CFN Bowl Analysis ... Texas
Illinois 38 ... Baylor 14
Way too much is made about how a bowl game can carry a team into the offseason and into the following year – guilty as charged – but the Texas Bowl had one of those performances that should shape how a program sees itself and what the perception of the team will be on a national scale over the next eight months.
Everyone came waiting to see a star quarterback, and the wrong one showed up.
Robert Griffin's night was over as soon as he threw an hyped up backwards pass that got scooped up by the Illini on Baylor's opening drive. He ended up throwing for 322 yards and a score, and he ran for 42 yards, but he took a backseat to Illinois redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase.
Illinois can't throw the ball; at least it couldn't all season long. The offense revolved around backs Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford, as well as the running of Scheelhaase. And then he picked a great time to pull off his Tom Brady impersonation hitting on all 13 first half passes to take the game by the horns, and Baylor, despite a bit of a push, couldn't make the comeback.
Illinois isn't going to start winging it all over the field just because Scheelhaase showed he could get the chains moving with the passing attack, but now the running team knows it can count on its young leader over the next three years to get things moving more with his arm as well as his legs. Call this the confidence builder game, and call this the game that should make Illinois one of the hot sleeper teams going into 2011.
- Baylor, if you're going to be up tempo, be up tempo. The offense was working at warp speed on the opening drive, before the ill-fated misfired back pass that became a lost fumble, and the Illinois defensive front was sucking wind. The Bears slowed it down a bit from then on.
- Robert Griffin appeared to be way, way, way too overhyped to start out. He only settled in once Illinois got up big.
- No, Illini fans, Mikel Leshoure and Corey Liuget aren't coming back. They'll be millionaires next year at this time, and you should be happy about it. It's an easy sell to recruits when you can show them the money.
When you control the line of scrimmage, you control the scoreboard.
Illinois RB Mikel Leshoure was the star of the Texas Bowl, rushing for 184 yards and three touchdowns, but his night wouldn't have been possible without the work of his blockers. As good as Leshoure and Jason Ford were, they got plenty of help up front, rarely feeling contact at or behind the line. On the other side of the ball, it was a similar situation, with Corey Liuget, Clay Nurse, and the rest of the D-line getting the best of Baylor at the point of contact and routinely flushing Robert Griffin from the pocket. As complicated as the game seems to become, it's still rooted in some very basic principles, like blocking, tackling, and executing. The Illini was better in all three phases, which is why it was able to roll to an unexpectedly easy win.
- It just got a little tougher to part ways with Ron Zook, assuming the Illinois administration has thought about it. In a game that was supposed to be evenly matched, the Illini was far better prepared, a credit to the coach's work over the last few weeks. For Zook, 7-6 looks light years better than 6-7.
- With a slew of starters back and a favorable schedule, Illinois could be a real dangerous team in 2011. The key will be what happens over the next two weeks. The Illini can survive the early departures of Leshoure and LB Martez Wilson, but it'll be markedly better if the juniors return to Champaign for one final season.
- Considering all of its offensive speed and the inconsistency of the opposing D, Baylor qualifies as one of the biggest disappointments of the bowl season so far. After waiting 16 years to reach this point, you'd think they'd be just a little hungrier.
By Matt Zemek
While a lot of pundits (this one very much included) gave Illinois little chance in what was essentially a road game against Baylor, Ron Zook had his team fit, focused and fired-up. Some whispers about Zook's standing as the Illini coach occupied part of the backdrop to this game, but after a thorough pounding of a listless bunch of Big 12 Bears, Zook has at least temporarily righted the ship. If nothing else, the Zooker can claim – with justification – that next year could be something special. Skepticism is merited, but even the legions of Illinois doubters have to acknowledge that the Champaign Army will carry an appreciable amount of ammunition into each and every Saturday showdown. A more mature Nathan Scheelhaase will give Illinois a chance to outscore most Big Ten foes and win nine games, which is what the program did in its special 2007 season. Zook used the phrase "the noise in the system" when immersed in pressure at Florida, but the former Gator coach just quieted his current campus environment by taking the city of Houston by storm.
--The other thing that needs to be said about this game is that while Baylor definitely took a step forward as a program, that's exactly how far the Bears advanced: one step forward, not two or three. Making a bowl for the first time in 16 years removes that cloud of uncertainty (and futility) from the program's name, but this loss means that coach Art Briles – completely undressed by Ron Zook (just contemplate that for a bit) – can't point to any other accomplishments in 2010. The win over Texas in Austin now looks even less meaningful, even though it undeniably carries a certain historical resonance to the good people of Waco. The Big 12 proved to be quite mediocre this season, so a 7-6 finish doesn't set the bar very high. It seems that the Bears' future will depend on the (in)ability of the rest of the Big 12 to improve. Only if Texas and Texas Tech remain in the poorhouse will Baylor continue to be able to make bowl games. That's the immediate sense, at any rate, in the wake of this awful showing on what amounted to home turf.
--Briles has NO reason to be angry at Zook for the late Scheelhaase bootleg. You can get angry about long passes in some situations, but not a bootleg. Mr. Briles should look at his team's utter lack of defense and outside containment on that play. Baylor's deficiencies turned that bootleg from a seven-yard gain into a lengthy touchdown gallop. Briles should keep his trap shut and coach his team. He should have had his program ready to deal with its first bowl game in over a decade and a half, instead of being dead as a doornail.