Illinois is bowling! I couldn’t be happier to swallow my 5-7 season prediction, as the Illini outperformed my expectations despite the disappointing Senior Day loss to Northwestern. The Fighting Illini will learn about their eventual bowl destination after conference championship weekend. But in the meantime, let’s take a stroll down memory lane and recap some of Illinois’ recent bowl games.
Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl (2014)
Illinois 18 - Louisiana Tech 35
Illinois’ last bowl invite brought them out down to the Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas, Texas to take on the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. The Illini came into the game riding back-to-back Big Ten wins against the Penn State Nittany Lions and Northwestern Wildcats, but they struggled mightily against a LA Tech team that took an early lead and never looked back. Illinois was led by senior quarterback Reilly O’Toole, whose emergence against Penn State just a few weeks prior had turned the tide of the entire season, along with Josh Ferguson at tailback and the duo of Mike Dudek and Malik Turner at receiver.
Even with this impressive collection of offensive talent at their disposal, offensive coordinator Bill Cubit was powerless to stop LA Tech defensive lineman and former Illini Houston Bates, who had graduate-transferred to Louisiana Tech that season. Bates had one of the most impressive individual defensive performances against the Illini in recent memory, racking up 5.5 TFLs, including 4.5 sacks, for a total of 35 yards. LA Tech pulled away in the fourth quarter after a valiant effort by the Illini.
Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (2011)
Illinois 20 - UCLA 14
The 2011 campaign will always be remembered as a tale of two seasons, since Illinois started the season 6-0 and rose as high as No. 16 in the rankings, but then proceeded to end the season 0-6, which included tough losses against a number of good teams, including the Ohio State Buckeyes (7-17), Penn State Nittany Lions (7-10), and Wisconsin Badgers (17-28). Nevertheless, head coach Ron Zook was relieved of his duties at the end of the season, leaving defensive coordinator Vic Koenning as the interim head coach for the bowl game. In spite of the loss of their head coach, the Illini players’ spirits were high:
Illinois’ opponent in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl was in a similar situation, as the UCLA Bruins had fired their head coach, Rick Neuheisel, at the end of their season as well. The Bruins were granted a special waiver from the NCAA to play in a bowl game despite being under .500, as they were defeated by the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 Championship Game, bringing them to a final season record of 6-7 when bowl selections were made.
The game itself was fairly uneventful, as both teams struggled to gain traction on offense, especially in the first half. The Bruins scored first with a touchdown in the second quarter, while Illini kicker Derek Dimke hit a 36-yard field goal as time expired in the first half to take a 3-7 deficit into the locker room. The game stalled again until nearly the end of the third quarter, when Illinois cornerback Terry Hawthorne intercepted a Kevin Prince pass and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown. Illinois’ offense picked up another field goal at the beginning of the fourth quarter, followed by a massive 60-yard touchdown pass from Nathan Scheelhaase to A.J. Jenkins, extending Illinois’ lead to 20-7. UCLA scored with about 30 seconds on the clock, bringing the final score to 20-14.
Texas Bowl (2010)
Illinois 38 - Baylor 14
Though the Illini only finished the 2010 season at 6-6, they notched a few impressive victories along the way, including a win over the eventual 11-3 Northern Illinois Huskies, a 33-13 road victory at Beaver Stadium over Penn State on their homecoming, and a resounding 48-27 victory over No. 25 Northwestern in front of College GameDay at Wrigley Field. However, these successes were balanced by close losses at Michigan (65-67, 3OT), against Minnesota (34-38), and at Fresno State (23-25).
Illinois’ opponent in the Texas Bowl, the Baylor Bears, were beginning to emerge as a national power under the now infamous head coach Art Briles. The Bears were led on the field by an impressive junior quarterback named Robert Griffin III, who would go on to prominence in his Heisman-winning senior season and in the NFL.
The Illini largely dominated the game from start to finish, as Illinois led 16-0 at halftime after three straight Derek Dimke field goals and a Mikel Leshoure 5-yard touchdown run, which was set up by a 52-yard reception by freshman receiver Ryan Lankford. Illinois kept its momentum coming out of halftime, as Leshoure scored again on a 13-yard rush. Baylor then scored its only points through a Jay Finley 4-yard rushing touchdown and a 39-yard touchdown pass from RGIII to Kendall Wright. Leshoure responded with his third rushing touchdown, Dinke hit another field goal, and Nathan Scheelhaase scored on a 52-yard bootleg run to deliver a 38-14 victory against a very talented Baylor squad.
As for the 2019 bowl game, we’ll find out our destination later in the week. Regardless of the place or opponent, I can’t think of a more deserving group of players than the 2019 Fighting Illini, who will be able to enjoy their first bowl game of hopefully many more to come in the near future.