Illinois defeated UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl Saturday, 20-14. The win marked the first time in program history the Illini have won consecutive bowl games. In the process, junior defensive end Whitney Mercilus tied the Illini sack record. His 1.5 sacks gave him 16 on the season, tying Simeon Rice's record.
This game was alternately called the Interim Bowl since both Illinois coach Vic Koenning and UCLA coach Mike Johnson replaced fired head coaches Ron Zook and Rick Neuheisel respectively. Koenning adds a well-deserved win to his head coaching resume after doing a yeoman job unifying and inspiring a frustrated and discouraged Illini team.
Koenning praised his players and mentor after the victory.
"I'm so happy for the players and Coach (Ron) Zook. This is something that has never been done at Illinois, two straight bowl victories. They came out and practiced their tails off under a lot of negative circumstances.
"I told them I love them, and I appreciate them. This is something they'll appreciate the rest of their lives. No one can ever take that away."
Koenning was asked how he was able to instill a winning attitude in a team that had lost six games in a row.
"The players. Our team chaplain has done a great job of hitting them every day. You learn to win, maybe not as much on the football field but in life. We started by trying to make 'A's' in the classroom, win in the classroom. Then we tried to win socially, then we tried to win spiritually. You rebuild your winning attitude; it doesn't always have to be football.
"I think our players have learned to win in the last month or so. We fed the hungry yesterday, and we were winning there too. Winning on the football field is icing on the cake."
As for the game itself, the Illini led the statistical battle. They outgained UCLA 326 to 219, forcing five sacks, an interception and fumble. Ryan Lankford punted for a 46 yard average, and Terry Hawthorne was credited an 11 yard punt return, the Illini's longest return of the season.
"I think we won all three phases," Koenning marveled. "It's hard to say if we won the special teams battle, but I assume that we did. The offense had some struggles, but UCLA has good players. Coach (Jeff) Brohm and the offensive staff did a great job doing what we can do best.
"It wasn't perfect. We dropped some balls and could have done a lot better obviously. But it was enough to win."
But except for two touchdown passes, Illinois couldn't have played much better defense.
"The thing that was the best today is we stopped the run. UCLA can really run the football, and they had 18 yards rushing. I know we sacked them a few times, and that knocked it off.
"They must have really thought they could win on the back end. They threw a whole bunch of what I call grenade balls. I think they completed one.
"(Illini defenders) have been amazing to me. All year long, they played at such a high level. We had a little bit of a lull when they scored a touchdown. We didn't get the leverage that we need. But goodness gracious, how can you not be proud of those guys?"
Tavon Wilson and Thomas led the Illini with seven tackles each. Thomas had three tackles for loss. Jonathan Brown had six tackles, while Hawthorne and Mercilus had five each. Mercilus had four tackles for loss in another inspired effort. Michael Buchanan and Wilson Onyegbule added sacks. The Illini registered a total of 15 behind-the-line tackles.
The first half looked like a repeat of the last six regular season games for the Illini. The offense, playing without starting running back Jason Ford and starting fullback Jay Prosch, had difficulty sustaining drives.
The Illini defense was dominant, but Koenning went for it on fourth and one and missed, giving UCLA the ball on the UI 44 yard line. It appeared the Bruins would be stymied again, but a personal foul on a pass completion gave them a first down. Johnathan Franklin then burst forth for 24 yards to the 11 yard line. Kevin Prince lobbed to Taylor Embree in the corner of the end zone for a 7-0 lead.
The Illini had a great chance to get on the scoreboard later. Starting at the Bruin 32 yard line, two runs and an incompletion made it fourth and one. Determined to use one of the many trick plays the special teams practiced during bowl preparations, the Illini tried a fake field goal. Holder Tim Russell flipped back to Derek Dimke, who's run failed to achieve a first down.
Fortunately, UCLA gave it right back. A bad snap was recovered by Michael Buchanan at the UCLA thirty. The Illini maneuvered down to the five yard line before the offense stagnated. A sack of Nathan Scheelhaase pushed the ball back, but Dimke converted a 36 yard field goal to make it 7-3 Bruins at halftime.
