Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages...it's time. It's time for the annual renewal of what is one of the
oldest and most revered of all bowls newest and most overlooked of all bowls, the Texas Bowl, where the Big Ten puts it's honor and prestige on the line against Baylor.
To me, the Texas Bowl is the Houston replacement for the Blubonnet Bowl, which I personally thought was one of the coolest sounding minor bowl names ever, just below Liberty and just above Tangerine. It was also played in Houston, but died on the vine in 1987. It had a pretty long history, going from 1959-1987, and Baylor, ironically enough, played in the second to last Bluebonnet Bowl, beating Colorado 21-9.
But we're not here to pay homage to the Bluebonnet Bowl, we're here to discuss the Texas Bowl. And more specifically, why Illinois will go down to Houston and come back home with a pretty cool crystal trophy.
And braggin' rights. Can't forget braggin' rights.
Normally, braggin' rights over beating Baylor is akin to braggin' about beating the former Miss South Carolina in a debate about the state of education in America. I mean, in the heyday of semi pro football in Texas, known as the Southwest Conference, Baylor threw as much money at recruits as SMU, and still managed to suck. They couldn't even cheat correctly! But this isn't your Dad's Baylor teams of old. It's a good, if flawed team, and Illinois will have their hands full with wunderkind Robert Griffin III. And for the conference as a whole, we've been in a slump against the Big XII. The Texas Dysfunctional League has managed to win 5 in a row and 8 of 9 bowl games against the Empire after the Good Guys started out on a 6 game bowl winning streak to kick off the BCS era. We need this one to________________ (please fill in the blank for accuracy from the below sentences, as this was written before the Insight Bowl with no opportunity to edit before publish):
A. Pull out of the Big XII nosedive we're in that was exacerbated by the Iowa loss, and prevent this bowl season from becoming an unmitigated disaster.
B. Continue the momentum that Iowa has started and keep building on what looks to be a promising bowl season for the Good Guys.
Still, this is a winnable game for the Illini, and the keys to their victory are after the jump.
1. Baylor has no defense and Illinois does, or at least did earlier in the year. 45. 42. 55. 42. 53. No, no these are not initial ebay bids for Terrelle Pryor's gold pants charm, these were point totals given up by Baylor during the regular season. Those last three were their point totals given up in their last three games, all losses--not really a way you want to finish in preparation for a bowl game. If you want to talk rankings, Baylor is 82nd in points given up per game and 98th in yards per game (30 points and 427 yards, respectively). There are only three other bowl teams that have given up more yards per game than Baylor--Kansas State, Michigan, and Texas Tech. Baylor had some good defensive performances earlier in the season, but when they played offenses that were even just average, they were gashed, and it got a lot worse as the season progressed. For Illinois, they got stronger offensively as the season went along, as QB Nathan Scheelhaase became more comfortable and RB Mikel Leshoure became a dominating running back. The Illini defense that looked like world beaters early on struggled as the season came to a close, but generally righted the ship in a disappointing loss to Fresno State at the end of the season. Illinois can score points and Baylor can't stop anyone. Baylor can score points and Illinois can stop teams, although they've been inconsistent at doing it as of late. For Illinois, it seems pretty simple. If the defense that largely stopped Ohio State and stomped a mudhole in Penn State shows up, I think they win. If the defense that couldn't stop Michigan shows up, they'll get run out of Texas.
2. Mikel Leshoure. To me, there's a difference between a high scoring game and a shoot out. If Illinois gets into a shoot out like they did in Ann Arbor, where they have to match Baylor score for score, I don't think they have the skill players at every position to prevail. But if they can keep Baylor to 24 or even 28 points, I think they'll win. And if Mikel Leshoure is his typical, dominating self, Illinois will be able to grind it out, run the clock down, and keep Baylor's offense off the field. You can't score if you aren't playing, right? Leshoure is the perfect back for this, going against a perfectly bad defense for him to be able to dominate. Leshoure has gotten stronger as the season went along, finishing with 120, 141, 330...not a misprint, just ask Northwestern, and 142 yards in the final four games on the Illini schedule, while Baylor has struggled to stop people all season. Leshoure is the perfect ball control back, averaging over 6 yards a carry on 1st down, and a staggering 8 yards per carry in the fourth quarter. Baylor has given up almost 2,000 yards on the ground this season, and if he gets rolling downhill early, I can see a lopsided time of possession advantage for the Illini. If Illinois can jump out to an early lead, they can use Leshoure a a battering ram to wear down the Bears, and then finish them off in the fourth quarter.
Turnover Margin. If you win the turnover battle, you usually win the game. Yes, it's an old cliche, but that's only because it's true. Now on the surface, the turnover margin seems to be kind of a wash. Illinois is a +6, Baylor is a +2, both pretty respectable numbers. But if you do a little digging, there's a couple of interesting trends that I think favor Illinois. Baylor has been turning over the ball at a margin rate of -2 in the month of November, while Illinois has been an opportunistic +5. It's been an overall part of Baylor's three game skid, and if Illinois can get a turnover advantage of two or three, they'll have a great opportunity to get out of Texas with a win. Conversely, if you give Robert Griffin III a short field and give their offense an opportunity to get rolling, it could be Rose Bowl redux.
This is a great test for an Illinois team that just one year ago was looking at wholesale changes in the coaching staff. To Ron Zook's credit, he fired his offensive staff and special teams coach, put his faith in an untested but athletic QB, stuck with him and allowed him to grow into the position, and now the Illini are on the precipice of an impressive turnaround. They'll need to pick it up defensively to win, but unlike Baylor, Illinois has shown an ability to manage and contain very good offenses. With a few weeks to prepare for Baylor, I think they'll do that in the Texas Bowl.
Predicition: Illinois 31 Baylor 27.