What a day to be an Illinois fan.
The Illini won both their football bowl game and their conference opener in basketball on Wednesday, and did so in style.
The victory against Baylor was the first bowl victory for Illinois since 1999 and coach Ron Zook’s first ever bowl victory as a head coach.
In fact, this is the first time Illinois has ended the season with a victory since Zook took the reigns in 2005.
Leaving A Mark
Illinois set numerous team and bowl records in the Texas bowl. Here is a list of the Texas Bowl records Illinois set:
- Tied record for most points scored (38) and net yards gained (533) in the history of the Texas Bowl.
- Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase set records for most consecutive completions (13), highest completion percentage (78.0%), and highest average gain per pass attempt (13.4 yards).
- Running back Mikel Leshoure set a record for most rushing yards (184) and tied the record for most touchdowns (3).
It is safe to say that Illinois left its mark in Houston. This performance could also benefit Illinois in the future, as the Texas Bowl and other area bowls will remember the Illini when they are picking their participants.
Final Score: Illinois 38, Baylor 14
A full recap of the game can be found on Writing Illini’s Gameday Binoculars.
- Mikel Leshoure
In a game during which every Illini player on the field had what was likely their best game of their career, Leshoure still stood out.
The back had 184 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns (and a two point conversion run) to help lead Illinois to victory. Leshoure set the tone from Illinois’ very first offensive play, a 16 yard run, and never looked back.
Leshoure wrote himself a whole page in the Illinois record books this season. Here is a list of the school records set by Leshoure this season:
- Rushing yards in a single season (1,697)
- Points scored in a single season (122)
- Rushing yards in a single game (330)
- Touchdowns in a season (20)
- Rushing touchdowns in a season (17)
- 100+ yard rushing games in a single season (9)
- Consecutive 100+ rushing yard games (5)
Leshoure also finished second in all-purpose yards in a season (1,893) and rushing attempts (281) in a season.
The game was a fitting end to an incredible season for the back. While Leshoure maintains that he has not decided on whether he will leave early for the NFL or return for his senior season, it is difficult to envision a scenario where he returns to Illinois. Most of the records that he broke this season belonged to Rashard Mendenhall, who was a first round draft pick and has had great success in the NFL as a back for the Steelers.
Other Players Worth Mentioning
- Nathan Scheelhaase
The freshman had the best performance of has career, completing 18 of 23 passes for 242 yards and rushing for 53 yards and a touchdown. It excited the Illini fans to see Scheelhaase’s passing game make such strides.
- Tavon Wilson
Wilson had a solid defensive performance, recording 7 tackles and a pass breakup. Wilson’s biggest accomplishment by far, however, was falling on Jarred Fayson’s fumble in the third quarter. Baylor had scored 14 unanswered points to make it a game again and Fayson fumbled a punt. Wilson fell on the ball and held on as multiple Baylor players dove on him to try and jar the ball loose. The Illini retained possession and would drive down the field and score to put the game away.
- Derek Dimke
Dimke set an Illinois record for most field goals made in a bowl with his perfect 3-for-3 showing. Dimke also became second behind Leshoure for points scored in a single season.
- Travon Bellamy
Bellamy only had 4 tackles in the game, but his 46 yard fumble recovery on Baylor’s opening drive set the tone for the entire game, and the rest of Illinois’ defense followed his example as it held Baylor scoreless for the entire first half.
- Corey Liuget
Liuget was a force in the backfield recording 3 tackles for a loss and a sack, two of which came on back-to-back plays. Liuget and the rest of the defensive front were dominant all game, holding Baylor’s quarterback and running back to under 100 yards until the very end of the game when the defense was in prevent formation.
Illinois played its most complete game of the season hands down, and there really was nothing that they could or should have done differently.
The Illini had a balanced offense, did an excellent job converting key downs, held a high scoring opponent to only 14 points, and did not turn the ball over while forcing the opponent to cough it up twice.
Many Illini fans, including yours truly, were worried before the game due to some late season struggles.
The Illini showed that they could play on a big stage, and that when they are healthy, they are a very good team.
- Special Teams
As with the catcalls, it is hard to find anything wrong with the performance. One aspect that could use some work this offseason is the special teams unit. Illinois seemed to struggle all season at returning kicks, and the bowl game was no exception. Illinois averaged only 16 yards per kickoff return, compared to Baylor’s 25 yards per return. On punt returns, Illinois called a fair catch every time, while Baylor returned the ball every time the Illini punted.
Illinois’ kicking game is solid with Dimke at kicker, and while punter Anthony Santella was excellent this season, he graduates and will be hard to replace.
If Illinois can get some of its star juniors to return next year and clean up its special teams play, 2011 could be a very special year indeed.
Fan Prediction Winner
Congratulations to Brandy Hatcher on winning the Writing Illini fan prediction contest. The contest, which was held on the Writing Illini facebook page, asked fan’s to predict what they thought the Illini’s record would be at the end of the season. Writing Illini sends its thanks to Brandy and all the fans who participated in the poll. You can see the entire discussion here.
Topics: Anthony Santella, Baylor Bears, Corey Liuget, Derek Dimke, Illini, Illinois, Illinois Football, Martez Wilson, Mikel Leshoure, Nathan Scheelhaase, Ron Zook, Ron Zook Nathan Scheelhaase, Tavon Wilson, Texas Bowl, Travon Bellamy