Pac-12: 2012 Hunger Bowl

Instant analysis: Illinois 20, UCLA 14

December, 31, 2011

UCLA needed a special NCAA waiver just to get into a bowl game. Illinois lost its final six games and had assistants threatening to boycott this game. Is it any wonder that the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl was, shall we say, a little ragged?

How the game was won: The Illinois offense disappeared over the second half of the season and didn't do a whole lot in this one, either. But the team's defense remained stout throughout the seaosn and was inspired to play hard for interim coach Vic Koenning, their former defensive coordinator. The Illini defense came up with a score, sacked UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince five times and allowed just 220 total yards. The Bruins' only points came when they got a short field in the first half and when they connected on a bomb with 29 seconds left and Illinois already starting to celebrate. Defense wins minor bowl championships.

Turning point: UCLA led 7-3 and the Illinois offense was completely stagnant late in the third quarter. That's when the Bruins provided a gift. Prince's sideline pass was picked off by cornerback Terry Hawthorne, who had nothing but open field in front of him as he ran it in for the 39-yard touchdown. Hawthorne never took his eyes off the quarterback, and Prince misread the coverage. That pick-six sapped the spirits of the Bruins and loosened things up for the Illini.

Player of the game: Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. His passing numbers weren't terribly impressive (18-for-30, 189 yards, one touchdown) and he struggled early on. But Scheelhaase took on the brunt of the running game with leading rusher Jason Ford suspended for this game, finishing with 110 yards on 22 carries. He also had a nine-yard catch, giving him more total yards than UCLA's entire offense.

Stat of the game: Thanks in large part to the sacks, Illinois outrushed UCLA 179-19.

Record performance: Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus was credited with 1.5 sacks, giving him a nation's best 16 this season. That tied the school record set by Simeon Rice. He got in on his second sack despite being held on the play. Mercilus was one of the most improved players in the nation this season and will almost certainly skip his senior year to enter the NFL Draft.

Strangest stat: UCLA finishes the season with eight losses, yet the Bruins played in a bowl game. It might be a while before we see that happen again.

Unsung hero: Illinois' Ryan Lankford. He averaged 45.6 yards on five punts, with two downed inside the 20. He also had three catches for 24 yards. Now that's versatility.

Best call: Midway through the fourth quarter, UCLA came after Scheelhaase on a blitz. But Illinois had the exact right call on: a slant pass to A.J. Jenkins. The one guy the Bruins couldn't leave open caught a short strike from Scheelhaase and glided in untouched for a 60-yard touchdown. The score became crucial when UCLA tacked on that touchdown in the final minute.

What it means: Not much of anything. Both programs will wake up on New Year's Day with new head coaches -- Jim Mora Jr. for UCLA, Tim Beckman for Illinois. So both teams will mostly have a blank slate, and they'd rather forget most of the 2011 season, anyway. Beckman will drastically change the offense to a spread, and he has to be happy to see Scheelhaase turn in a confidence-building bowl performance. Beckman will need to keep the defense playing at this level without Koenning. Mora needs to improve the overall toughness of the underachieving Bruins and change the attitude around the program .

Who has the most to prove in the bowls?

December, 23, 2011
Oregon and California's bowl opponents are among the bowl teams with the most to prove this bowl season, according to's Brock Huard.

While Cal probably feels like it's got a score to settle with Texas, the Longhorns have their own issues. As in they need to rediscover their mojo as a national power.

Writes Huard:

The pressure is squarely on Texas on Dec. 28, as [Mack] Brown doesn't want to enter 2012 spring ball having lost four out of five to end the previous season, with the lone win coming in a game that had more to do with the Texas A&M Aggies' losing than the Longhorns' winning.

Will UT be able to turn it around next season? The Horns' performance against Cal could go a long way toward providing the answer.

Theories abound in Austin as to what has turned a program that was riding such an incredible wave of consistent success into a .500 team in the past 24 months. Is it a lack of toughness, a false sense of entitlement, improved talent and coaching in the Big 12?

