After the final whistle blew in Baylor’s Wednesday night Texas Bowl matchup with Illinois, coach Art Briles tried as hard as he could to appreciate the progress his team made this season.
“It’s hard right now. It really is,” he said. “Any time you don’t get the result that’s desired, it doesn’t feel good. It’s a bad feeling. It’s a bad feeling to have your face turned red.”
While the Bears’s 2010 campaign ended their 16-year bowl drought, the team’s last memory will be a 38-14 loss and an 18th consecutive year without a Baylor bowl victory.
“It’s a great honor, but I just feel that when you get this close to winning [a bowl game], it makes it a lot harder. Just getting here wasn’t good enough for me. I think we’re a better team than that, but it happens,” senior Byron Landor said.
A slow start, early mistakes and an overwhelming Illini running game eventually sealed the game’s fate.
Sophomore Robert Griffin III threw for 322 yards and a touchdown, but Illinois junior Mikel Leshoure took Texas Bowl Most Valuable Player honors for his 184 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 29 attempts.
The Bears’ game-opening possession looked strong before crashing to a halt. From the Illini 19-yard line, Griffin’s second down screen pass attempt to Jarred Salubi went high and was considered a fumble, which was returned to the Baylor 28-yard line.
From there Illinois built a 9-0 lead while holding Baylor to back-to-back three-and-outs. A third straight Bears’ three-and-out finally generated the game’s first touchdown, as Leshoure capped an 86-yard drive on a five-yard dash five minutes into the second quarter.
“I don’t think we got down as an offense,” Griffin said. “We had some miscues, but we knew that 16 points was nothing to us.”
After Baylor forced the first Illinois punt with 5:23 left in the first half, it appeared the Bears’ offense had shaken the rust off and returned to their familiar high-powered form.
Instead Griffin fumbled at the Illini 34-yard line, and later Aaron Jones’ 57-yard field goal attempt fell short to end a forgettable first half.
On paper and on the scoreboard, Illinois had Baylor completely shut down entering the locker room. Usually able to exploit the Bears’ deep pass threat, Griffin only gained 17 yards on his longest pass. A 1,000-yard rusher in 2010, senior Jay Finley had just 12 net yards.
“They played a little looser than what they had on tape in the secondary and with their linebackers. There were a lot more three-man fronts than what they’ve done before. They actually started a couple new guys personnel wise,” Briles said, adding that it was hard to find an offense rhythm after the opening drive.
Following the second half kickoff, Leshoure scored his second touchdown of the game, accounting for 32 of the drive’s 87 yards, to put his team ahead 24-0.
Then the Bears finally showed signs of life.
Baylor answered with its own 11-play, 73-yard drive ending in a four-yard rush from Finley and cutting the deficit to 24-7. The teams exchanged punts, and Kendall Wright hauled in a 39-yard touchdown pass over the middle that further shrank the lead to 24-14.
From there the Bears forced another Illini punt but quickly found themselves with a 4th and 1 from their own 21-yard line and 10:15 left in the game. Briles elected to punt, although he did consider going for it.
“My memories on fourth down right now are not that good. If you would’ve asked me the fifth game of the year, we’d probably have jumped in there and gone for it,” he said.
The ensuing possession became Leshoure’s third and final touchdown of the night. Scheelhaasse added his team’s final score on a 55-yard naked bootleg run with under a minute remaining.
After the game, several key Baylor components hung up their cleats for the final time as Bears. They left with disappointment but were also reminded by coaches and teammates how important their contributions were to Baylor’s first winning season since 1991.
“Honestly, if it wasn’t for that, I’d probably be crying right now. I’d probably be said, but right now, I’m optimistic. I’m happy about the direction we went Baylor,” Landor said.
As for those returning next season, another bowl bid is priority number one.
“That’s paramount. No matter how many times you get to a bowl game, the goal is always to get back,” Griffin said. So once again next year, those six wins will be the goal to start off, and then the sky is the limit from there.”
But as Briles said, the bright lights and nerves inherent with the team’s first bowl game left no explanation for not seizing the opportunity Wednesday night.
“That would be close to doing one of the things we won’t do and that’s no excuses, no complaints, no comparisons,” Briles said.