Illini offense, defense shine to put a positive spin on the end of the season following a blowout win over the Bears.


 Illinois football saved some of the best for last.

Behind red-hot quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, the power of running back Mikel Leshoure and a defense that shut down explosive Baylor, the Illini pulled away for a 38-14 victory in the Texas Bowl Wednesday at Reliant Stadium, providing a measure of momentum heading into 2011.

By grabbing their first bowl win in 11 years, the Illini finished at 7-6 record for the second winning record in the last nine seasons. The oddsmakers made Baylor a one-point favorite, but the bulk of Illini fans had their doubts.

"I don't know if there were a lot of people who gave us much of a chance in this game,'' Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "If you can prove people wrong, that's something where you get satisfaction.''

Deep in the Heart of Texas, Illinois dominated for the first 33 minutes by jumping to a 24-0 lead in the third quarter to put a shine on a season tarnished with three losses in the last four regular-season games.  Leshoure rushed for 184 yards and three touchdowns to break the school's single-season rushing record with 1,697 yards. He also set school records with 122 points and 20 touchdowns in a season.

"It shows hard work pays off,'' said Leshoure, holding the MVP trophy and wearing a white Stetson that also went to the game's top performer. "We came down here with the goal that it's business first. We proved ourselves and accomplished our goal.''

Mother Nature provided the thunder from a late afternoon thunderstorm that forced stadium officials to close the retractable roof, and the Illini produced the lightning. Placekicker Derek Dimke made field goals of 38, 28 and 43 yards, and Scheelhaase completed all of his 13 pass attempts in the first half for 170 yards. His 52-yarder to freshman Ryan Lankford set up Illinois for a 5-yard touchdown run by Leshoure and a 16-0 advantage.

Scheelhaase completed 18-for-23 for 242 yards, igniting the Illini to score on their first four possessions.

"That was great for Nathan,'' said offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. "People have been hard on him and how he throws the ball. He kept improving, and that's a great way to go into the offseason.''

At one point in the second quarter, Illinois compiled 225 total yards to Baylor's 56. The Illini carried a shutout into the third quarter against an offense that ranked 12th in the country. The layoff in December let the Illini rest and heal, and Illinois confused Baylor with varied formations.

"It lets our guys finish with a good feeling,'' said defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. "Our guys played as well as they could play tonight. We needed that. Baylor was the 12th-rated offense in the country. They had five or six guys who could who could break it on any play. Our guys played so fast and so hard.''

The Illini needed a win to salvage the program's second winning season in the six years under Zook. After winning five of the first eight games, Illinois lost three of its last four games in the regular season to frustrate the fan base. The victory was Zook's first in four bowl games (two at Illinois, two at Florida) and Illinois' first since since a 63-21 victory over Virginia in the Bowl in 1999.

"It gives us momentum and confidence, and we showed we can compete at a high level anywhere with anyone,'' Dimke said.

Baylor pulled within 24-14 on a 39-yard touchdown pass with 13:43 left on fourth-and-14 play, but the Illini defense produced a three-and-out on the next Baylor possession to turn momentum one last time.

Baylor (7-6) ended the season with a four-game losing streak. The Bears fumbled on the game's opening possession just as they were ready to enter the red zone, and Baylor never truly recovered.

"Any time you get a result that you don't desire, it doesn't feel good,'' said Baylor coach Art Briles. "It's a bad feeling to have your face turned red. Illinois has a good football team. They played well. They didn't turn the ball over. We did, and consequently they won the football game.''

NOTES: Scheelhaase's streak of 13 consecutive passes was the fourth longest in school history, trailing only 14-pass streaks thrown by Tony Eason and Jason Verduzco, who did it twice. . .  Leshoure surpassed 100 yards rushing in five straight games to set a school record. . . The Illini defense finished with a season-high 11 tackles for a loss. . . 

  Illinois report card Offense -- A- Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase bounced back from a bad game in the regular-season finale to produce agruably his best game of the season. He completed his first 13 passes, and running  back Mikel Leshoure pounded the Bears. Defense -- A+ Facing a quick-strike Baylor offense, Illinois pitched a shutout well into the third quarter. Following a late-season swoon, the Illini and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning enjoyed the last laugh. Special teams -- A Only a muffed punt in the fourth quarter marred an otherwise stellar performance. Derek Dimke set a school record with three field goals in a bowl game. Overall -- A Perhaps this is a reason why Illini fans are frustrated. The Illini are up and down. Nevertheless, Illinois finished the season with an impressive win to earn some momentum heading into the offseason.