NCF Nation: 2011-Kraft-Fight-Hunger-Keys

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl: Keys for UCLA

December, 30, 2011
12/30/11
7:30
PM ET
What are the three keys for UCLA against Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on New Year's Eve? Glad you asked.

1.Care: The first step toward winning this game is really caring about winning this game. Both teams fired their coaches. Both teams had extremely disappointing seasons. Both teams looked awful late in the year. Both teams suspended players for various reasons after the season ended. Many of the players on the field are going to play hard because that is who they are: Competitors caught in a tough situation who never mail it in because competitors never do. But some won't. If you watch closely, in fact, you'll be able to say, "Did you see that? He didn't even try!"

2. Run and stop the run: Neither team passes the ball well. In fact, neither team is very good on offense period. But both teams' best weapon is running the ball, even if the Illini's leading rusher, Jason Ford, is academically ineligible. If one team is decisively better running the ball -- and doesn't turn the ball over a bunch -- it's going to win this game.

3. Block Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus: Illinois has a good defense that is led by a great player in defensive end Whitney Mercilus. He led the nation in sacks (14.5) and forced fumbles (9). He's a beast and fun to watch. And guess what? One of the guys who will try to block him much of the night -- along with senior tackle Mike Harris -- will be a former walk-on making his first career start: junior Brett Downey. The Bruins' offensive line, in fact, has issues with sophomore guard Alberto Cid academically ineligible and Chris Ward and Wade Yandall out with injuries. Have Mercilus!
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.

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