Illinois-UCLA Preview

UCLA is the first team in a decade to earn a trip to a bowl with
a losing record.

Illinois is the first FBS team in history to close the regular
season with six straight losses after opening with six consecutive
wins.

Therefore, it’s not surprising neither Rick Neuheisel nor Ron
Zook will be around for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

In a matchup of two teams that have fired their coaches, the
Bruins and Fighting Illini will meet Saturday in San Francisco with
hopes that a bowl win can help diminish some of the frustration of
painful seasons.

Illinois (6-6) became bowl eligible by beating Indiana on Oct. 8
to open 6-0 for the first time since winning the national
championship in 1951, but it is just one of nine FBS schools that
hasn’t won since. Despite ending the regular season on a six-game
losing streak, the Illini, who reached as high as No. 16 in the Top
25, earned back-to-back bowl berths for the first time since
1991-92. That wasn’t enough to save Zook’s job, however.

Zook was fired after seven seasons at Illinois on Nov. 26, one
day after a 27-7 loss to Minnesota in the regular-season
finale.

Neuheisel was fired a day later after four seasons at UCLA, but
still coached in the Pac-12 title game against Oregon on Dec. 2.
The Bruins (6-7) only got to play in the game because Southern
California was ineligible because of probation. A 49-31 loss to the
Ducks dropped UCLA below .500, making the Bruins the first program
to earn a bowl berth with a losing record since North Texas in
2001.

UCLA has since hired Jim Mora Jr., while Illinois has signed Tim
Beckman from Toledo, but neither of those coaches will be on the
sideline at AT&T Park. A pair of interim coaches will be in
charge, with offensive coordinator Mike Johnson leading the Bruins
and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning directing the Illini.

“I think it’s going to be a good matchup,” Johnson said. “It’s
two teams that have gone down similar paths.”

It certainly could be an intriguing matchup with a UCLA offense
that is capable of piling up points squaring off against Illinois’
stingy defense, and the Bruins’ vulnerable defense facing the
Illini’s inept offense.

UCLA ranked third in the Pac-12 in rushing (190.7 yards per
game) and was one of only two schools in the conference to have two
players run for at least 600 yards. Junior Johnathan Franklin had a
team-high 947 yards with five rushing touchdowns, while Derrick
Coleman had 726 run yards and a team-best 11 TDs.

The Bruins had limited success passing with Kevin Prince
throwing for 1,627 yards, 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions,
but when the junior put the ball in the air, it was usually in
Nelson Rosario’s direction. He finished the regular season with 61
catches for 1,106 yards, sixth-most in the Pac-12, for an average
of 18.1 yards, ninth-best in the nation.

UCLA has alternated good and bad offensive performances in its
last four games – combining for 76 points in two but just six in
the other two – and now has the difficult challenge of facing
Illinois’ high-pressure defense.

Despite being in the midst of an embarrassing skid, the Illini
still finished the regular season ranked seventh in the FBS in
total defense (291.8), fourth against the pass (159.1) and tied for
11th with 36 sacks. Much of this success stems from the play of
All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who had an FBS-best 14
1/2 sacks and led the Big Ten with 19 1/2 tackles for loss.

With Illinois’ defense being its biggest strength, Koenning was
given the opportunity to join Beckman’s staff as the defensive
coordinator. He decided to turn it down but remains focused on
getting the Illini prepared for their bowl game.

“We’re extremely excited,” Koenning said. “It’s an opportunity
that, you know, we hoped very much to have a chance to play again.
We have a lot of redemption to do.”

Much of that falls on the Illini’s offense.

Illinois averaged 11.0 points in its last six games – the
second-fewest in the FBS since Week 7 – after averaging 34.7 points
during its winning streak.

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase averaged 122.2 passing yards with
two touchdowns and four interceptions during the skid after
averaging 206.3 yards with 10 TDs and three picks in the first six
contests. The sophomore is playing behind an inferior offense line
that allowed 35 sacks, tied for 12th-worst in the FBS.

Despite all their problems on offense, the Illini could have
some success against UCLA.

The Bruins are ranked 96th out of 120 FBS schools in scoring
defense (32.2 points per game) and tied for 111th in sacks with 13.
They went 1-6 away from the Rose Bowl, yielding an average of 43.5
points in the defeats.

This is the fourth time these programs have met in a bowl game,
with UCLA winning the John Hancock Bowl in 1991 and the Rose Bowl
in 1984. Illinois won the Rose Bowl in 1947.