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Friday, December 30, 2011
Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl: Illinois keys

By Adam Rittenberg

Let's take a look at three keys for Illinois heading into Saturday's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl matchup against UCLA.

1. Establish the run early: Top running back Jason Ford is out (academics), but Illinois still can establish the ground game against a UCLA defense ranked 95th nationally against the rush. The Bruins have surrendered more than 200 rush yards in seven games, including 352 in the Pac-12 championship against Oregon. Illinois freshman Donovonn Young has impressed in stretches and gets an opportunity to establish himself as the team's back of the future after missing the regular-season finale with an ankle injury. With fullback Jay Prosch also out (staph infection), Illinois really needs its offensive line to show up from the get-go. The line was supposed to be a strength for Illinois but has fallen short of expectations. If the Illini can get the ground game going early behind Young, Troy Pollard and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, they'll open up the pass attack with A.J. Jenkins.

2. Maintain motivation and composure: Both Illinois and UCLA are dealing with coaching transitions, suspensions and other turmoil. UCLA players recently skipped a practice. Many question how motivated the teams will be to play a minor bowl game before moving forward with new leading men (Tim Beckman and Jim Mora Jr., respectively). Illinois players say practice has gone well, and they will be playing for interim coach Vic Koenning, fired coach Ron Zook and themselves on Saturday. The Illini didn't handle adversity well down the stretch of the regular season and must keep their composure if things don't go well Saturday. Illinois must continue to limit penalties after tying for 22nd nationally in penalties per game (4.83). UCLA hasn't been nearly as disciplined, ranking 91st in penalties per game (6.85).

3. Contain UCLA's ground game: Illinois' defense will be the best unit on the field Saturday in San Francisco, but the Illini need a strong effort against the run. UCLA's rushing attack is the strength of its team, ranking 29th nationally (190.7 ypg). The Bruins have three players with more than 450 rushing yards, including quarterback Kevin Prince, who had 163 yards in a win against Cal earlier this season. Illinois struggled against the run down the stretch and needs a strong performance from a talented line featuring Whitney Mercilus, Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence. Defensive tackle Corey Liuget had a huge performance against Baylor in last year's bowl victory. It will be interesting to see if Spence can do the same against UCLA.