Good field position gave UCLA first chance to score in the second half, but Tyler Gonzales missed a 35 yard field goal. The Illini then began a drive from their own 20 yard line. Aided by a clutch completion from Scheelhaase to Eddie Vilunas on fourth and seven, the Illini moved into field goal range. But Dimke was wide on a 37 yard field goal attempt.
That is when fate provided a guiding hand. On second and 8, Bruin quarterback Kevin Prince tried a sideline pass that Hawthorne intercepted and ran back for a game-changing 38 yard touchdown return. Scheelhaase said the pick six inspired the offense.
"We were executing and moving the ball up and down the field, we just had a couple errors. When Terry went and got that pick, it was big. We were fired up and ready to get back out there and make plays. And I'm glad we did."
After a UCLA three-and-out, Scheelhaase took off around end and wasn't stopped until he gained 37 yards. Dimke kicked a 37 yard field goal to make it 13-7 good guys.
A Wilson tackle for loss and Thomas sack helped give the Illini the ball again on their own 26 yard line. On the fourth play from scrimmage, Scheelhaase found A.J. Jenkins open beyond defenders. He took the short pass and completed a 60 yard touchdown run to give the Illini the cushion they needed to win the game.
A late UCLA touchdown pass to Nelson Rosario on a blown coverage made it a little scary at the end. But Jenkins caught the onside kick to seal the victory.
Scheelhaase spoke for the whole team when admitting how nice it was to get into the win column again.
"Considering all the problems we dealt with the last 6 weeks of the season, to come away with a win, it couldn't get much better than that."
Scheelhaase ended with 110 yards rushing on 22 carries plus 159 passing yards on 18 completions in 30 attempts. Donovonn Young added 45 yards in 12 carries. Jenkins caught 6 passes for 80 yards and the touchdown. He ended the season 3 yards short of breaking David Williams's single season reception yardage record.
Scheelhaase tried to get his buddy the record at the end.
"Honestly, the last three plays that we had, they were all run calls and I checked on them. I was trying to get the ball to A.J. to let him get the record. He didn't come up with it, but he's been a tremendous player. It's been an honor to play with him and see his development. It's been a blast, and I look forward to following his progress on the next level."
Scheelhaase praised the much-maligned Illini offensive line.
"They stepped up big-time. They protected well, they ran-blocked well. We knew we were gonna spread things out a little more and do more quarterback runs, and we executed well. I credit the game plan Coach Brohm put together. He's not a guy that had to do it, but he stepped up and did it for us."
Koenning thanked all the assistant coaches who stuck it out despite complications to help the team win.
"Let's don't lose sight of the job that the coaches did. Guys are out trying to find jobs, working hard at that. And then we had situations with the way things have been handled, contract issues here and there. Everybody's trying to get it to fruition so they can move on.
"With all that, the coaches never quit toward the players. It was always very professional. I think our coaching staff did a good job of preparing these guys."
In what may be a significant reversal of fortune, the Illini faced a similar situation 20 years ago. They played in the John Hancock Bowl in El Paso in 1991 with an interim coach, also against UCLA. In a game void of offense, the Illini lost 6-3.
Since then, the Illini have enjoyed only six winning seasons. Perhaps this win over UCLA with an interim coach will be the start of 20 years of sustained success. Long-suffering Illini fans certainly hope that is the case. At least, Koenning is convinced the team has qualities to help new coach Tim Beckman get off to a good start next season.
"I think they've got a lot of pride. They want to do things right. And if you do right, right will follow. We can't say that any stronger. I know Coach Zook preached being a good person as much as he preached football, so I know they've got that."
Koenning now moves on to a new job at North Carolina. He became an inspiration, not only to the players but to Illini fans who became better acquainted with him out of necessity this past month. Many will miss him; he will miss them also.
"I can't have more fond memories about being at Illinois. The fan base has been so supportive; we have great thoughts of this place. It is a special place."
The Illini must now prepare to begin a new era at Illinois when they meet Coach Beckman for the first day of winter conditioning January 16th. Ending the season with a win will make that transition easier.