Illinois combined tight defense with a highly efficient offense to outclass Baylor in Houston. For Illini head coach Ron Zook, it culminated an unlikely turnaround from the depths of despair after two losing seasons and pockets of fan rejection. Zook was excited how his players responded to the challenge, not only from Baylor but a tremendously difficult schedule.
"I'm very proud of them. I'm proud of the year we've had, I'm proud of the things they've accomplished this year. We've accomplished a lot of things.
"We came into this year with six new coaches, a new offense and a new defense, and a new quarterback. We had some bumps in the road, but they hung in there. I'm really proud of the way they came back.
"I think the coaches did a great job. They had a great plan, and these players executed. That's what it all comes down to. They played hard, they believed in themselves. We had a great bowl preparation."
The Texas Bowl MVP was junior running back Mikel Leshoure. He set three Illini records in gaining 184 yards in 29 carries while scoring three touchdowns and a two point conversion. Leshoure passed Robert Holcolme both as the all-time Illini single season rushing leader with 1,697 yards and single season scoring record with 122 points. His 9th 100 yard game is also a record.
Leshoure shared his success with his teammates. He also acknowledged Illini fans who made their way to Houston.
"Coming down here, we were on a mission. Everyone came out here and did our jobs. It's unbelievable. I thank all the fans for coming out. We had great support, not only tonight but through the whole season. We appreciate it."
Zook is grateful for Leshoure's growth over the last year.
"Not only did he have a great year on the football field, but he's had a great year as a person. I'm so proud of him. He's become a man, he's handled his business on and off the field. He's also become a leader. I can't say enough."
Leshoure is considering submitting his name into the NFL draft. Zook will help him weigh the pros and cons.
"He's got to do what's best for him. Whatever is best for him, I'm gonna be in his corner."
Nathan Scheelhaase had possibly his best overall game this season. The redshirt freshman hit all 13 of his first half passes in helping the Illini to a 16-0 lead. He credited offensive coordinator Paul Petrino.
"It feels great. I'm the luckiest quarterback in the world to have Coach Petrino as my offensive coordinator. I say that over and over again. He got me to this point. Without him, I don't know how good a quarterback I'd be, but thank God I have him."
Scheelhaase finished with 18 completions in 23 passes for 242 yards. He also gained 53 net yards in 9 carries including a late 55 yard touchdown that added icing to the cake. He mixed short tosses to A.J. Jenkins and Jarred Fayson with bombs to freshmen Ryan Lankford, Darius Millines and Evan Wilson. Jenkins finished with 6 catches for 52 yards, and Fayson had four grabs for 31 yards.
Jason Ford supported Leshoure by gaining 54 yards in 12 carries. He also caught 3 passes for 29 additional yards. Leshoure and Ford made a one-two punch that Baylor couldn't contain.
Zook's offense needed Scheelhaase to come through, and he was rewarded.
"Nathan's one of those guys who's gonna do whatever he has to do to win," Zook reminds. "He cares about one thing, and that's winning. The coaches have done a great job of giving him the things to be successful, and he learns it. When you have an offensive line that does what it is supposed to do, and the receivers were blocking, that's just a great job by the coaches."
The Illini defense came to play also. Corey Liuget set the tone early with two quick tackles for loss as the Illini harassed star Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III all night and forced the Bears to abandon their running game.
Cornerback Terry Hawthorne led the Illini with 9 tackles including two tackles for loss. He had an interception called back by penalty. Senior linebacker Nathan Bussey, playing his last game, added 8 tackles including a tackle for loss. Martez Wilson and Tavon Wilson added 7 tackles each.
Zook praised the defense.
"They did a great job, and they thought they had something to prove. We felt like that was a great offense; what better offense to prove yourself and let people know you are a good defense."
Illinois controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball according to Zook.
"I think they did, on both sides of the line of scrimmage. I don't think they were expecting to have guys in their quarterback's face as they were.
The Illini got off to a quick start in the game thanks to an ill-timed Baylor lateral that fell to the turf. Senior cornerback Travon Bellamy ran it back 46 yards to the Baylor 28 yard line. The Illini scored on a 38 yard Derek Dimke field goal.
Liuget ruined Baylor's second possession. The Illini then moved down the field, mixing runs by Leshoure and Jason Ford. Ford When the drive stalled, Dimke hit a 28 yard field goal.
Baylor again couldn't gain a first down and punted back to the Illini. Starting on their own nine yard line, the Illini moved quickly down the field. The big play was a great catch by Darius Millines on a 32 yard pass play from Scheelhaase. Three plays into the second quarter, Dimke tied the Illinois single season field goal record with his 24th from 43 yards out.
Again the Bears were three and out, punting the Illini down to their own 14 yard line. Scheelhaase went over the top to Ryan Lankford for a 52 yard gain over the middle to put the ball on the five yard line. Leshoure ran it in on first and goal to give the Illini the 16-0 lead they took into halftime.
Baylor came out of the locker fired up to start the second half, but the Illini responded with an impressive 87 yard drive in 9 plays to take the wind out of Bear sails. It was a classic Petrino drive, Scheelhaase mixing short passes with Leshoure and Ford runs. Leshoure scampered the final 13 yards and added a two point conversion to increase the Illini lead to 24-0.
Baylor kept fighting. Griffin hit five of six passes in the drive, leading to a Jay Finley three yard run to paydirt to reduce the Illini advantage to 17 points. After a couple possession exchanges, the Bears went 81 yards in 9 plays to make the score 24-14. The big play was a 39 yard touchdown pass to Kendall Wright on fourth and 14.
The Illini were not to let Baylor get any closer. After an exchange of punts, the Illini marched 66 yards in 8 plays with Leshoure bouncing outside to outrace Bear defenders to the end zone from five yards out. Baylor tried to complete a touchdown drive but came up short. Disheartened, the Bears allowed Scheelhaase to scamper untouched on a bootleg to complete scoring.
"It's a good football team, we can take nothing away from them," Zook reminds. "But our guys played extremely hard. One thing I was excited about was when the momentum started to change, our guys kept playing. They came back and answered."
This win gives the Illini a winning season for the first time in three years at 7-6. With many returning starters and a favorable schedule, Zook sees the Texas Bowl win as a springboard to 2011.
"It springs us. It gives us a little pep in our step. When we get into this off season, we have something to continue to build on. We've got all these guys coming back, we have 8 home games, so we're excited about the future. We've got to build on it and just keep going."