Texas Bowl: Baylor vs. Illinois
By Paul Myerberg // Dec 29, 2010
Let me get this straight: both Baylor and a Ron Zook-coached team are headed to bowl play in the same season? The former is not too much of a surprise, I suppose, not when considering the rapidity with which Art Briles turned Houston into a winner from 2003-7. Still, it’s one thing to win at Houston — or anywhere else — and quite another to win at Baylor, as a graveyard of coaches who have tried and failed can attest. The oft-repeated line about Briles at Baylor — “It’s just a matter of time” — sounded good in theory, but did the speaker truly believe that Briles would lead the woebegone Bears to bowl play? As for Zook: 0-1, 2-1, 2-2, 3-3, 5-3, 5-5, 6-5, 6-6. Make things easy? That’s not for Zook.
Baylor (7-5, 4-4)
Regular season in review So what if Baylor’s six wins against F.B.S. competition came against teams that combined for 26 wins on the season? Or that only one of that sextet, Kansas State, would win more than five games? Or that no team Baylor defeated in 2010 — even if we included Sam Houston State — won more than seven games in the regular season? You can take your won-loss total and shove it, mister, because for the first time 1994, Baylor is headed to bowl play. Think this isn’t a big deal for the football program? For starters, perhaps Baylor will no longer be a punchline for B.C.S. conference incompetence; will be taken seriously by conference and non-conference foes alike; will begin to close the gap between itself and the rest of the state when it comes to recruiting; and, most importantly, can enter next season as a dark horse Big 12 title candidate thanks to a young roster that should remain largely intact. This isn’t the best bowl team in the country, but these are your older brother’s Baylor Bears.
Regular season high point A 30-22 win at Texas on Oct. 30. The last time Baylor won in Austin? Try 1991. How about the last time Baylor got within 10 points of the Longhorns, let alone won the game? All the way back in 1998.
Regular season low point Three consecutive losses to end the season. Baylor was 7-2 after winning at Texas; losses to Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Oklahoma, each of which featured a dreadful defensive showing, sent the Bears into bowl action at 7-5.
Regular season offensive M.V.P. Quarterback Robert Griffin III. With a nod towards Jay Finley, the team’s leading rusher, Griffin’s often flawless return from last season’s knee injury was the story for the Baylor offense. While not quite the running threat he was as a freshman — that will return, I think — Griffin remained accurate and careful as a passer: he completed 66.3 percent of his passes with 21 touchdowns against only eight interceptions.
Regular season defensive M.V.P. Safety Byron Landor. The senior is one of those fairly rare JUCO additions who actually steps right in and makes an immediate impact. After serving as a key reserve in 2009, Landor stepped into a starting role this fall and led the Bears in tackles with 115 (3 for loss); no teammate had more than 66 stops.
Illinois (6-6, 4-4)
Regular season in review Expecting consistency from a Ron Zook-coached team is like expecting consistency from the B.C.S.: yeah, sometimes everything works out, pitting No. 1 and No. 2, but more often than not you’re struck by how quickly things can go south. Case in point: Illinois skyrocketed into the national picture with five wins in seven games in September and October, leaving the Illini on the verge of bowl eligibility heading into the season’s final month. Illinois reached bowl eligibility, beating Northwestern on Nov. 20, but in losing three of its last four extinguished the much-needed goodwill developed over the first half of the season. It’s the nature of sports, if not of all mankind: in August, I believe Illinois would have been happy to finish 6-6 and reach bowl play; in December, 6-6 stands as a reminder of how a ride with Ron Zook can be a bumpy one indeed.
Regular season high point That 5-2 stretch included wins over Northern Illinois and Penn State. While November was a disappointment, a 48-27 win over Northwestern — the game played at Wrigley Field, remember — gave Illinois six wins.
Regular season low point A 67-65, triple-overtime loss at Michigan on the first Saturday of November. Neither teams could get stops, as that score would suggest: Michigan had just enough to prevent Illinois from converting a two-point conversion in that third overtime. With very little left in the tank, you’d suppose, Illinois lost at home to Minnesota a week later.
Regular season offensive M.V.P. Running back Mikel Leshoure. There may not have been a more overlooked running back in the F.B.S. in 2010 — there might not have been a more overlooked player in the country, offense or defense, regardless of position. With a first-year starter under center, the onus fell on Leshoure to deliver on the ground on a weekly basis. He did, rushing for 1,513 yards and 14 scores.
Regular season defensive M.V.P. Linebacker Nate Bussey. His teammate at linebacker, Martez Wilson, was a second-team all-conference pick and the team leader in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks. So he would have been a fine pick. Nevertheless, I was always struck by Bussey’s ability to be in the right place at the right time, his penchant for the big play and his willingness to get his nose dirty, three characteristics missing in large portions on past Illinois defenses.
Know Your Sponsor
Houston, Texas Despite the name, this bowl is not sponsored by, well, Texas. (Though if New Mexico can sponsor a bowl, Texas certainly can as well.) The Texas Bowl actually has 63 total sponsors, some larger than others, with the lead sponsor the city of Houston. Some of the more unknown sponsors of the Texas Bowl are Atiwa Computing, George Ranch Historical Park, Houston Ballet, Nick’s Place, Texas Firecrackers and Warehouse Pool Supply. If you’re not from Houston, you’re probably not familiar with these locations.
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Tags: Art Briles, Baylor, Byron Landor, Illinois, Mikel Leshoure, Nate Bussey, Robert Griffin III, Ron Zook, Texas Bowl
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