The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl was played this Saturday on a beautiful sun-drenched day at AT&T Park in San Francisco. The game pitted UCLA, who came into the game at 6-7, against Illinois, who was 6-6.
The three biggest highlights on the day had nothing to do with the actual contest. First was the gorgeous weather. It truly was a picture postcard day, amazing for Dec. 31.
Second were the pregame festivities with Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott being honored and involved in the coin toss. These three former 49er greats received the largest ovation of the day when they were announced.
Finally, the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl's mission of fighting hunger and donating meals to the hungry was achieved.
The Executive Director of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, Gary Cavalli, alerted me to the fact that three meals were being donated to the needy for every ticket sold. With an attendance mark of 29,878, that meant nearly 90,000 meals were donated from this game alone.
A big thank you and congratulations are in order for Kraft Foods, Cavalli and his staff for organizing and putting on such a tremendous event. The real winners are the charities who receive these meal donations to feed the hungry.
Now, more about the game itself. One of the most interesting stories was the fact that both teams were coached by interim head coaches, as UCLA fired Rick Neuheisel and Illinois ousted Ron Zook only weeks earlier.
Mike Johnson led UCLA, while new head coach Jim Mora watched and undoubtedly realized he has a lot of work to do.
Illinois was led by interim coach Vic Koenning, as Tim Beckman looked on. The former Toledo head coach, Beckman, will take over the Illinois program. He had to be pleased to see the Fighting Illini break a six-game losing streak with a 20-14 win.
The two teams both showed why they are middle of the pack squads. The offenses looked rusty as the first half was dominated by several dropped balls and others that should have been caught.
UCLA had two great chances on their first drive as quarterback Kevin Prince made two fine deep throws from around mid-field. Both of Prince's passes were on the money, but were not caught. One, thrown to Nelson Rosario would have been a touchdown, but Rosario was unable to hang on.
On UCLA's second drive, another pass was not caught which would have resulted in a key first down. Prince made several good throws in the first half which would have given UCLA a much bigger lead, had the Bruin receivers made the catches they should have.
Illinois was not immune to the stone-handed approach. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase had his team driving, but threw a pass right on the numbers to tight end Jon Davis. Davis had the ball bounce off his chest straight up into the air for an easy UCLA interception.
The only touchdown of the first half was scored by UCLA when Prince made a good throw into the end zone to Taylor Emvree who made a nice over the shoulder catch for a 16-yard touchdown.
The halftime score was 7-3 in favor of UCLA, as neither team was able to do much offensively.
UCLA continued to struggle, as Joseph Fauria missed a 17-yard pass that would have been a touchdown, early in the third quarter.
One thing held true to form and that was the strength of the Illinois defense. The Fighting Illini held UCLA to only 18 yards rushing and 219 total yards. However, the entire game would have been different and the UCLA yardage figures much higher had they not missed so many passes.
The Illinois defense was responsible for their first touchdown late in the third quarter. Prince floated a pass on a long out pattern which was intercepted by Terry Hawthorne, who easily scampered 39 yards for the score. Hawthorne was named the Most Outstanding Defensive Player as his touchdown gave Illinois a 10-7 lead.
The offensive play of the day for Illinois came when Scheelhaase faced a third and nine at their own 40-yard line. He found receiver A.J. Jenkins on a slant, who split the seam of the defense and outraced the UCLA secondary for a 60-yard touchdown. This gave Illinois a 20-7 lead, which in effect iced the game for the Fighting Illini.
Scheelhaase impressed me more as a runner, as he was easily the leading rusher on the day. He carried the ball 22 times and had a game-high 110 yards. Scheelhaase was named the Most Outstanding Offensive Player of the game.
UCLA did convert their final drive of the day into seven points as they marched 84 yards late in the fourth quarter. The Illinois defense was playing soft, which allowed Prince to complete short to medium range passes.
Prince found Rosario for a 38 yard touchdown with 29 seconds left to play. This made the score 20-14.
UCLA tried an onside kick, but it was recovered by Illinois, which locked up the victory. Illinois finishes their season at 7-6, while UCLA ends up 6-8.
Although the Fighting Illini defeated UCLA, I think we can all agree that the real winners are the thousands of people who will benefit from the meals donated by virtue of this game.
For those of you who wish to donate to this worthy cause, you can do so from the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl website. http://www.kraftbowl.org/