Illinois Preview

UCLA takes on Illinois in the Kraft Stop Hunger Bowl Saturday, going up against one of the best defenses in the country...

FACTS AND FACTORS

• The UCLA Bruins play their last game of the 2011 season when they face Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, Saturday, December 31st, at 12:34 p.m.

• The game is being played at AT&T Park in San Francisco, and will be nationally televised on ESPN. The game will also be streamed live on ESPN3.com. Carter Blackburn, Brock Huard and Shelley Smith are calling the game for ESPN.

• UCLA is 6-7 and 5-4 on the season, and won the Pac-12 South by default since USC was ineligible for post-season play.

• Illinois is 6-6 overall and 2-5 in conference, which garnered it fifth place in the Big Ten Leaders division.

• Both teams, of course, fired their coach, with UCLA letting go Rick Neuheisel, and Illinois releasing Ron Zook. Zook was fired November 27th, and then Neuheisel a day later.

• For the bowl game, UCLA is being led by interim head coach Mike Johnson, who is the Bruins' offensive coordinator. Illinois's interim head coach is Vic Koenning, its defensive coordinator.

• Koennig is a well-respected defensive guy, having been the DC at Clemson and Kansas State, as well as the head coach at Wyoming (2000-2002).

• The Kraft Hunger Bowl is unique, being the only bowl game that features two programs that fired its head coaches and are employing interim head coaches for the game.

• Zook spent 7 years in Urbana-Champagne, compiling a 34-51 record overall. It appeared he had turned around the program in his third season in 2007 when the Illini went 9-4, played in the Rose Bowl and ended the season ranked 18th in the nation. Zook then had just one winning season over the next three years and went into the 2011 season on the hot seat. It appeared he had then taken himself off the seat when he guided the Illini to a 6-0 start. Illinois, in fact, rallied from a 28-10 deficit to beat Northwestern 38-35 to go 6-0. It was the first time since 1951 Illinois had started the season 6-0, and they climbed the national rankings to #15. They then lost three close games against Ohio State, Purdue and Penn State, and were then soundly beaten by Michigan. In the next week leading up to the next opponent, Wisconsin, Zook opened his press conference by warning reporters not to ask about his job status. When one reporter did inquire whether Zook had talked to his players about rumors pertaining to his status, Zook promptly walked out of the press conference. The Illini then lost to Wisconsin, and then finished the regular season with a loss to Minnesota. Zook was fired not long after that, on November 27th.

• The 2011 Illini became the fifth team in NCAA football history to start a season 6-0 and end it 6-6.

• Illinois' coaching search lasted a week, with some of the same names being thrown around in UCLA's coaching search also being mentioned with Illinois, including ex-Houston and new Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin (In fact, it was thought Sumlin might wait until the Kraft Stop Hunger Bowl and agree to coach the program who wins it). Illinois then hired Tim Beckman, the former head coach at Toledo. It's uncertain what number of choice Beckman was, but his name didn't crop up until just before he was hired.

• It will be the 12th meeting between UCLA and Illinois, with the Bruins holding a 6-5 advantage. UCLA has won the last four meetings dating back to 1983 and hasn't lost to Illinois since 1964.

• UCLA has faced Illinois in three bowl games: In 1991, in the Hancock Bowl, the Bruins won, 6-3; UCLA then beat the Illini in the 1983 Rose Bowl, 45-9, and lost in the 1946 Rose Bowl, 45-14.

• One of the strangest statistics: UCLA beat Illinois by the score of 6-3 in two consecutive games, in the 1991 Hancock Bowl and then in a non-conference game in 2003.

• Illinois is 7-9 all-time in bowl games, and 3-3 in bowl games in the state of California, with a record of 3-2 in the Rose Bowl.

• The game will be UCLA's 31st bowl appearance, with a record of 14-15-1.

• The Kraft Hunger Bowl will be played for the 10th time, previously having been named the San Francisco Bowl and Diamond Walnut San Francisco Bowl (2002-2003), and the Emerald Bowl (2004-2009).

