Illinois flew to Houston Christmas evening and has been concluding preparations for Baylor with daily practices in Rice Stadium. Prior to that, they had a number of formal practices at the Irwin indoor facility in Champaign, an equivalent number of practices to spring ball. Bowl participants have a definite advantage with these post-season practices according to head coach Ron Zook.
"There's extra practice and with us, we haven't stopped and started, it's been continuous. I think you'll see the results of that next year. These guys have worked hard, and it's an opportunity for them and kind of a reward, even though it's a working reward.
"It's another opportunity to play on national television against a very good opponent and in a great facility. It doesn't do anything but put a shot in your arm."
Zook feels the Illini have accomplished much during their practices.
"Our football team is obviously very, very excited about this opportunity. We've had great practices, and particularly since school has ended. You can just tell the pressure of school is off their backs, and they've picked it up a notch or two there. We've gotten a lot of good work with our young guys.
"I think when you stop and look at six new coaches, a new offense, a new defense, a freshman quarterback, I think we've come a long way. We really have. I think this bowl not only gives us time to develop more players, but it also gives us time to improve. That's the way we're attacking this."
Illinois played its best ball when everyone flew around with abandon, not worrying about things but playing all-out. Problems arose when the pressure of wanting extra victories caused more thinking and less reacting. Bowl practices have given them a chance to rekindle the attitude and spark that made a bowl trip possible.
"Our approach has been we're going to play every play as hard as we can play and not worry about anything else," Zook explains. "That's the one thing, when we've worried about those things and nothing else, playing as hard we can, that's when we've played the best."
Progress during bowl practices is always advantageous. But will it be enough to cope with an explosive Baylor offense and speedy defense?
"We are going to find out with this Baylor team. They have a track team of receivers. On both sides of the ball, they have athletes that would rival some track teams if they put a relay team together.
"I think if you look at formation-wise, you'd probably think Missouri. If you look at the quarterback (Robert Griffin III), you probably think of Michigan or Ohio State, he's kind of a combination of the two. They have a very athletic offensive line, a very good running back (Jay Finley) that's faster than Robert Griffin is. He's a very, very talented young guy.
"It's a talented offense, no question about it. (Griffin) is seventh in the nation (in total offense). Baylor is 12th in the nation in offense. I don't think there's any question it's going to be a great challenge."
The key to the Baylor attack is Griffin. Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was asked if he is as fast as the speedy Bear signal caller.
"I'm not as fast as Robert Griffin. Someone asked me that when we played Denard Robinson. Those guys are fast-fast. I feel like I'm fast, I move well. But those guys are 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."
Griffin is dangerous because he is also an outstanding passer.
"He's very underrated as a passer," Scheelhaase reminds. "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 defend probably one of the most elite quarterbacks in the country."
Senior defensive end Clay Nurse is one of the Illini defenders who must contain and limit Griffin and company. He knows it won't be an easy task.
"They're a great team. Their quarterback is amazing. Their offensive line has done pretty good. We'll go out there and see what we can do."
The Illini may need to outscore Baylor to win. Scheelhaase gains encouragement from recent Bear defensive statistics in which they gave up 55, 42 and 53 points in their last three games.
"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."
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino describes the strength of the Baylor defense.
"They've got two real big guys up front. They've got a couple guys in the secondary that play pretty well. I think their biggest strength is their two big defensive tackles."
Offensive guard Jack Cornell must block those two defensive tackles.
"They're a big defense. They have two real big guys on the inside. It looks like a fundamentally sound defense."
Offensive tackle Jeff Allen also has respect for the Baylor defensive line, but he feels the Illini are up to the task.
"They're really athletic. They run to the ball, so you have to play hard against them. Come out and set the tempo early and show them what it's about."
Freshman tight end Evan Wilson has improved every game, especially with his blocking. He is excited about his first bowl opportunity but wants to return home with a win.
"I feel pretty good about it. I'm really excited to go down there to Texas. It's almost like a home game for them, but I like playing on the road. I'm just real excited to get this opportunity to go to a bowl as a freshman against a great team.
"I feel like if we do what we need to do, we're gonna be very successful. I feel like it's all on us; I feel like that every game. If we do what we need to do in the game plan, we'll be very successful."
Wilson feels it is essential to end the season with a winning record. He is thinking long-term and not just for the moment.
"I came from a high school program where we had to establish that winning tradition. That was the standard through my high school career, and that's the standard now. That's what we're trying to establish now. We need this winning season to build on, so this game is very important to us.
"We're taking it very seriously. This is no joke for us. Coach Petrino is always gonna keep that intensity high for us, and we're gonna be ready to play."
Baylor fans are flocking to Houston for their first bowl game in 16 years. They will completely engulf the small Illini contingent limited by pockets of fan apathy. Zook says it must be considered an away game for the Illini.
"I don't think there's any question. We are definitely the visitors. As I've told our football team, this is a hostile environment. They sold their tickets in a matter of minutes, I guess. It's 180 miles away, they haven't been to a bowl game in a long time and they're playing extremely well."
Perhaps the undersized Illini crowd will bring an extra supply of energy and encouragement for the Illini. They may need all the help they can get to realize their dream of a winning season and bowl victory.
"I know our football team is excited to be there, and you can feel the excitement around them," Zook says. "Hopefully, our fans can feel that excitement."