2010 Texas Bowl: Illinois Fighting Illini Take Down Baylor 38-14, First Bowl Win In Eleven Years

The Illini play their first bowl game in almost three years tonight in Houston.

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Illini Take Down Baylor 38-14 To Win 2010 Texas Bowl

Mikel Leshoure will likely be playing in the NFL this time next year, but in his last game as a college player, he cemented himself as one of the best running backs to have ever played for the University of Illinois. LeShoure's 184 yards on 29 carries was more than enough to overtake the record previously held by Rashard Mendenhall. His three touchdowns on the night also tied Mendenhall's single season touchdown record as well.

The Illini rolled up a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter, but the game was anything but over with for most of the second half. Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III made a stunning long touchdown pass on  fourth and four to pull the Bears within ten points with plenty of time left, and a near lost fumble on a punt return for the Illini nearly gave Baylor the ball again at the 20 yard line, but it was not to be. Nathan Scheelhaase  and Leshoure led to the Illini down the field for a touchdown to keep the score at more than two possessions. A Baylor turnover on downs and a long Scheelhaase touchdown run let the Illini win the game by a comfortable margin. Baylor will have to wait another year to get its first bowl win of the 21st century.

For the Illini it is the first bowl victory since Kurt Kittner was quarterback, and an uplifting ending to a season that was filled with plenty of ups and downs. For Ron Zook it is his first bowl win, ever, and likely the boost he needed to shore up the support of many Illini fans, which had been flagging in recent years. This team has seen moments of greatness, like the spectacular game in Wrigley Field, and the depths of disappointment like the last minute loss to Minnesota at home, but a victory on national television against a respected Big 12 team goes a long way to make up for the disappointments. The Illini have very few seniors on this team and several freshmen, so this could be just be the beginning of a period of football success at the University of Illinois.

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2010 Texas Bowl: Illinois and Baylor Trade Touchdowns, Illini Lead 24-7

The Baylor offense finally arrived in the third quarter, as Robert Griffin III led the Bears down the field on an eleven play play 73 yard touchdown drive in their first possession of the half. Griffin has been given fits by the Illini defense all night but seemed to have found his stride again after some half time adjustments.

The Illini however had began the half with their own nine play 87 yard drive that was capped by a Leshoure touchdown and a Leshoure two point conversion. The Nathan Scheelhaase has continued his first half success, and has only thrown three incompletions for the entire game, while passing for 216 yards.

The third quarter ended with Baylor again threatening at about midfield trying to bring the game back within ten points. With a quarter to play, and Mikel Leshoure only 29 yards away from breaking the Illinois singel season rush record, the Texas bowl is set up for an exciting conclusion.

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2010 Texas Bowl: Illini Defense Dominating Baylor Bears 16-0

It was supposed to be a high scoring affair between the high powered run game of the Fighting Illini, and the dual threat capabilities of Baylor's Robert Griffin III, but so far in the Texas Bowl, only one team has been holding up their end of the bargain. Mikel Leshoure and the Illini offensive line rolled up 82 yards on the ground in the first half, putting the Champaign product closer to the all time single season rushing record for the school.

Nathan Scheelhaase for his part has been perfect in passing 13-13 for 169 yards including a couple long passes to freshmen Darius Millines and Ryan Lankford. To set up Illinois scores.

The best performance of the day has to go to the Illinois defense, and the D-line in particular. Junior defensive tackle Corey Liuget has been a terror up front, getting pressure up the middle and getting two tackles for a loss and sack, Clay Nurse has notched a sack, and Akeem Spence has a fumble recovery.

The Illini defense has held the Bears to just 22 first half yards, and 148 total yards, while keeping them to just 1-5 on first down. The Illini have only scored one touchdown to compliment Derek Dimke's three field goals, but with the defense playing as well as they have, the offense may be playing more than well enough to win.

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2010 Texas Bowl: Illini Jump Out In Front 6-0 In First Quarter.

Everyone knew that when Baylor's Robert Griffin III got the ball on offense today, something exciting would happen, and it it did, if you were an Illini fan.  A backwards pass on the first possession of the game was thrown to high for the intended receiver, and Illini DB Travon Bellamy scooped the ball up and ran all the way back to the 28 yard line in Illinois territory. The recovery would lead to an Illini field goal by Derek Dimke, putting Illinois up 3-0.