• UCLA appeared in the 2006 Emerald Bowl, losing to Florida State, 44-27.

• The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl is affiliated with the Pac-12 conference and Army, but Army was not bowl eliglble this season, leaving officials free to invite Illinois as an at-large participant.

• UCLA will be without four players for the bowl game. Senior safety Tony Dye, sophomore offensive lineman Albert Cid and sophomore linebacker Isaiah Bowens did not meet NCAA academic eligibility standards for the game, while quarterback Richard Brehaut has been suspended for the game due to a violation of team rules.

• Likewise, Illinois will be without senior running back Jason Ford and freshman receiver Jake Kumerow because of academic ineligibility. Ford is Illinois' leading rusher for 2011, with 600 yards on the season.

• UCLA is the first team in 10 years to earn a trip to a bowl game with a losing record (North Texas, 2001).

• Illinois won its last national championship in 1951, and UCLA in 1954.

• In going to a bowl in 2010 and then this season, it's the first time Illinois has gone to two consecutive bowls since 1991-1992.

• Illinois is favored by 2.5 points.

• It's supposed to be 60 degrees and cloudy in San Francisco on Saturday.

ILLINOIS' OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

In this game, this is definitely the non-marquee match-up. Illinois' offense finished the season ranked 86th in the nation, and UCLA's defense 91st.

Illinois' offense was, truly, the reason for the team's demise. Back in fall there were extremely high hopes, with Illinois coming off team records in 2010 for scoring and points per game, and it returned many of its key players. For the first six games, it looked like the Illini offense would live up to expectation, but then it fell off the cliff. It just couldn't score points. In its first three games of its six-game losing streak it didn't even score in the first half. It gained more yards than its opponents but just couldn't translate that to points on the board, averaging just 11 points per game during the six-game skid. During that streak the defense held up its end and kept playing well, but the offense couldn't score.

It was enough to get its head coach, Ron Zook, fired. Then, after the Zook firing, the offensive coordinator, Paul Petrino, jumped ship and went back to Arkansas to join his brother's staff. While they still will run the same offense, quarterbacks coach Jeff Broehm will take on the play-calling duties for the game.

Illinois' strength was though to be its offensive line, which was considered one of the best in the Big Ten, until it then faced some of the best Big Ten defensive linemen in its last six games.

Receiver A.J. Jenkins.
What also contributed was losing perhaps its best OL for 2 ½ games, weakside guard Hugh Thornton (JR, 6-5 310), to a knee injury, but he's reportedly healthy now.

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase (SO, 6-3, 195) started the season looking like one of the best in the Big 12, but then threw for less than 100 yards in three of his final four games, and ended up splitting time with freshman Reilly O'Toole (FR, 6-4, 220). Scheelhaase does present a dual threat, being very good with his feet.

Early in the season Scheelhaase combined with wide receiver A.J. Jenkins (SR, 6-0, 190) to form a lethal combination, but defenses figured out how to contain Jenkins, since there wasn't really anyone else who provided a consistent threat. Jenkins had 84 catches and 1,196 yards on the season, more than the team's next top four receivers combined.

Illinois' running game was fairly good in 2011, but also fell short in some games when it was vastly needed. In the second half of the season, too, the OL was susceptible to giving up many tackles for loss. The Illini rushing attack then took a hit for the bowl game when its leading rusher, senior Jason Ford, was deemed academically ineligible. Fullback Jay Prosch is out with a staph infection, too, so Illinois will be with only two running backs who played during the 2011 season, Troy Pollard (SR, 5-8, 190) and Donovonn Young (FR, 6-0, 215), who were both, actually, effective this season. It was always a bit of a tailback-by-committee anyway, but the loss of Ford makes Illinois' backfield 1/3 thinner.

UCLA's defensive struggles have been well-chronicled. It will, too, be without the player who won the defensive MVP at this year's football banquet and its leading tackler, middle linebacker Patrick Larimore, who had surgery to repair a torn ligament in his hand.

