednesday December 29 at Reliant Stadium in Houston. Illinois will play Baylor and exciting sophomore quarterback Robert Griffin III in the 5:00 pm Central game. The Illini are playing in their first bowl since the 2008 Rose Bowl.

Illinois coach Ron Zook is pleased to be back in the bowl picture after a two year absence.

"Our football team and football program are very excited for the opportunity to go to Houston and play in the Texas Bowl. We appreciate the Texas Bowl committee having confidence in our football program, and also having confidence in the Illini Nation. I'm sure we'll see a lot of orange in Houston.

"It's a good opportunity for our football team. It's something they're looking forward to. It's an opportunity for us to get back into a bowl game. From what I've been told about the Bowl, not only will our football team remember it but also our fans. One thing about this football game, it's Wednesday night, it's national television and we're the only game on."

A bowl game is a reward for a year of hard work. But there are other advantages as well according to Zook. Every extra practice makes the team better, not just for the bowl game but next season as well.

"I think it's a big deal. You're not so far removed from football until you start spring ball. We'll figure out exactly how many practices we're gonna get. Playing late has helped us. It's given us a chance to continue on."

It also helps with recruiting, especially in the state of Texas.

"We've been trying to make a little dent in there. It takes time once you go to a new area, but there's no question Texas football is as good as any area in the country. We've got some guys on our board from Texas.

"Coach (Vic) Koenning and Coach (Ron) West go in there and have background there. And Coach Joe Gilbert coached at the University of Houston, so he's all excited. He knows the quality of players that you have there. I think it's a great opportunity for us."

Texas Bowl opponent Baylor had a 7-5 record on the season, including four wins in the tough Big 12. The Bears bring an exciting spread offense to the game. Quarterback Robert Griffin III threw for over 3000 yards in addition to a rushing total made possible by his super quick feet. And running back Jay Finley rushed for over 1000 yards.

"Baylor has an awfully good football team, especially on offense," Zook states. "They're top twelve in the country on offense, so it's gonna be another great challenge for the defense. They've got a quarterback that is ranked 7th in the nation. We've faced some pretty good offenses and some pretty good quarterbacks, and it's gonna be important that we get back to work."

Linebacker Martez Wilson was able to play the whole season after missing last year. He is gratified to know he contributed to the Illini returning to a bowl game.

"I feel great. We're going to the Texas Bowl, warm weather, get to play in Reliant Stadium. I've never been there, so I'm excited about that. I'm excited to be at a bowl once again. Two out of four years, that's not bad."

Fifth year senior Eddie McGee, one of the leaders on the team, played in the Rose Bowl as a redshirt freshman. He expected to play in a bowl every year thereafter, but it wasn't to be. At least, he helped return the Illini to a bowl after two frustrating seasons.

"Yeah, it is what it is. This year we're back to a bowl, so this year is what really counts. Getting back to a bowl is a great feeling. Doing it with my guys is even better. And coming out with a 'W' is even better.

"I am very pleased for this opportunity to go against a great opponent in Baylor. Getting to go to Texas for a bowl is a great feeling."

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase respects Baylor's program and compares it with Illinois.

"I know they're a solid team that comes from a great conference. I think it's really a team that is similar to us. They've made strides from the program they were, but they're looking to make more strides, as are we. It should be a good matchup."

The Illini limped home to end the regular season, losing three of their last 4 games. Scheelhaase believes winning the Texas Bowl can help renew excitement for the future.

"I think it can do a lot. If you finish 7-6 as the team that won the Texas Bowl, you feel pretty confident about what you're able to do. You finished at a good spot in a tough conference, so that's something you definitely have to be proud of. But it would be exciting to get a win in this bowl game."

Reliant Stadium is not only the home of the Houston Texans pro football team, it is also the venue for the NCAA Final Four this year. The lights are bright within the stadium, but that should be no problem according to Zook.

"Our guys like bright lights. Our guys' eyes lit up when we talked about playing in this stadium. Our guys love the bright stage."

Illini Inquirer Top Stories