Friday, December 30, 2011
Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl: Illinois vs. UCLA
By Brian Bennett
One team lost its final six games and fired its coach. The other team finished with a losing record and fired its coach. Still, they're both going to play a bowl game in San Francisco, and one team has to win it. Let's take a look at the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl essentials:
WHO TO WATCH: Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus. The junior leads the nation with 14.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles. He showed up on everybody's All-America team and will almost certainly head to the NFL after this game. So he may be primed to go out with a bang against a UCLA offensive line that is decent but not overpowering. Bruins tackle Jeff Baca may need some help containing the explosive Mercilus off the edge.
WHAT TO WATCH: The Illini defense has been strong all season, but can the offense generate anything? After starting the season well, Illinois averaged just 11 points per game in its six straight losses to end the year. The offensive line was a mess, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase appeared to lose his confidence -- not surprising, considering how little time he was given to throw. Leading rusher Jason Ford is academically ineligible for the bowl, and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino bolted for Arkansas, leaving quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm in charge of the playcalling. If Scheelhaase can get some protection, he has one of the top receiving threats in the country in A.J. Jenkins. But that's a big if.
WHY TO WATCH: Well, you need something to do while getting ready to go out for New Year's Eve, right? We can't pretend this isn't one of the least appealing bowl matchups, given the complete lack of momentum or enthusiasm on either side. But, hey, it's still a Pac-12 vs. Big Ten meeting in California, even if this is about as far away from the Rose Bowl as you can get. Both teams have talent and tradition, and both will be looking to impress their new incoming head coaches.
PREDICTION: Illinois 17, UCLA 9. I have little confidence in the Illini's ability to do much offensively. But the Illinois defense will be the best unit on the field and should be motivated to play for Vic Koenning, the defensive coordinator/interim head coach who is leaving after the game. It probably won't be pretty -- except for the background shots of San Francisco.