Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin once gave a thought to Illinois football, but now he faces them in his school's first bowl appearance in 16 years.

 

Baylor sophomore quarterback Robert Griffin fave a thought to a recruiting pitch years ago from Illinois, even though it's anybody's guess just how serious he took the Illini as a high school spread quarterback from Copperas Cove, Texas.

There's the distance from the campus here to Copperas Cove, Texas, just outside of Fort Hood. Then there was the remaining eligibility remaining with Illini star Juice Williams.

"At the time, they still had Juice,'' Griffin said Friday. "That's the only reason I didn't go there. I didn't want to sit on the bench. I'm not that kind of player. I wanted to go some place where I could play early. It would have been a fun thing to do. In the end, it was also too far away from home.''

One thing's for certain. It would be much easier playing with Griffin than against him when Illinois (6-6) faces Baylor (7-5) in the Texas Bowl in Houston on Dec. 29 (5 p.m., ESPN).

Baylor's first bowl appearance in 16 years could be traced to the hiring of coach Art Briles, a Texas high school legend who guided Stephenville to four state championships. It also leads to Griffin, the son of two retired U.S. military personnel who grew up down the road from school in Waco, Texas.

The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Griffin is Denard Robinson, except bigger than the Michigan quarterback. He's Terrelle Pryor, except a more accomplished passer than the Ohio State star. And he's probably faster than both of them. As a 17-year-old who graduated high school a semester early, Griffin won the 400-meter hurdles at the Big 12 Conference meet and placed third at the NCAA championships. He reached the semifinals at the U.S. Olympic trials in 2008.

A redshirt sophomore who recovered from a knee injury that ended his season after three games a year ago, Griffin completed 66.3 percent of his passes for 3,195 yards and 21 touchdowns with eight interceptions. He also rushed for 591 yards and eight touchdowns, ranking seventh in the nation in total offense at 315.5 yards per game.

"Y'all seen some great quarterbacks, without a doubt,'' Briles said. "Robert is a focused, driven individual. That's the reason where we're at today. The guy that says, 'Down, hut' is going in the right direction.''

Baylor ranked 12th nationally in total offense (478.5 yards per game) and 29th in scoring offense (32.6 points per game). Remarkably, Baylor first showed little interest in Griffin. As a high school junior, he drove an hour from his home to Baylor for a game against Kansas.

According to Griffin, former Baylor coach Guy Morriss walked past without saying a word. Baylor eventually offered Griffin a chance to walk on.

"That led me away from Baylor,'' Griffin said. "I had a lot of other offers. I wanted to go somewhere to play early and often. Houston was the best fit for me.''

Turning down Stanford, Texas and Tennessee, he chose the resurgent Cougars, coached by Briles, because he felt Houston would keep him at quarterback rather than switch him to defense or receiver. Briles' success led him to interest from Baylor, who had fired Morriss. Griffin needed to know what was going on.

"I texted him a called him a couple times,'' Griffin said. "He told me not to worry about it. They were just rumors. Take care of my business in high school. The next day, I saw on doing the 'Sic 'em Bears' on the TV. I knew I probably wasn't going to Houston. I felt that I would eventually end up at Baylor.''

He quickly heard comparisons to former Texas quarterback Vince Young, except they said he was faster than Young and had a better arm. Proving himself to truly be a dual-threat quarterback, Griffin set an NCAA freshman record by throwing 209 passes without an interception in 2008. He threw for 125 yards in the season opener as the backup, then started the rest of the season. The Bears were fast-tracking to a bowl game last season before Griffin injured his knee.

"I think the general understanding was last year could have been the year for us to get to a bowl,'' said Griffin, who graduated in three years with a political science degree Saturday.

In that bowl just 188 miles from campus with Baylor colors filling roughly 60,000 seats (and less than 10,000 in orange), Griffin and Baylor gets a bowl game against a school he considered.

"We were trying to spot a football player who ran the offense we used,'' Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "That's why you look at a guy like that. I don't know how serious he was. He looked at us early. He wanted to stay close to home. We faced two (quarterbacks like Griffin). We haven't had a lot of success. He's a combination of both of them.''