The linebackers will be a bit thin with senior weakside linebacker Sean Westgate being out (shoulder) and back-up middle linebacker Isaiah Bowens sitting out because of academic eligibility. More than likely, Jordan Zumwalt will play middle linebacker, but the loss of three players makes for a very thin linebacking crew.

Advantage: Illinois

Even though the Illini offense really struggled in the last six games, it did so against some pretty formidable Big Ten defenses. They'll find it a bit easier going against UCLA's D. Illinois' running game should find plenty of traction, averaging 171 yards per game and registering a couple of 300+ rushing games this season, going against a very poor UCLA rushing defense. That should enable Illinois' passing offense to do what it has to do to provide enough of a balance for the Illini to move the ball sufficiently. Jenkins is one of the best receivers in the Big Ten and UCLA will probably struggle to contain him.

Also, the word is that you can expect Broehm to throw in a few wrinkles to the offense for the bowl game, and UCLA's offense hasn't done well all season adapting to looks they haven't seen.

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. ILLINOIS' DEFENSE

UCLA hasn't faced a defense as good as Illinois' all season.

The Illini ended the regular season with the nation's 7th best defense, and that was after playing against some pretty decent offenses.

It did it by having a great defensive line that put an enormous amount of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Illinois is 9th in the nation in sacks, averaging 3 per game, and fifth in the nation in tackles for loss, averaging close to 8 per game.

The effort – and success – was led by the nation's #1 sack master, First Team AP All-American and Ted Hendricks Award-winning defensive end Whitney Mercilus (JR, 6-4, 265), who had 14.5 sacks on the season and an amazing 9 forced fumbles, and is generally considered a first-round NFL pick. The 14.5 sacks is a Big Ten record and one shy of the national record. What was so astounding about the season is that Mercilus emerged from relative obscurity before the season.

Perhaps what helps makes Mercilus so effective is the second-team Big Ten defensive end on the opposite side, Michael Buchanan (JR, 6-6, 240), who had a not-too-shabby 6.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss on the season.
Michael Buchanan.
Mercilus and Buchanan are easily one of the small handful of best defensive end duos in the nation.

Defensive tackle Akeem Spence (SO, 6-1, 305) held it down inside and emerged as a pre-eminent run stopper.

The DL was backed up by one of the Big Ten's best linebackers, Jonathan Brown (SO, 6-1, 235), who, though, had his season and reputation marred by a cheap hit in the fifth game of he season, against Northwestern, when he kneed an opposing player in the groin. He was suspended for a game as a result, and was the target of much derision on many Internet message boards, but he still went on to lead the Illini in tackles with 102, while also collecting a very impressive 19 tackles for loss and 6 sacks.

If that isn't enough, the defensive unit that had the most success on the season is the secondary, ending the season ranked the 4th best in the nation for passing yards allowed (159). None of the defensive backs in the rotation had star-worthy individual performances, perhaps benefitting greatly from one of the best pass rushes in the nation, but strong safety Steve Hull (SO, 6-2, 200) is a reliable tackler.

UCLA's offense, by comparison, is ranked 62nd in the country and, while it had some moments, you would never say it got completely untracked this season. The running game was consistent (ranked 29th in the nation, averaging 190 yards per game), but it struggled to get balance out of a very sporadic throwing game. Quarterback Kevin Prince is a warrior, no question, and is most comfortable in the zone read where he can tuck and run around the edge. He got better throwing the ball as the season progressed, averaging 231 yards and 63% completions in his last three games.

UCLA's strength is, of course, its running game, with its two premiere tailbacks having good seasons. Johnathan Franklin is only 53 yards away from a second consecutive 1,000-yard season, and Derrick Coleman gained 726 yards himself. Franklin averaged 6 yards per carry and Coleman 5.1, which is really impressive given that he was the season's short-yardage specialist.

Advantage: Illinois

UCLA has a glimmer of hope, however. If there was anything that fell off defensively during the 6-game losing streak it was Illinois' rushing defense.

