With the regular season behind Illinois has been preparing for its bowl game against Baylor in the Texas bowl on Wednesday, December 29th in Houston, Texas.
The team is already in Houston as it prepares for the big game, and over the next few days many Illinois fans will join them as the Illini look to reverse their recent struggles in bowl games.
However, Baylor is no easy matchup for Illinois, and the Illini will need a solid performance to secure a winning season.
Here is a look at Baylor and what to expect as the game approaches.
How Baylor Fared This Season
The Bears had their best season in more than 16 years.
They are in a bowl for the first time since the program joined the Big 12 in 1996 and have had some quality wins against instate rivals.
The non-conference schedule for Baylor was a mix of extremes. The Bears crushed Sam Houston State, Buffalo, and Rice (who finished with a combined record of 12-23) and were embarrassed themselves by TCU.
A win against Kansas and a loss to Texas Tech in the first two conference games put the Bears at 4-2 and needing only two wins to become bowl eligible. However, four of Baylor’s final six opponents were ranked in the top 25, and that was not counting Texas, which Baylor had never defeated away from home.
The Bears would win their next two against Colorado and #22 Kansas State to become bowl eligible.
Headed into a matchup with Texas, many expected the Bears to lose their momentum having already clinched a bowl and facing the state’s premier program. Instead, Baylor stunned the Longhorns in Austin to reach 7-2 and break into the top 25 for the first time in more than two decades.
From there, however, things turned sour for the Bears. They dropped their final three games, all against top 25 opposition, to finish 7-5.
Despite their struggles at the end of the season, the Bears are for real this year and are sure to have a passionate fan base at the Texas Bowl to watch the school’s first bowl game in almost two decades.
Illinois has only played the Bears once, and the meeting did not go well for the Illini. Baylor came into Champaign in 1976 and trounced Illinois 34-19.
Baylor is 2-9 all time against teams from the Big Ten, with its only other win coming over Indiana in 1971.
Robert Griffin III vs. Illinois Defense
Griffin, the Bears’ quarterback, has been compared to Terrelle Pryor and Denard Robinson, two quarterbacks who gave Illinois’ defense fits when they met this season.
Griffin is seventh in the nation in total offense, averaging more than 315 yards per game. He is a dual-threat quarterback who can throw or tuck the ball and run.
Robinson hurt the Illinois defense, as he did to all opposing defenses, and the Illini have not been the same on defense since.
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and his defense should study the film of Baylor’s last three games when Griffin threw only one touchdown to three interceptions during three losses.
Mikel Leshoure vs. Jay Finley
The Big Ten’s best running back, Leshoure, and the Big 12’s fourth best back will take the same field as they try to lead their respective teams to victory.
Leshoure has rushed for more than 1500 yards on the ground this season and had an Illinois record 330 in the team’s win against Northwestern.
Finley has more than 1100 yards on the ground and recorded a 250-yard game against a good Kansas State team (which was probably missing their ex-defensive coordinator, Vic Koenning).
The run game will be a huge factor in this game where the backs should not disappoint.
Illinois’ Players vs. Hostile Environment
They say in Texas, football is a religion.
If that is the case, Ilinois will certainly hear it from the pro-Baylor crowd as it cheers on the home state school against the northern foe.
Illinois is 2-4 on the road this season, and you can bet that Baylor will have a home field advantage for the game.
Illinois needs to follow the formula from its two road wins and silence the crowd early by getting on the board and creating turnovers.
Not to say that there will not be Illinois fans at the game, it is a bowl game after all, but much like the Rose bowl against USC, expect a very hostile environment.
Three Players To Watch
No surprise here, there hasn’t been a game all season where eyes weren’t glued to the junior.
Leading the Big Ten running backs in rushing yards and ranking 8th nationally, Leshoure is a major reason that this team made it to the postseason.
Another reason to watch is that this is likely Leshoure’s last game as an Illini as he is expected to leave for the NFL after this season.
Scheelhaase has played above and beyond expectations coming into this season.
The redshirt freshman has led the team to a bowl birth and made noticeable improvements in all facets of his game as the season progressed.
However, much like Baylor’s Griffin, Scheelhaase struggled in the team’s last three games. He had three of his four worst performances in terms of completion percentage.
The good news was that despite his struggles, Scheelhaase still threw for four touchdowns and only one interception.
Against Penn State, Scheelhaase proved that big road games don’t faze him.
Now he needs a repeat performance.
The team’s leading pass rusher will need to be on top of his game against Griffin.
Illinois’ secondary struggled in the later half of the season in large part to its lack of depth.
Liuget and the rest of the defensive line will need to keep Griffin under pressure and in the pocket to help the rest of the defense out.
Until next week when I make a prediction on the Illinois-Baylor game.
Topics: Anthony Santella, Baylor Bears, Baylor Football, Corey Liuget, Derek Dimke, Ian Thomas, Illini, Illinois, Jason Ford, Martez Wilson, Michael Buchanan, Mikel Leshoure, Nathan Scheelhaase, Paul Petrino, Ron Zook, Ron Zook Nathan Scheelhaase, Terry Hawthorne, Texas Bowl, Vic Koenning