The Associated Press
HOUSTON — Robert Griffin III had plenty of time to set goals for this year while sitting out most of last season recovering from knee surgery.
High on that list was getting Baylor back to a bowl game for the first time in 16 seasons.
On Wednesday, Baylor’s star quarterback hopes to scratch another goal off that list. The Bears look for their first bowl win since 1992 when they face Illinois in the Texas Bowl.
“It’s great because we haven’t been in a bowl in forever,” Griffin said. “Our fans are excited and it’s on the national stage so people get to see us play and we get to make a statement.”
A win against Illinois would give the Bears eight wins for the first time since 1991 and double their win total from a year ago, when Griffin tore his right ACL in the third game of the season.
“When I first got here, I thought it would be easy to get back to a bowl game – six wins was nothing in my opinion,” Griffin said. “I had a rude awakening. But we worked hard to get to where we are now, so we take pride in where we are now and not just being here but getting a win.”
After almost a year of grueling rehabilitation, Griffin returned this season to lead the Bears and set five single-season school records. His 3,195 yards passing, 3,795 yards of total offense, 144.23 pass efficiency rating, 66.3 completion percentage and 29 touchdowns are all tops in Baylor history.
He said the thought of helping his team gain respectability drove him during his recovery.
“When you go through an ACL rehab you have to make a decision early on whether or not you want to be great or not and if I didn’t love the game of football, I wouldn’t have been back,” he said. “So I knew I had to give it my all because not only was my talent needed, but there was a lot of people relying on me to be back and be better than I ever was.”
Baylor coach Art Briles, who is looking for his first bowl win as a head coach, was impressed with the work Griffin put in to get back on the field and he thinks the time away may have helped him.
“I think from an emotional standpoint, I think he really grew as an individual,” Briles said. “From a schematic standpoint and understanding the game of football, I think it helped him letting the game set aside, slow down, watch and see how things happen, why they happen and where they’re going to happen.”
Illinois coach Ron Zook, who is also winless in bowl games, has been working to get his defense ready for the challenge of Griffin and Baylor’s offense.
“They’re going to get yards,” he said. “Obviously, you’re not going to stop them. You’ve got to try and slow them down. I think the defense has put together a great plan, I think the guys are prepared. I think this extra time on them has helped a little bit hopefully.”
Baylor’s offense received a boost this season with the emergence of running back Jay Finley. Finley has 1,155 yards rushing this season for the second-best performance in Baylor history. He needs 33 yards to set the school’s single-season record.
Illinois is also in a bowl win drought with its last bowl victory coming in 1999. The Illini won six games this season to double their win total from last year behind running back Mikel Leshoure and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.
Leshoure led the Big Ten with 1,513 yards rushing, which ranks second in school history, and needs 169 yards against Baylor to break the record. His best game this season came in a win against Northwestern at Wrigley Field, when he set a school record with 330 yards rushing.
Scheelhaase, who has set many freshman school records, has thrown for 1,583 yards and 17 touchdowns with eight interceptions. In the team’s six wins this season he has thrown for 808 yards with 10 touchdowns and just one interception and ran for 449 yards and another score.
“As we’ve said from the very beginning with Nathan, he’s going to get better with every game, with every snap, with every game plan,” Zook said. “I think it’s a great job what the coaches have done with him … he doesn’t care what he has to do. He doesn’t care who gets the credit. He just wants to win the games. That’s why he’s going to be a special guy.”
Zook knows that this game will be like a home game for Baylor with the drive from Waco to Reliant Stadium being less than 200 miles, but he’s hoping his team responds well to being the visitors.
“Our guys enjoy that kind of environment, they enjoy that kind of situation, and we’ve got to feed off of their energy,” he said.
Baylor (7-5) vs. Illinois (6-6), 6 p.m. Wednesday on ESPN
- Series Record: Baylor, 1-0.
- Last Meeting: 1976, Baylor 34-19.
What’s at Stake
Baylor has a chance to collect eight wins for the first time since 1991. In their first bowl appearance since 1994, the Bears are looking for their first bowl win since 1992. A win in the Texas Bowl would be the first bowl win for Illinois since 1999 – the team is in its first bowl game since 2008.
Baylor RB Jay Finley and Illinois RB Mikel Leshoure against the opposing run defenses. Finley has 1,155 yards rushing this season and needs just 33 yards to set Baylor’s single season rushing record. Leshoure’s 1,513 yards rushing led the Big 10 and his more than 126 yards rushing a game are eighth in the nation. The Texas Bowl could be his last college game as the junior explores leaving early for the NFL draft. Illinois is allowing more than 131 yards rushing a game and the Bears are giving up more than 160.
Players to Watch
Baylor: QB Robert Griffin. Griffin bounced back from an ACL injury that cost him most of last season to throw for 3,195 yards and 21 touchdowns and run for 591 yards and eight more scores. He is seventh in the nation with almost 316 yards of total offense a game and accounted for all but 17 of Baylor’s offensive touchdowns this season.
Illinois: QB Nathan Scheelhaase. He set the Illinois freshman records for passing yards (1,538), touchdown passes (17) and yards rushing by a quarterback (815). The dual-threat quarterback needs just 28 yards rushing to set the Illinois record for yards rushing by a freshman at any position that was set in 1944.
Facts and Figures
Leshoure needs 169 yards to break the Illinois single-season rushing record of 1,681 yards set by Rashard Mendenhall in 2007. … Illinois coach Ron Zook was 3-0 in bowl games as a player at Miami of Ohio but is 0-3 in them as a head coach. … This year is Baylor’s first winning season since 1995 when the Bears finished 7-4 but did not receive a bowl invitation. … Baylor coach Art Briles is also 0-3 as a head coach in bowl games. He lost all three bowl games as coach at Houston before leaving to take over at Baylor before Houston’s 2007 trip to Texas Bowl.
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