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Leshoure, Scheelhasse Lead Fighting Illini Past Baylor, 38-14

(Sports Network) – Mikel Leshoure capped a record-breaking season by running for 184 yards and three touchdowns, and Illinois silenced Baylor, 38-14, to win the Texas Bowl in convincing fashion.

The game was played a short drive from Baylor’s campus at Reliant Stadium, but it was the Fighting Illini that looked right at home with a balanced attack against a Bears program playing in the postseason for the first time since 1994.

Nathan Scheelhaase rushed for a score and had a efficient effort through the air, connecting on 18-of-23 throws for 242 yards for the Illini (7-6), who clinched their first winning season since 2007.

“The coaches did an outstanding job of getting them prepared, having great plans,” Illinois coach Ron Zook said. “They executed it.”

The Bears (7-6) started the year with a promising 7-2 record, only to give up 188 combined points over their final four games — all losses.

Robert Griffin III was under pressure throughout the rout and completed 30- of-41 throws for 306 yards with a touchdown pass to Kendall Wright in defeat.

Baylor looked as if it hadn’t been to a bowl game in 16 years, especially early on, as Griffin had a backwards pass fall idly near the sideline on the game’s opening drive. Illinois defensive back Travon Bellamy alertly picked up the loose ball and returned it 46 yards to the opposing 28-yard line, and Derek Dimke opened the scoring with 38-yard field goal.

Dimke added kicks of 28 and 43 yards to extend the lead, and Ryan Lankford’s 52-yard reception down to the Baylor five preceded Leshoure’s first touchdown run 5:18 into the second quarter.

The Bears had a promising drive thwarted a little later when Griffin lost the ball at the Illinois 32, and it remained 16-0 after Baylor’s Aaron Jones was well short on a 57-yard attempt prior to the break.

“I’m just disappointed I didn’t do a better job of having them ready to play early in the game,” Bears coach Art Briles said.

The Illini kept the pressure on coming out of the locker room, as Leshoure capped a nine-play, 87-yard march with a 13-yard jaunt that saw him dive into the end zone from the four. Leshoure’s two-point run made it 24-0.

Baylor finally got on the board when Jay Finley got around the right end and went in for a four-yard touchdown with 8:03 remaining in the third.

Following several punts, Wright hauled in a 39-yard heave in the end zone on 4th-and-14 early the final quarter, cutting the deficit to 24-14. Replay confirmed Wright held on to the ball despite taking a big hit.

The Bears forced a quick punt but proceeded to go three-and-out. The ensuing punt was muffed by Jarred Fayson, but Illinois recovered and went in for the clinching TD.

Fittingly, Leshoure took it in from five yards out, breaking Rashard Mendenhall’s single-season school TD mark with his 20th of the campaign.

Scheelhaase’s 55-yard run in the closing minutes accounted for the final score.

Game Notes

Leshoure finished the year with 1,697 rushing yards, also topping the single- season mark held previously by Mendenhall…Illinois’ Ron Zook won his first bowl game as a head coach. He had two defeats at Florida and one in the 2008 Rose Bowl…The game marked the first non-BCS bowl appearance for the Fighting Illini since 1999…Griffin tied Baylor’s single-season TD mark with 22, while Finley, who gained 63 yards on 12 carries, set a new single-season rushing record (1,218)…Wright ended with 127 yards on 12 receptions…The Illini are 7-9 all-time in bowl games, while Baylor dropped to 8-9…Baylor also fell to 2-10-1 all-time against Big Ten teams.

Photographs by Micah Taylor, clairity, and Fibonacci Blue used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.