Chicago Colleges: 2011 Hunger Bowl

Illini offense could have new look in bowl

December, 28, 2011
Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase views the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl as the start of a new season.

It's hard to blame him. The Illini offense needs a fresh start after flat-lining in its final six games. According to Scheelhaase, the unit will look a bit different against UCLA on Saturday in San Francisco.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanConsistency will be a major focus for Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase next season.
Quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm has taken over the play-calling duties for offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, who earlier this month left for the same position at Arkansas. Brohm has spent the past few weeks installing some new elements for a unit that averaged just 11 points and 268.7 yards during the second-half slide.

"It's a little bit like preparing for your first game," Scheelhaase told this week. "Every team has stuff that they ran from last year, and for us, we had stuff that we ran from the season. But there's a lot of new things that we've installed, a lot of new stuff we're running going into this game that should put the defense on their heels a little bit.

"I think it will be a big benefit for us."

Brohm's knowledge of the personnel helped him implement some new wrinkles with the offense, and Scheelhaase said the amount of install didn't overwhelm him and his fellow teammates.

It's critical for Illinois to put Scheelhaase in favorable positions in the bowl game. The sophomore recorded fewer than 100 pass yards in three of his final four games and split time with freshman Reilly O'Toole. Scheelhaase also struggled down the stretch last year but made significant strides against Baylor in the Texas Bowl, completing 18-of-23 attempts for 242 yards in a 38-14 Illini win.

"My confidence really doesn't waver," Scheelhaase said. "That's due to preparation and due to just a strong work ethic. That part doesn't change. You've just got to make sure the rest of the guys around you are keeping their confidence.

"We've still got the players, we've still got the talent and it helps that we're doing some new things right now."

Illinois can't escape the disappointment from the way the regular season ended, but the team can still make a bit of history Saturday afternoon at AT&T Park. The Illini have a chance to win back-to-back bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time.

A victory would be a nice springboard for Scheelhaase and the other players set to return and play for new coach Tim Beckman in 2012.

"To win back-to-back bowl games, no other quarterback that's come through this school has done that," Scheelhaase said. "To do that in the first two years would be a heck of an accomplishment. And the guys around me have the same thing in mind, to be a part of something special."

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl

December, 5, 2011
Illinois Fighting Illini (6-6) vs. UCLA Bruins (6-7)

Dec. 31, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Illinois take from Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett: A bowl game is a San Francisco treat for Illinois, which lost its final six games of the season and fired head coach Ron Zook.

The Illini secured bowl eligibility on Oct. 8, beating Indiana to improve to 6-0 and move into the top 20 of the polls. From there came a stunning free fall, thanks in large part to an offense that forgot how to move the ball; Illinois scored just 66 total points in its final six games after averaging nearly 30 in the first half of the season. The offensive line is a mess, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase seems to have regressed in his sophomore year.

The one constant was the defense. Defensive end Whitney Mercilus leads the nation in sacks (14.5) and forced fumbles (nine, a Big Ten record). No wonder, then, that defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was named interim head coach when the school canned Zook. But Koenning says there's no guarantee that he and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino won't leave for other employment before the bowl game.

The Illini's finish made them so unappealing that they got shut out of the Big Ten's bowl lineup. So San Francisco is a nice landing spot, and UCLA -- a 6-7 team that also fired its head coach --- seems like the most fitting opponent.

UCLA take from Pac-12 blogger Ted Miller: UCLA is heading to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl with an interim coach and losing record. Yeah, it's been that kind of season.

Coach Rick Neuheisel began the season on the hot seat and he couldn't get off it. Only once could the Bruins win consecutive games. The offense ran the ball well but struggled to find any balance with a consistent passing game. And the defense was just terrible.

Things got off to a bad start with a loss at Houston. Neuheisel had made a big deal in the preseason of how important the game was, and the Bruins had stomped the Cougars the previous year. But the Bruins got off to a slow start and couldn't finish a comeback. Then, after a win over San Jose State, the Bruins got clubbed at home by Texas, another team they had beaten the year before.

Then they started alternating wins and losses, beating Oregon State, losing to Stanford and beating Washington State. Things cratered -- it seemed -- in a loss at Arizona, which had just fired coach Mike Stoops.

But then the Bruins beat California and Arizona State back-to-back. Both were upsets. And the combination suddenly put the Bruins in the drivers' seat of the reeling South Division. But the Bruins couldn't maintain. They lost to Utah, beat Colorado and then got crushed 50-0 against rival USC.

The UCLA coach needs to be competitive with the Trojans, and Neuheisel wasn't on Nov. 26 and hasn’t been during his tenure. So he was fired, even though the Bruins backed into the Pac-12 title game. The loss to Oregon dropped the Bruins to 6-7, but they nonetheless will play in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl after the NCAA granted it a waiver.