Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl Preview
Dec. 29, 2011
Illinois, making back-to-back bowl trips for the first time since the 1991 and 1992 seasons, will face UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on New Year's Eve in San Francisco, a game that will be televised at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. The Illini are 7-9 in bowl games all-time, including a victory over Baylor in the Texas Bowl last season. The last time a Big Ten team played in a bowl game in the state of California that was not the Rose Bowl Game was when Michigan State competed in the Silicon Valley Classic in 2001.
This year’s contest comes with a few sidebar stories, including the fact that both teams will be without the head coach that got them to the bowl. Illinois’ Ron Zook was dismissed following a 6-6 campaign, including a 2-6 mark in Big Ten play. The Bruins will be led by interim head coach Mike Johnson, who takes over after UCLA opted to dismiss fourth-year head coach Rick Neuheisel after the Pac-12 Championship game.
On a brighter note, Illinois will look to turn the tables on the Bruins after UCLA topped the Illini 3-1 earlier this month for the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championship.
Illinois is making its 17th bowl appearance while looking to snap a six-game losing streak and win a bowl game in back-to-back years for the first time in school history. The game marks UCLA's 31st bowl appearance with the Bruins boasting a postseason record of 14-15-1. The Bruins will be making their second-ever bowl appearance in San Francisco, having first lost to Florida State 44-27 in the 2006 Emerald Bowl. UCLA's last bowl game was in 2009 at the EagleBank Bowl in Washington, D.C. where they defeated Temple 30-21.
Between the two schools, UCLA is 6-5 all-time against the Illini and has won the past four meetings with the last win coming in 2004, 35-17. In the all-time series that dates back to 1946, this will be the fourth bowl meeting between the two schools as they previously faced off in the 1947 and 1984 Rose Bowl Games, and the 1991 Hancock Bowl.
The key matchup between the two teams will be Illinois’ defense against a ground-beating Bruin offense. UCLA ranks third in the Pac-12 in rushing (190.7), ninth in total yards (388.8), 10th in scoring (23.8), and 11th in passing (198.1). Success has come from the ground game with the Bruins being one of only two schools in the Pac-12 to boast two players that each rushed for more than 600 yards this season. Junior Johnathan Franklin rushed for 947 yards and five TDS on the year, followed by Derrick Coleman with 726 yards, including a team-best 11 scores. Under center is Kevin Prince, who threw for only 1,627 yards on the year with 10 scores and seven picks. The Bruins’ primary target is Nelson Rosario, the Pac-12’s seventh-best receiver at 85.1 yards per game. Rosario has been a big-play wideout as well, averaging 18.1 yards per catch, which ranks ninth in the country.
Despite the team struggles this year, the Illinois defense has continued to climb the national rankings as the Illini rank fourth in pass defense (159.1) and seventh in total yards allowed (291.8). The Illini are also third in the conference against the run (132.7) and fifth in scoring (20.1). Consensus All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus, the Hendricks Award winner, continues to lead the nation in sacks (14.5), sacks per game (1.21) and forced fumbles (9). The nine forced fumbles are a Big Ten single-season record and are second by one in the NCAA record book. With 14.5 sacks on the year, he needs 2.0 sacks to break Simeon Rice's UI single-season record of 16.0 in 1994. Mercilus’ efforts have helped Illinois lead the Big Ten and rank fifth in the nation in tackles for loss (7.7) and ninth nationally in sacks (3.0) per game. Defensive credit also goes to linebacker Jonathan Brown, who totaled 72 tackles, 13.0 TFLs, 4.0 sacks, two PBUs, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and two hurries in the last six games of the season. He ranks third in the nation with 1.73 tackles for loss per game.
The Illinois offense heads to San Francisco ranked seventh in the conference in rushing (171.2), eighth in passing (187.0) and ninth in total yards (358.2) and scoring (22.8). Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is seventh in the conference with 164.2 passing yards per game, completing 63.6 percent of his 261 attempts for 1,971 yards with 12 touchdowns and seven picks. Scheelhaase’s top target is A.J. Jenkins, who has 53.3 percent of Illinois' receiving yards this season, the most in the nation by nearly eight percent. Jenkins leads the Big Ten in receptions (84) and ranks among the nation's elite in both receiving yards per game (14th, 99.7) and receptions per game (16th, 7.0). He enters the bowl 83 yards shy of the single-season receiving yardage record of 1,278 and needs 17 on top of that to tie the single-season school record with six 100-yard receiving games. Illinois will go with Troy Pollard in the backfield, who averaged 7.45 yards per carry this season, after Jason Ford and his 600 rushing yards and seven touchdowns this season were not cleared to play.
UCLA’s defense has struggled overall this season, ranking third in the Pac-12 against the pass (232.6), ninth in total yards (424.2) and scoring (32.2), and 11th in defending the rush (191.5). The Bruins’ defense is 96th out of 120 FBS schools when it comes to points allowed, and 111th overall with just 13 sacks. Speaking of 13, UCLA netted 13 interceptions this year, but managed only a minus-4 turnover margin due in large part to 24 miscues on offense. Junior linebacker Pat Larimore is 17th in the conference with 6.2 tackles per game, while freshman linebacker Eric Kendricks ranks 31st at 5.1. When defending the pass, look for Tevin McDonald (7 PBU, 3 INT), Sheldon Price (6 PBU, 1 INT), Andrew Abbott (4 INT), and Sean Westgate (3 INT) to attempt to disrupt Scheelhaase and Jenkins.
In special teams, Illinois senior placekicker Derek Dimke has missed just one kick all season. He hit 8-of-9 field goals and all 32 of his PATs on the year and is the most accurate kicker in Illinois history, ranking third among active NCAA kickers in field-gioal accuracy (.860). UCLA’s Jeff Locke is sixth in the Pac-12 with 44.1 yards per punt, while Josh Smith is eighth with 23.3 yards every kick return.