Tuesday, December 6, 2011
First look: Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl
By Peter Yoon
At first glance, there might not be a bigger dud on the bowl schedule than UCLA and Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
UCLA (6-7) has stumbled to the postseason with losses in three of its last four games. It needed a special waiver from the NCAA to become only the second team to participate in a bowl game with a losing record.
Illinois (6-6) also staggered to the finish line by losing its last six games after becoming bowl eligible Oct. 8, when the Fighting Illini were 6-0.
Add in the fact both schools fired their head coaches in consecutive days last week, and it's not exactly shaping up as a matchup of teams on a roll.
"I think it’s two teams that have gone down similar paths," UCLA interim coach Mike Johnson said.
Johnson, who is taking over for Rick Neuheisel, is at least committed to coaching the Bruins through the Bowl game. The same can't be said for Illinois interim coach Vic Koenning, who took over for Ron Zook and acknowledged Sunday he didn't know if he or the eight other coaches on staff would still be around by Dec. 31, as most are pursuing other employment.
"I wouldn't say all nine are committed to be here," he said. "If they have a job offer and need to be there, I'd say they will go."
Whoever is coaching for Illinois will have to figure out what is wrong with the Illini offense. Illinois has scored only 66 points during its losing streak -- an average of 11 points per game. The Illini averaged 34.6 in their first six games.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is a dual threat with 1,971 yards passing and 514 yards rushing this season. Running the ball is Illinois' calling card, and it has four rushers with at least 400 yards this season. The Illini rank No. 42 in the nation with 171.17 yards rushing per game.
The passing game is far from prolific, with only 187 yards per game, but receiver A.J. Jenkins is among the best in the Big Ten. He leads the conference with seven receptions per game and is second with 99.67 yards receiving per game.
The offensive line has plenty of size, averaging 6-6, 312 pounds across the starting five, but they have struggled in pass protection and have given up 2.92 sacks per game to rank No. 106 in the nation.
But where the Illini struggle on offense, they are among the best defensive teams in the nation. They rank No. 7 in total defense, giving up only 291.75 total yards per game and are No. 4 in the nation against the pass, giving up only 159.08 yards per game through the air.
Defensive end Whitney Mercilus is a finalist for the Bronco Nagurski Trophy honoring the nation's top defensive player. The 6-4, 265 junior leads the nation with 14.5 sacks and is tied for fifth in the nation with 19.5 tackles for a loss.
Linebacker Jonathan Brown is also a force. A 6-1, 235 pound sophomore, Brown leads the team with 102 tackles and has 19 tackles for a loss. As a team, Illinois ranks No. 5 in the nation in tackles for a loss and has given up only 20.08 points per game. The Illini held Wisconsin to season lows of 285 yards and 28 points Nov. 19.
UCLA has a four-game win streak against Illinois. The last time they met was in 2004 when the Bruins won, 35-17. They have met in three previous bowl games, with the Illini winning the 1947 Rose Bowl 45-15, and the Bruins winning the 1984 Rose Bowl 45-9, behind a stellar four-touchdown performance by Neuheisel, the Bruins' quarterback at the time.
The last bowl meeting was a 6-3 UCLA victory in a field-goal battle in the 1991 Hancock Bowl. Coincidentally, Illinois went through a coaching change before that bowl as well, with Lou Tepper taking over when John Mackovic left the Illini for the head coaching job at Texas. That game also took place on New Year's Eve.