HOUSTON — After waiting 16 years for a bowl appearance, Baylor made an alarmingly fast disappearance.
Illinois opened with a blast and ended with a flurry to leave the Texas Bowl with a dominating 38-14 win over the Bears before 68,211 fans Wednesday night at Reliant Stadium.
It was a dismal ending for a Baylor team making its first bowl appearance since a 10-3 loss to Washington State in the 1994 Alamo Bowl. The Bears (7-6) took the loss especially hard since they had a distinct home-field advantage with all the green and gold in the stands.
“I didn’t think in my wildest dreams it would happen like this,” Baylor senior offensive tackle Danny Watkins said. “I’m thankful for all the things the Baylor fans have done this year, but it’s just too bad that we didn’t get a win today.”
The Fighting Illini opened up a 24-0 lead early in the third quarter before the Bears got back into the game with a pair of touchdowns. But Illinois (7-6) finished off the win with two fourth-quarter scores.
After opening the season with a 7-2 record, the Bears lost their last four games by a combined score of 188-96.
“I’m proud of the way we fought, but I’m disappointed that I didn’t do a better job of having them ready to play early in the game,” Baylor coach Art Briles said. “They didn’t turn the ball over and we did, and consequently they won the football game. Now, we have to remember how it feels to not hoist that trophy.”
Baylor’s defense couldn’t stop Illinois’ offense as it piled up 533 yards, highlighted by a 184-yard rushing performance by Mikel Leshoure. While Leshoure scored three touchdowns, redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase riddled Baylor’s defense for 242 yards passing.
“They didn’t do anything different than what we had seen,” Baylor safety Byron Landor said. “Everybody on our defense has to play his keys, and if one guy makes a mistake, they’ll make a big play.”
Not Griffin’s best day
While Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin finished with solid numbers, he missed open receivers on several deep balls that could have made the score closer. Griffin finished 30-of-41 for 306 yards and a touchdown, but also had two fumbles that cost the Bears in the first half.
Illinois’ physical defensive line put considerable pressure on Griffin all night, and he often had to scramble out of the pocket.
“We can’t have slow starts like that,” Griffin said. “They did some things that we hadn’t seen on tape. But we also had missed assignments, missed blocks and missed throws.”
Illinois opened up a 24-0 lead early in third quarter when Leshoure broke loose for a 13-yard touchdown and then ran for the two-point conversion.
But the Bears bounced back. Jay Finley rushed for a 4-yard touchdown before Griffin hit Kendall Wright with a 39-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter. Finley finished with 63 yards rushing to set the single-season school record with 1,218 yards.
But Illinois killed Baylor’s momentum when it pieced together a 66-yard drive that ended with Leshoure’s 5-yard touchdown run. After Griffin misfired on a fourth-down pass to Wright from Illinois’ 9, Scheelhaase broke away for a 55-yard touchdown run to finish off the win with 41 seconds remaining.
“We’ve got no excuses,” Griffin said. “We’ll take all the blame.”
The Bears trudged into the locker room at halftime with a 16-0 deficit, but it could have been worse. The Fighting Illini had to settle for field goals on the first three drives.
Solid start goes awry
With Griffin coming out on fire, the Bears opened the game on a roll. Griffin hit three short passes and then fooled the Illinois defense with a fake to Finley and ran for 26 yards.
Facing second-and-7 at Illinois’ 19, disaster struck for the Bears when Griffin’s lateral flew over Jarred Salubi’s hands. Illinois’ Travon Bellamy picked up the ball and raced down the right sideline for 46 yards before Griffin tackled him at Baylor’s 28.
“We came out of the gates hot, had a good return and had a good drive going,” Briles said. “Then we had an unfortunate mishap which allowed them to get a little confidence and feel good and made us have to play from behind.”
Baylor’s defense held Illinois without a first down, but Derek Dimke nailed a 38-yard field goal for the first score of the game with 11:03 left in the first quarter.
After the Bears failed to move on their next possession, Illinois drove 57 yards behind Scheelhaase’s passing and Leshoure’s running.
Scheelhaase kicked the drive into gear with an 11-yard pass to Jarred Fayson before Leshoure broke loose for 16 yards. Scheelhaase picked up another first down with his 13-yard pass to A.J. Jenkins for a first down on Baylor’s 17.
Once again, Baylor’s defense held the Fighting Illini out of the end zone, but Dimke drilled a 28-yard field goal to push Illinois’ lead to 6-0 with 3:45 left in the first quarter.
The Bears picked up some momentum when Josh Gordon returned the kickoff 43 yards to Baylor’s 44. But Griffin and Finley failed to connect on a handoff on third-and-3.
Finley recovered the fumble, but the Bears failed to get a first down.
“We didn’t get our defense off the field,” Griffin said. “They rushed for almost 300 yards, but our offense has to take responsibility, too. It was extremely frustrating.”
Illini take control
After Derek Epperson’s punt to the 9, the Fighting Illini drove 65 yards, highlighted by Scheelhaase’s 32-yard pass to a leaping Darius Millines.
Illinois moved to Baylor’s 26 when Scheelhaase hit a 15-yard pass to Leshoure to Baylor’s 26. The play set up Dimke’s third field goal, a 43-yarder that give Illinois a 9-0 lead with 13:51 left in the second quarter.
It kept getting worse for Baylor when Wright dropped a third-down pass from Griffin. Once again, the Bears had to punt, and this time Illinois put together its best drive of the first half as it moved 86 yards on seven plays for the first touchdown of the game.
The biggest play of the drive was Scheelhaase’s 52-yard pass to Ryan Lankford, who was hauled down by Mikail Baker at the 5. On the next play, Leshoure roared around the right side for a 5-yard touchdown to push Illinois’ lead to 16-0 with 9:42 left in the first half.
The Bears played without Nicholas Jean-Baptise and Zac Scotton, two key defensive linemen who were out with injuries.
‘It wasn’t enough’
“We played more physical teams than Illinois,” Baylor defensive tackle Phil Taylor said. “But we struggled to contain them. Leshoure is a great back, and he got most of his yards outside.”
The Bears finally got something going offensively when they moved 65 yards.
But after Tevin Reese ran 17 yards to Illinois’ 32 following a lateral from Griffin, the Bears self-destructed again as Griffin fumbled and Akeem Spence recovered to stop the threat with 1:39 left in the first half.
After getting back into the game in the second half, the Bears couldn’t keep the momentum going and walked off the field with a disappointing loss in their first bowl game in 16 years.
“We got our heads together in the locker room at halftime,” Watkins said. “We got some momentum together, but it wasn’t enough.”