HOUSTON (AP) – Illinois figured the best way to beat Baylor would be to establish the run early.
Mikel Leshoure had 184 yards rushing and a career-high three touchdowns, and Illinois earned its first bowl victory since 1999 with a 38-14 win over Baylor on Wednesday night in the Texas Bowl.
Illinois finished with 291 yards rushing and 533 yards of total offense to give coach Ron Zook his first bowl win as a head coach in his fourth try.
The Illini spoiled the Bears’ first bowl appearance in 16 seasons. Both teams finished 7-6.
Leshoure, who set five school records, had a 5-yard TD run in the second quarter, a 13-yard score in the third quarter and another 5-yard touchdown run in the fourth.
The performance gave him school records for single-season rushing yards (1,697), single-season scoring (122 points), total touchdowns in a season (20), 100-yard rushing games in a season (9) and consecutive 100-yard games (5).
“I can’t even really put it into words,” he said. “First of all winning and … now that it’s the end of the season and I found out I broke those records it feels good. I’m proud of myself and I’m proud of my teammates and coaches.”
The Illini built a 24-0 lead and Leshoure’s last touchdown put the game out of reach.
Zook was informed late in the game that Leshoure needed 23 yards to set the rushing record.
“All we had to do was tell the offensive line and (quarterback) Nathan (Scheelhaase) that … and they did the rest,” Zook said.
Baylor’s Robert Griffin III threw for 306 yards and a touchdown, but his two fumbles in the first half put the Bears behind.
Baylor coach Art Briles couldn’t focus on the strides his team made this season in finishing with its first winning record since 1995.
“It’s hard right now. It really is,” he said. “Anytime 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.”
Senior safety Byron Landor was more optimistic.
“I am pretty happy about the future of Baylor,” he said. “I think we have sent them in the right direction. It’s something that in 16 years hasn’t happened so it’s a great honor.”
Leshoure was chosen the MVP and wore a cowboy hat as he hoisted the trophy above his head after the game while a small but vocal group of Illinois fans cheered. He kept the hat on when he spoke to reporters after the game.
“I like the hat,” he said, grinning. “It’s my first cowboy hat. I’ll use it as a souvenir and I might wear it out sometime.”
The Bears cut the lead to 24-14 when Griffin found a diving Kendall Wright on a 39-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-14 early in the fourth quarter.
Scheelhaase, a freshman, got off to a sensational start, completing all of his 13 passes in the first half, and finished 18 of 23 for 242 yards. He scored on a 55-yard touchdown run with 41 seconds to play to make it 38-14. His 13 completions were the most to start a game in school history.
“I didn’t realize I was 13 for 13,” he said. “We just talk about one play at a time. When we just go out there and focus on one play, we can do good things.”
Illinois opened the second half with an 87-yard drive capped by a 13-yard touchdown run by Leshoure. Leshoure also scored the 2-point conversion to extend the lead to 24-0.
Baylor finally found its offensive touch on its first possession of the second half. Griffin completed five of seven passes on that drive, which ended with a 4-yard touchdown run by Jay Finley to pull the Bears to 24-7 with about eight minutes remaining in the third quarter.
The Illini held Finley in check for most of the night and Baylor’s 1,000-yard rusher finished with 12 carries for 63 yards.
Illinois led 9-0 before a 5-yard touchdown run by Leshoure about 10 minutes before halftime stretched the lead to 16-0. That score was set up by a 52-yard reception by Ryan Lankford a play earlier.
Baylor was driving with about 3 1/2 minutes left in the first half when a pass by Griffin was intercepted by Terry Hawthorne. But the Bears got a second chance when Corey Liuget was penalized for roughing the passer, giving Baylor the ball back.
The Bears still came away empty, though, when Griffin fumbled a few plays later to give Illinois the ball back on its own 32.
“We had a good scheme coming in but they executed better than we did and that’s why we didn’t win the game,” said Griffin, who set Baylor’s career passing record with 6,073 yards.
Baylor’s problems started early with Griffin fumbling on the first possession. Travon Bellamy recovered and returned it 46 yards. The Illini couldn’t get anything going on that drive and settled for a 38-yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead.
“We were very unstable early in the game,” Briles said. “We let a good chance for momentum get away on the opening drive.”
(© Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)