After an Illini defensive stop, Mikel Leshoure, Jason Ford and Nathan Scheelhaase would run down the field to the Baylor 11 yard line. Another field goal by Derek Dimke would take the Illini up 6-0, and give Dimke the Illini record for points scored in a season.

Thus far the Illini defense has been able to hold Griffin and the Bears in check on offense, in no small part due to spectacular play by Martez Wilson and Corey Liuget, but having to settle for two field goals could come back to bite the Illini if the game becomes the shootout the experts have predicted.

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2010 Texas Bowl: Illini Looking At Raising Their Draft Stock

Redshirt sophomore Robert Griffin III may be one of the most exciting players to see in tonight's Texas Bowl, but he wont likely be leaving for the NFL this year. For several other players, however, this bowl game will be their last chance to demonstrate their skills for NFL scouts in actual competition. With an NFL lockout possibly looming, there is no telling how many juniors will decide to make the jump, but if they do, these are the players you should be looking out for.

Illinois junior running back Mikel Leshoure, according to SB Nation's own Mocking the Draft, will likely be the highest drafted prospect in tonight's Texas Bowl. The Champaign product is currently projected to be drafted early in the second round, as the 43rd overall pick. After a slow start to his college career, Leshoure came on strong at the end of last season with 184 yards against Fresno State and carried that production into this season seamlessly. Leshoure has ran for over 1500 yards in 2010, has eight games where he has ran for 100 yards or more, and ran for 330 yards against Northwestern in Wrigley Field. He is sturdily build at 6'1'' 230 lbs, and has breakaway speed that should raise scouts eyebrows. If nothing else, the recent success of two other Illini running back products, Pierre Thomas and Rashard Mendenhall for the Saints and Steelers respectively, could make scouts look a little longer at this productive back from Illinois.

If RS junior Martez Wilson decides to forgo his final season of college eligibility, there are few who would probably blame him. His rocky career at Illinois has been marked by being attacked in a bar after his sophomore season, and breaking a vertebrae early in the 2009 season. A highly regarded prospect out of  high school, Wilson's career looked like it might end up being a disappointment, but the 2010 season marked a return to form as he has become one of the best defensive players the Illini have. If he jumps, Wilson is projected to go in the third round as the 84th overall pick, but given his NFL linebacker build, 6'4", 250 lbs, and high speed, he may decide to stick around another year to try and raise himself up higher on the board.

Another Illini player who may consider jumping after just his junior season is defensive tackle Corey Liuget, currently projected as a fourth round selection as the 104th overall pick. The 6'3" 300 lb defensive tackle from Florida is already the anchor of the Illini defensive line, and his likelihood of jumping to the draft this year could depend on how well he performs for scouts. A solid performance tonight, and perhaps a good work out or two, and Liuget could jump up much higher than the fourth round. However if the lockout gives him concern and if he thinks he could make first or second round money, we could very well see. Liuget back in orange and blue next season.

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2010 Texas Bowl: Illinois Fighting Illini and Baylor Bears Look To End Bowl Drought

For both the Fighting Illini and the Bears of Baylor, playing football this late in December isn't something that happens all too often. This will be the first bowl trip for Baylor since a loss to Washington State in the Alamo Bowl all the way back in 1994. It hasn't been quite so long for the Illini, having gone to the Rose Bowl in 2008, but this will only be the fifth bowl for the Illini since 1994, so neither team is particularly used to being away from home for New Year's. Given how bowl hungry each fan base and program is, this Texas Bowl may be a very emotional event.

The Baylor Bears, led by offensive juggernaut Robert Griffin III,  come into this game after a string of disappointing losses to Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Oklahoma. After being a surprise team in the Big 12 South, Bears fans were dreaming of becoming a dark horse Big 12 champion, but have had to settle for sixth place in their conference and make the best of their first bowl invitation in some time.

The Illini, too, have had to readjust their expectations for this season more than once. Coming off of a disappointing 3-9 2009 season, the Illini shuffled their coaching staff and hired on two new coordinators to overhaul their schemes. For coach Ron Zook to earn his keep for many Illini fans, he would have to take the orange and blue back to a bowl. After early success and a 5-3 start, the Illini dropped three of their last four games including last minute losses to Michigan and Minnesota. While the play of running back Mikel Leshoure has been a pleasant surprise for most fans, it hasn't been enough to get the Illini overcome defensive struggles in the last month of the season.

For both teams, then, this game means a great deal more than just a nice cap to a good season, it could also define each program's season as being a success or a disappointment.

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