Tomorrow afternoon in the Texas Bowl, Illinois will take the field in the program’s first bowl game since 2007 and the first non-BCS bowl since 1999.
The Illini are facing a Baylor team that has not played in a bowl in 16 years.
Both teams are hungry for a win, with Illinois seeking only its second winning season under coach Ron Zook and Baylor looking to improve on its first winning season under coach Art Briles.
Only one team can leave Houston’s Reliant Stadium with a win, and the game is likely to be a high scoring affair that is not decided until the final quarter.
Rest for the Weary
Perhaps no group has benefited more from the time off between the end of the regular season and the bowls than the Illinois defense.
The defensive unit has suffered from injuries at several key positions throughout the season along with a general lack of depth.
With almost a month off to recover from the wear and tear of the season, the unit is feeling revitalized and refreshed.
Hopefully it sill show tomorrow.
Starting linebacker Ian Thomas, who injured his ankle on a running play against Fresno State, is expected to play his normal role tomorrow.
The coaches have said that Thomas recovered nicely over the break and has participated in the previous week’s practices without problem.
Thomas’ return is a big boost for Illinois. He is the team’s fourth leading tackler and is second on the team in forced fumbles.
Writing Illini Projection
Both teams have struggled towards the end of their seasons, with both losing three of their last four games.
However, the energy levels should be high for both programs as this is the first bowl for most Illini players and all of the Baylor players.
Illinois will strike first as running back Mikel Leshoure, who leads the nation in rushes of 30+ yards, breaks off another big run for a score in the first quarter.
Both teams will score a pair of touchdowns in the second quarter as the offensive tempo picks up.
Illinois goes into the half up a touchdown and feeling good, but Baylor is by no means ready to give up.
Illinois is plagued in the third quarter by the same problem that has hurt them all season, an inability to carry momentum.
Baylor scores fast to tie the game and an Illinois turnover allows the Bears to go up for the first time.
Illinois puts a strong drive together as the quarter winds down but is held to a field goal.
Baylor scores a field goal early in the fourth to go back up by a touchdown, but Illinois storms back with 10 unanswered points to retake the lead late in the game.
Baylor refuses to go down, however, and a big kick return by the Bears puts them in position to score a game-clinching touchdown.
Illinois gets the ball back with under a minute left and is unable to score as Baylor gets its first bowl win since 1992.
Baylor 38, Illinois 34
Illini Game MVP Prediction
Baylor Game MVP Prediction
Robert Griffin III
Some Predictions from the Credentialed
→ Adam Rittenberg (ESPN): Baylor 31, Illinois 24
Tomorrow’s kickoff is set for 5:00 p.m. central time.
The game is on ESPN.
Writing Illini will have its play-by-play blogging up the next morning and live drive updates on its Twitter page.
Tags: A.J. Jenkins Adam Rittenberg AJ Jenkins Baylor Bears Baylor Football Ian Thomas Illini Illinois Illinois Fighting Illini Football Illinois Football Jason Ford Justin Green Martez Wilson Mikel Leshoure Nathan Scheelhaase Robert Griffin III Ron Zook Ron Zook Nathan Scheelhaase Scott Powers Tavon Wilson Terry Hawthorne Texas Bowl Tom Young Troy Pollard