Nathan Scheelhaase had an outstanding rookie campaign, leading his team to six wins and the Texas Bowl. His dad Nate Creer played in four bowl games, and he hopes to do likewise. He is thrilled to make it in his first try.
"It's my first rodeo, my first time doing this bowl thing, but it's something that I'm excited about. I wanted my first time to be this year. I didn't want to wait around until next year to think about what it's like to be in a bowl game. It's a great opportunity to get it in my first season playing."
Who do you rely upon to help you prepare for this special opportunity?
"Our coaches. That's a great resource. All of our coaches have been to bowl games, and a lot of bowl games. They know how to prepare. As a quarterback, Coach (Paul) Petrino and Coach (Jeff) Brohm know how to prepare a quarterback for this part of the season. They've done it before, and they've done a good job with it."
Illinois had 15 extra bowl practices, the same as an entire spring practice. Scheelhaase says the Illini have benefitted from the extra work, especially once final exams were completed.
"I think everybody's mind is cleared now they're done with finals, so the bowl game is getting closer and closer by the day.
"We went ones on ones in practice so we could focus on the things we do best. We went back to square one. Towards the ends of practices, we've been focusing on Baylor."
It is always tough for northern teams to play bowl games in the South against opponents who reside nearby. Their fans buy most of the tickets, giving them a home field advantage. Baylor has a decided advantage in Houston, but Scheelhaase says the Illini are confident on the road.
"We kind of knew wherever we would land in the bowl season that it would probably be a road game. Unfortunately, there's no Illinois bowl games. Whether it be in Texas, Florida or wherever, coming from a Northern school you knew you would be at a disadvantage.
"We've played road games all year. I'm sure we'll have more fans there than at Penn State or Michigan. It'll be a tough atmosphere, but it won't be too much pressure on us."
Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III passed for over 3000 yards and is a dual threat with his blinding speed. Scheelhaase was asked to evaluate his opposing quarterback and whether he is as fast.
"I'm not as fast as Robert Griffin. Someone asked me that when we played Denard Robinson (Michigan). Those guys are fast-fast. I feel like I'm fast, I move well. But those guys are like elite track fast.
"I wish I had the speed that he does, but unfortunately I don't. I move my feet pretty well, but he does a heck of a job doing it."
"He's very underrated as a passer. I think that's something that just comes for a guy with speed. Everybody assumes that he lacks passing. But I think he's a heck of a quarterback.
"I watched him especially his freshman year and saw the things he was able to do. I'm sure our defense is excited about the opportunity to play against probably one of the most elite quarterbacks in the country."
Baylor's defense has given up 50, 45 and 50 points in its last three games. Can the Illini take advantage and score abundantly also?
"Hopefully we'll be another 50 or 40. It would probably be a good thing for our offense to put up a 40-spot. Obviously they're gonna make adjustments, as are we.
"You don't really look at the points they put up against those teams. You look at how they're running things and how they try to attack you as an offense. It'll be a great test. I'm sure they'll be ready for us with three weeks to prepare. We'll probably throw a few new things in there just to catch them off guard."
Baylor and Illinois have much in common. They are programs eager to climb into the upper echelon of college football. They both got off to strong starts but struggled toward the end of the season. Scheelhaase thinks both teams will have similar motivations in the Texas Bowl.
"It's a great opportunity for both these teams. Their team is very similar to us. They're trying to pull their program up. Both of us have made strides by getting to a pretty good bowl game. It'll be a heck of a fight out there on the field.
"For us personally, it will be huge moving forward to get this bowl win. And leave a stamp for myself my freshman year if we're able to finish the season with a great bowl win. That's what took us to the next level. So that's what I'm looking forward to doing."
This is a two-part series. Part two will be published some time after the Texas Bowl as it focuses on the progress Scheelhaase has made and the improvements he hopes to accomplish before next season.