By Matt Larsen
It has been a momentary breath of fresh air for the Bears since their last regular season game on Nov. 20, but this year the breath is shorter than it has been in 16 seasons as they look to down the Fighting Illini Dec. 29 in the Texas Bowl.
“We have a great opponent in Illinois. They have done some fabulous things this year on the football field,” head coach Art Briles said. “Coach (Ron) Zook is very well respected in the coaching circles around the country.”
In his sixth season coaching the Illini, Zook’s squad experienced down years in 2008 and 2009 after an eye-catching, nine-win season in 2007 that ended in a trip to the 2008 Rose Bowl. Zook received numerous Coach of the Year honors that year.
The last two have been less convincing, as 2008 and 2009 saw a combined seven Illini wins.
Like the Bears, who closed the season with three losses, the Illini did not finish their season on a high note, losing three of their last four. Most recently the team lost 25-23 at Fresno State on Friday.
Also like the Bears, the Illini managed no big upsets in route to their improved but middle-of-the-conference finish, their biggest win coming in a 33-13 win over 7-5 Penn State.
Most of Zook’s Fighting Illini teams have been led by a rushing attack, and this edition is no different.
While both backfield starters have speed, junior running back Mikel LeShoure draws the most attention.
“Both those guys are really good,” Briles said. “The QB is a good runner. LeShoure is First-team All Conference. They are 13th in the nation in rushing the football, third in the nation in time of possession. Those are all factors that we will really look into.”
At 6 feet, 230 pounds, LeShoure combines speed and power in his running style.
He has picked up more than 1,500 yards this season while quarterback Nathan Scheelhasse has added 815 of his own.
Though playing in a pass-saturated Big 12, the Bears showed their ability to overcome a run-minded Kansas State team and the conference’s second-best rusher, Daniel Thomas, in a 47-42 win earlier this year.
Senior safety Byron Landor took advantage of the chance to scout the Illini last Friday.
“Actually they came on TV the other night and I texted all my roommates and told all of them ‘Make sure you watch the game,’” he said with a smile. “They are a running team; I think we have done a pretty good job with the run this year as a defense.”
The Illini offense has also been lights out in the red zone, finishing nearly 94 percent of red zone trips with points.
Defensively, Illinois brings a consistent and balanced approach. They sit at fifth in the Big Ten in total defense, giving up 344 yards a game, 131 rushing and 213 passing.
With their game Friday against Fresno State, the Illini’s schedule had them playing their last game two weeks later in the season than the Bears.
Unlike Landor, senior offensive tackle Danny Watkins chose to use this time to take a mini hiatus from football.
“I didn’t watch any football over the past week,” he said, smiling after his teammate’s comment about watching the Illinois-Fresno game. “We had a little shutdown there for a bit. It was nice to cool the jets so to speak. When we got on the field there [in Saturday’s practice], it was a good atmosphere. Everyone was juiced up, ready to go.”
Briles believes the rest has been just what the doctor ordered.
“We have a refocused, refreshed football team,” he said.