Interim head coach Vic Koenning will, for one game only, be the heart and soul of the Illinois team. A man who wears his heart on his sleeve, Koenning is doing everything in his power to build confidence and motivate a team struggling with six straight losses and coaching turnover.
Koenning believes the outcome rests with two main considerations.
"The team that will win the bowl is the team that is most excited to be there, and the team that's in the best shape. I know this team's excited to be going to San Francisco, and we need to be in great shape."
He realizes the Illini must overcome a lot of frustrations from the past couple months, especially on offense. They must rebuild the confidence prominent throughout their six game winning streak to begin the season. In doing so, they must understand and embrace true confidence.
"We've got a lot to prove; there shouldn't be a group in the country that's got a bigger chip on their shoulders than our offensive guys. We're gonna give everything we've got and let the chips fall where they may.
"We need to be confident; we don't need to be cocky. We had a talk the other day about the difference between boastful pride and self-pride. Boastful pride is what we don't want to have. Self-pride is pride in yourself, pride in your teammates. That's okay. That's something we need to build on."
Koenning had great success with the Illinois defense this season. Now he wants to spread the wealth to the offense. There will be some changes, including allowing the offensive linemen to cut block, something former head coach Ron Zook was loathe to do as it contributes to knee injuries.
"I talk about our identity offensively, I think that's got to start with our offensive line. They have to get back to being mean and nasty and aggressive and doing what great offensive lines do.
"We've got to be prepared to cut them up, carve them up and have their defensive linemen afraid of their knees. That's within the rules. On the edges, we need to get our dadgum blocks down and be dominant.
"We need to hit them in the mouth and get an identity. Identity is being physical. We need to get the ball to our playmakers in space and let it happen. Aside from our quarterback, I think our identity is more what happens up front."
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino took a job at Arkansas, leaving quarterback Jeff Brohm to call plays. Koenning will allow Brohm to make the game-plan his own.
"Everybody's got their own personality. We're gonna do what Jeff and the offensive coaches feel will give us the best chance of being successful. They know the plays; you don't want to try to learn a different language. We need to do what we do, and we need to see if we can do some different things that highlight our best players."
With the absence of starting running back Jason Ford and starting fullback Jay Prosch, the Illini have no choice but to modify what they do. Koenning also initiated some changes with special teams, a necessity after season-long woes in some areas. As for the defense, it will be facing something unfamiliar.
"Offensively, it's an offshoot of Nevada. They're running the pistol and unbalanced. It gives us a lot of different reads and keys. It's extremely difficult to stay in your gaps defensively. They also can outnumber you with motions and pulls of the tight ends and fullbacks.
"It's an offense we haven't seen. It's good that we have bowl practices to work on it. I did call some guys that play against it regularly and asked them what they did. It just so happens that the things they said were also the things we planned to do.
"Our guys have to learn to play option football. We've got friction, we've got to keep our angles, we've got to be square when we've got to be square. They've got some big, tall, fast athletes like they always do. Their offensive line is competent and reminds me somewhat of Minnesota's offensive line."
Brohm shares his thoughts on UCLA defensive tendencies.
"I think they're a very talented team, very athletic. They try to bend-not-break, try to prevent the big play. They throw in a few blitzes, but for the most part they make you earn the points. That's what we're gonna have to do.
"It's a 4-3 defense, four quarters, four across. They'll drop a guy in the box on run formations. They just try to play sound defense and not give up the big play.
"They're athletic, they run, they look good. We need to be physical with them up front, be able to run the ball and be able to throw it as well. It'll be a challenge."
UCLA was just 6-7 on the season, but Koenning warns Illini fans not to overlook the Bruins.
"I hope people understand that every other week these guys put together a good game. They played in the Pac-12 Championship. We've got to play our best football in all three phases to win."
Koenning is using every tool at his disposal to fire up his team for a supreme effort. Among other things, the Illini could make history with a win.
"It would be the first time in Illinois history they won back-to-back bowl games. If we can get that done with what's going on, we've climbed a lot of barbed wire fences to get there. It would be something the guys can cherish in their hearts. For me, getting to be around them is its own reward."
Koenning is certainly not guaranteeing victory. In fact, the Illini got off to a poor start on bowl festivities. Their charter plane sat on the tarmac in Champaign for three hours before finally leaving for San Francisco. He has already hedged his bets by reminding the game has value win or lose.
"We take a lot of pride in everything. If our guys go out and play hard and give everything they've got, the journey has its own rewards. That will probably not overshadow the sorrow I'm gonna feel saying goodbye to a lot of these guys. It'll be something like icing on the cake.
"The cake's pretty good without it. A cherry on top or ice cream or however you want it. I don't think it's something that has to happen to have a good feeling about what we accomplished."
Just in case, however, Koenning is preparing as if a win is possible.
"I've got a few motivational things up my sleeve for the team yet."
He may need to be the reincarnation of fabled Illini coach Ray Eliot to inspire sufficiently to win the game. But if anyone can do it, the larger-than-life Koenning is the man for that task.