Like they say in Dillon, deep in the heart of Texas, “Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. CAN’T LOSE!” Yes, the Illinois Fighting Illini best adopt the philosophy of fictional football Coach Erik Taylor and his East Dillon Lions in the dramatic television series “Friday Night Lights.”
The Illini have their work cut out for them, only 1.5 point underdogs, but they’re playing in enemy territory, taking on a school that’s fired up about their first bowl appearance in 17 years, at a stadium less than three hours drive from campus.
Indeed Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers, won’t be the only NFL stadium where a local team in blue and orange is surrounded by an adversarial crowd in green and gold. Reliant Stadium, home of the Houston Texans, and college basketball’s next Final Four, will have a decidedly pro-Baylor slant when the Texas Bowl kicks off Wednesday night at 5.
“Texas forever, Street.”
By Paul M. Banks
Illinois (6-6, 4-4) synopsis: “I’m not sure what generates TV ratings. I think it’s going to be a heck of a football game, though,” Illini Coach Ron Zook said Monday.
“This is two teams that are very, very similar. Both have good kicking games, a good punter, a good kicker, coverage as well and offenses that have scored a lot of points, quarterbacks that I think are exceptional, good running backs. Defensively, we’ve had some struggles a little bit here toward the end,” Zook continued.
And he’s right, this should be a Texas-sized shootout in the OK Corral. Baylor’s defense has allowed more than 40 points six times in 2010. The two Oklahoma schools in the Big 12 combined to hang 108 on ‘em. And now they take on an Illini attack averaging 32.1 points, led by AP All-American second-team tailback Mikel Leshoure.
On the other side, Baylor is averaging 32.6 points and ranks 2th nationally in total yards per game (478.5). Factor in how mediocre these two defenses are and you’ll have the Michigan Wolverines game all over again.
Leshoure led all Big Ten running backs with 1,513 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. The 1,513 ranks second in school history behind only Rashard Mendenhall’s 2007 school-record total of 1,681, and he now has 2,373 yards for his career, which ranks 10th on the Illini all-time list. Leshoure needs 169 yards in the Texas Bowl to break Mendenhall’s record.
Leshoure ran for a school-record 330 yards on 33 carries in a 48-27 win over Northwestern at Wrigley Field on Nov. 20, and he ranks eighth in the country with 126.1 rushing yards per game. He also has the most runs of 30 or more yards in the nation this season. His 11 rushes of 30+ is tied with Oregon’s LaMicheal James and Hawaii’s Alex Green for tops among FBS players.
Regardless of what happens Wednesday night, the Illini have already won by getting here, and obtaining those 15 extra practices that come with a bowl berth.
“I always mess with those guys and sometimes stretch, that’s when you kind of find out where their mood is and so forth. We had a good practice. I thought yesterday was a good practice. A bunch of them talked about how they hadn’t had this much fun in practice in a long time,” Zook said Monday night.
In 2011, the extra practice time will serve them well.
Baylor (7-5, 4-4) Synopsis: Baylor University is located in Waco, TX a town on the banks of “that old Brazos river where I learned to swim” (according to George Strait in his Lone Star State anthem “All my exes live in Texas”)
Waco is known first and foremost for that little David Koresh/Branch Davidian thing in 1994, coincidentally also the last year Baylor made a bowl.
The Baylor Bears have a bruising rushing attack led by senior halfback Jay Finley. His 1,155 yards rank second on Baylor’s single-season rushing list. He ran for 250 in a 47-42 home win over Kansas State.
“What Jay brings to the program is just a blue-collar mentality which is something I really can associate with because that’s the way I want us to be,” Baylor Coach Art Briles said Monday night of Finley.
“I want us to be guys that really fight hard to get to what we can get. Jay has been through injuries. He’s had some low times in his career and he’s just continued to fight and now it’s paid off for him. That part of it, that’s why you play,” Briles continued.
Then you can bear down on Bears quarterback Robert Griffin III, who ranks seventh in the country with 315.5 yards per game of total offense. However, he’s slowed down lately. Throwing one TD and three INTs in three straight losses to top 20 ranked teams to end the season.
Briles talked about what Griffin brings to the table:
“What we look for in quarterbacks are guys who can make plays with their feet—Robert had that, guys that are extremely intelligent—Robert has that, guys with poise, determination and are very competitive by nature— Robert has all those characteristics, and can throw. When I saw him throw when he came to camp, I thought we had a guy who could do it all.
Kendall Wright caught 66 balls for 825 yards, leading a group of four Bears receivers with at least 40 catches. Defensively, there’s not much to talk about.
Also, their cheerleaders made this self-promotional video, you may want to check it out.
And their fight song sounds eerily similar to that of the Wisconsin Badgers for some reason.
Guys you’ll see Saturday eventually playing on Sundays:
Illinois- Mikel LeShoure is not Rashard Mendenhall yet. But he wears his #5 and could jump after this game to become a late first round/early second round pick, just like Mendenhall did after his junior year. The last time we saw two great backs like this in orange and blue wear the same number back-to-back it was #44 in Syracuse with Jim Brown and Ernie Davis.
I peruse more NFL mock drafts than any human being should, and I have never seen even a trace of a Baylor Bear anywhere. Still punter Darren Epperson and defensive tackle Phil Taylor could catch on somewhere.
Prediction to be taken with a grain of salt (actually make that a whole truckload of salt):
Illinois 49, Baylor 47 (Banks’ 2010 record 18-8)
Baylor won 34-19 at Illinois in the teams’ only previous meeting during the 1976 season. Illini have issues with dual-threat QB led offenses (Denard, Pryor, Michigan State, making Adam Weber look like a triple threat QB…somehow) and Griffin is as dual threat as they come. Baylor is much less talented than Illinois. Zook has even compared Griffin to a Pryor-Robinson hybrid in press conferences this week. So the Illini would have really benefited from taking on a one-dimensional team instead. They know how to stop those.
Yet, I have a feeling about this game. Last time at Fresno, the Illini had a horrible field, bad calls and unfortunate penalties all go against them to take a win away. I feel like the karma police are about to grant them a reprieve.
Leshoure runs wild and then heads to the NFL. And as Deion $anders likes to say: “pay the man.”
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