But, it might be that you can't blame the rushing D entirely, since Illinois' offense wasn't on the field much and Illinois' defense got worn down. And you'd have to think that, after a month of rest, Illinois' rushing D is re-booted. And you'd also have to think that, even though UCLA has faced a couple of rushing defenses as good as Illinois, it hasn't faced as well-balanced of a defense as this one yet this season.

The problem is that UCLA's pass protection, while it hasn't allowed many sacks on the season, is suspect. The offensive coaches schemed around it all year – and successfully. But there is probably no scheming around Illinois' pressure. Illinois' is one of the best defenses in the country at getting into the backfield of opposing offenses. UCLA's offensive line has had a good season, but they'll probably be completely over-matched trying to keep Illinois' DL in front of them.

A bad stat match-up: UCLA's offense is 98th in the country in third-down conversions and Illinois' defense is 20th in the nation in third-down conversion defense. Bottom line: UCLA is going to have to be very effective on first and second down if it hopes to move the ball against the Illini.

Easily the best match-up of the game is UCLA interim head coach and offensive coordinator Mike Johnson going straight up against Illinois interim head coach and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. Both Johnson and Koenning are now unencumbered by their head coaches and aren't returning to the staffs, so they really can do whatever they want in this game schematically. The long-held issue with Neuheisel is that he stuck his nose into his offensive coordinator's business and over-rode the play-calling at times. Johnson, now, will be able to call his own game. There definitely have been signs of new wrinkles in UCLA's practices, but it's very typical for the team to work on new plays in practice that never see the light of day in a game. Koenning leaving Illinois (he turned down an offer to stay) was met with some disappointment from Illinois fans and understandably, since he transformed an Illinois defense that was ranked 91st in the country in 2009 to one of the best in the nation by 2011.

SPECIAL TEAMS

While Illinois might have the best defense UCLA has faced yet this season, they might have the worst collection of special teams. The Illini, in the Big Ten, are last in kick-off returns, last in punt returns, 10th in punting, and 11th in kick-off coverage. Their field goal kicker, Derek Dimke, might be their only slight saving grace, missing only one field goal all season. But, on the other hand, he only made 9 attempts all year. It's difficult to know if he has any range since he only attempted three field goals beyond 40 yards all season and missed one.

Advantage: UCLA

PREDICTION

While many college football pundits are poo-pooing this game, there are some very interesting aspects of it. The match-up of Johnson vs. Koenning, two interim coaches going directly at each other as offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator, is a situation you'll probably never see in college football again. There is more than just mild curiosity about wht UCLA's offense will look like under Johnson, without Neuheisel's influence. It's always a pleasure to watch a top-ten national defense (even if it's on the team playing against UCLA). It's always a pleasure to watch one of the best defensive players in the country (Mercilus), especially a guy who rushes the quarterback like he does, since UCLA fans have no idea what that looks like. It will be interesting to watch UCLA's formidable running game go up against Illinois' rushing defense, which has shown some vulnerability.

Overall, it will be intriguing to see UCLA match up against a physical Big Ten team.

Also, it could be a game of turnovers, which are always exciting. The Bruins are prone to turning over the ball, with a -4 turnover margin, getting them ranked 8th in the Pac-12. But that's positively stellar compared to the Illini, with a turnover margin of -7, second to last in the Big Ten. They have turned over the ball a whopping 27 times.

No matter what, though, when analyzing this game, it keeps coming back to Illinois' defense. It's 21st in the country in scoring defense, allowing just 20.1 points per game on the season. It allowed just two teams all season to score over 30 points. It held 8 of its last 9 opponents to 21 points or less.

With UCLA knowing it's only potential match-up edge could be running the ball, and Illinois' offense not exactly being explosive in terms of putting points on the board, look for this to be a possession game, and low-scoring.

But there just isn't any way around that Illinois defense. Turnovers are just about UCLA's only real hope to out-scoring the Illini.

Illinois 27
UCLA 17


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