One thing it's clearly not is recruiting, as the Longhorns perennially have the pick of the litter in talent-rich Texas (they currently sit No. 1 on ESPN's 2012 class rankings) and have the recent NFL draft picks to show for it.

As for Oregon, Huard writes:

The recurring theme, save USC, is that Kelly and the Ducks can be vulnerable if an opponent has time to prepare. To be fair, the six opponents skewed the theory of excess time by also being some of the best teams in all of college football when the Ducks faced them, but as said above in the Notre Dame section, perception can often become reality in this sport.

You can be sure that if the Badgers run over the Ducks and slow their prolific offense (ranked third at 45 points per game) in the way that the Broncos, Buckeyes and Tigers did before them, the articles will be written and the theory strengthened. And if the Ducks are to make the leap from Rose Bowl champion to BCS title champion, they'll need to prove they can win big games after long layoffs.

I suspect most Ducks fans agree.

UCLA will be down four in bowl game

December, 21, 2011
Two things happened at UCLA today.

One thing was about the dreary present: Backup quarterback Richard Brehaut has been suspended for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, and three Bruins have been ruled academically ineligible.

The other is about a potentially better future: The Bruins acting Tuesday on their "tradition" of "going over the wall" made new coach Jim Mora want to claw his eyes out, just like it did many Bruins fans.

Said Mora: "It's completely unacceptable and it will not be part of the program going forward."

Good. End of "tradition." Mora immediately sends a message that should resonate in a locker room that needs some resonance.

Now on to the bad stuff. Joining Brehaut in time out are, are safety Tony Dye, starting offensive lineman Albert Cid and backup linebacker Isaiah Bowens, who are the academically ineligible for the Dec. 31 bowl game.

Without Brehaut, starter Kevin Price will be backed up by either Nick Crissman or Darius Bell. There is zero chance that talented true freshman Brett Hundley will play after redshirting this season.

“All four of these student-athletes are disappointed that they will miss the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, but they all understand that they have let their teammates and the program down and that there are consequences for their actions,” interim coach Mike Johnson said in a statement.

Question: Do you think Johnson, who was only with UCLA during this one miserable season, is eager to get this bowl game over and get on with his life?

Brehaut played in seven games, starting four, and completed 67 of 121 passes for 948 yards and six touchdowns. Dye played in five games, starting all of them during an injury-plagued season, tallying 23 tackles. Cid participated in nine games, starting five of them. Bowens played in 12 games coming off the bench, making nine tackles and recovering two fumbles.

UCLA, Johnson playing for pride

December, 19, 2011
UCLA fans are warming to the idea of Jim Mora as the Bruins coach, perhaps because of some perky recruiting speculation and good staff hires. They are celebrating a volleyball national championship. They are trying to figure out whether the basketball team is getting its legs under it after getting back to .500.

The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against Illinois on New Year's Eve? Well, it's a bit down the list of buzz-generators in Westwood.

But the message from interim coach Mike Johnson is the Bruins are going to show up to play and they will play hard.

"They've been excellent," Johnson said of practices since he took over for the fired Rick Neuheisel. "I've enjoyed the time with them and the way they've approached it. I know it's a tough situation. There are a lot of distractions."

The chief distraction, of course, was Neuheisel's firing. That's always a big one. The Illini players surely understand. They also are playing under an interim coach -- Vic Koenning -- after the termination of Ron Zook. Both Johnson and Koenning are headed elsewhere after the game.

This is not a bowl destination for teams that are happy about how their season went. The Bruins mostly alternated wins and losses in desultory fashion -- Johnson used to the word "inconsistent" about 15 times in a 15-minute interview. But after getting pounded in their final two games, including the Pac-12 championship against Oregon, which dropped them to 6-7, they were forced to request a waiver from the NCAA to play in a bowl game with a losing record.

Not exactly something you put on a T-shirt.

Illinois took a different approach, winning its first six and rising to 16th in the nation before cratering with six consecutive defeats. Sure everyone associated with the program is weary of the term "collapse."

Johnson said he focused on fundamentals last week and will focus on Illinois this week before breaking for Christmas. The Bruins' offensive coordinator this year after replacing Norm Chow, he said he's not planning any major changes to the Bruins' pistol scheme. "I don't think you can put a new offense in in three weeks," he said.

He knows that he's not joining Mora's staff. A long-time NFL coach, he is a candidate for the Akron head coaching job. It would seem perfectly reasonable for him to be distracted by his uncertain future.

But Johnson insists that he and his players -- like all good competitors -- are focused on going out a winner, trying to hang a small rose on what has been a dreary season for all.

"It's about pride and respect for us," Johnson said. "We have to go out and earn the respect that everyone wants."

Can the Pac-12 get into better bowls?

December, 19, 2011
Larry Scott has worked magic in many areas since taking over as Pac-12 commissioner, but one of the next key areas for him to wave his magic commissioner's wand doesn't offer any obvious solutions: Conference bowl contracts.

It's one of the most popular complaints among Pac-12 fans: Why are the conference bowl tie-ins so mediocre? Why can't the Pac-12 play the SEC in a bowl game?

Before we, again, look at that, let's consider what Ryan McGee thinks about their Pac-12 bowl tie-ins. One word: Lame. He ranks them fifth among BCS conferences.

Here's his breakdown.
5. Pac-12

Tie-ins: 7

January games: 1

Bowls: BCS (Rose), Alamo, Holiday, Sun, Maaco, Kraft Fight Hunger, New Mexico

2011 bowl teams: 7

All-time BCS at-large berths: 4

If the bowl fall-off for the Big 12 is a cliff, then for the Pac-12 it's a canyon. Win the conference, and you're headed to the Rose Bowl or better. Finish second and if you haven't secured a BCS at-large berth, which has happened only four times, then you're playing in San Antonio on Dec. 29.

Don't get me wrong, the Alamo Bowl is a solid game, but is the Big 12's third option really where the Pac-12's conference runner-up should be?

The good news is the Rose Bowl. It's the best bowl game, and it's so much better than all the others that I'd rank the Fiesta No. 3, leaving No. 2 blank so everyone understands that that the Grandaddy is the Big Daddy.

Second, nothing major can happen here for a while. The Pac-12 bowl contracts run through the 2013 season. And who knows what college football will look like heading into 2014? You might have noticed how things have been a-changing lately.

But as far as the present frustration, considered for the sake of considering it: What's the solution for the Pac-12? Get better bowl contracts, right? Which ones? Are there bowl games in this region?

That's the first problem: Geography. If the Pac-12 wants better West Coast bowls, it's either going to have to get someone to create one or elevate one of its current games to a higher level. That's complicated.

The reason the ACC rates ahead of the Pac-12 twofold: 1. Geography; 2. It's been a 12-team league for longer than the Pac-12.

Geography: The best bowls are on the East Coast, many of them close to ACC schools. And the Pac-12 negotiated its bowl contracts when it was a 10-team league (other than the New Mexico Bowl last summer).

Of course — 10 or 12 teams — the Pac-12 didn't fill all its seven bowl contracts, which is why you forgot all about the New Mexico Bowl.

The reasons the Big 12 has better bowl games is simple: The Cotton Bowl. It's a nature Texas tie-in, and bowl games love signing up the SEC. The Cotton Bowl is widely viewed as the most likely candidate to become a fifth BCS bowl destination, in large part because you can't beat the venue: Cowboys Stadium.

The Pac-12 playing in the Cotton Bowl just doesn't seem like a possibility. And the Cotton Bowl gives the Big 12 a leg up on the Pac-12 in the postseason.

Here's the reality folks: The Pac-12 as it is presently configured won't get better bowl games than the SEC and Big 10. Those conferences combined to fill 17 of the top-25 spots in the attendance rankings in 2010. Those numbers translate to bowl games in terms of travel, selling tickets and filling up hotel rooms, which is the primary task of bowls.

Of course, what I am giving you is the conventional wisdom — the why not. Scott isn't much of a conventional wisdom guy. He's a "what if" thinker.

Which means it's not unreasonable to hold out hope that the Pac-12 will have better bowl agreements in the future.

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl

December, 4, 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.