San Francisco, here come the Illini. The Illinois faithful have seen this season extended by one game as the Illini have been selected to play UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on December 31st.
This will be the first appearance for the Illini in this bowl and their fourth bowl game against the Bruins, most recently a 6-3 loss in the 1991 Sun Bowl.
UCLA will be making their second appearance in this bowl (in 2006) is currently on a two-game losing streak, losing three out of their last four. Illinois and UCLA have played 11 times; the Bruins holding a 6-5 edge.
University of Illinois
While it will be too lateto add to his chances to get the head coaching position, interim coach Vic Koenning will try to lead the Illini to their first back-to-back bowl wins and avoid being the first FBS team to end their season on a seven-game losing streak after starting 6-0.
The Illini wrapped up bowl eligibility back on October 8th with at 41-20 win at Indiana. Since then, the Illini offense has struggled mightily. First-half scoring was a key problem for the Illini during their losing streak as they only scored 17 points in the last six contests. This is in stark contrast to the first six games where the Illini averaged 18.2 points.
The Illini offense averaged 179 yards less a contest with the passing game dropping 59 yards a game and 120 less yards rushing. The ability to figure out the option, stop the run and cover A.J. Jenkins led to a significant amount of frustration for Paul Petrino's offense.
Vic Koenning's defense was a mixed bag in the second half of the season. They saw its total yards allowed improve by 10 yards a game. As the Illini faced teams with better running games (Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota), they struggled to stop the ground game, giving up 185.7 yards a contest over the last six, which was 106 yards worse than the first six games.
During this same time, the defense made their opponent's passing game irrelevant, giving up only 101.2 yards a contest. Most impressive was the effort the defense had against Russell Wilson (90 yards passing), who has proven to be one of the best signal-callers in the conference this season.
Do Illinois and UCLA deserve to be in a bowl game?
Head coach Rick Neuheisel was fired prior to the the Pac-12 title game. Like the Illini, the Bruins will be coached by an interim coach. According to the Washington Post, offensive coordinator Mike Johnson will lead them in their bowl effort.
The Bruins initially wrapped up bowl eligibility following a 45-6 win over Colorado on November 19th. However, because of their loss in the Pac-12 championship, UCLA had to get special permission from the NCAA to take part in the a bowl game. This bowl game will have the distinction of being the first with the teams having a combined 13 losses.
The offensive attack that is led by junior QB Kevin Prince. The Bruins have a balanced offense, averaging 198.1 ypg passing and 190.7 ypg rushing. Like the Illini's quarterback, Prince is active in the running game, being the teams third-leading rusher with 455 yards on 110 carries. Senior WR Nelson Rosario is Prince's big-play target, pulling in 61 catches for 1106 yards.
Defense is a weak spot for the Bruins. They give up 32.2 points per contest, which ranks 96th. Additionally, UCLA has shown that they can be beaten by both the air and the ground. In the Pac-12 title game, they gave up 352 yards rushing. In their showdown with USC, they allowed 423 yards passing.
Who will win?
Keys to the Game
Illinois will win if...they channel their inner Washington Sentinels (of The Replacements) and realize that to come back from the last six weeks they are “gonna need heart.” Over the past six games, the team lost its passion despite being a team that showed throughout the season that they could compete and play good defense.
However, it seems as the losses mounted, the team lost their love for the game and stopped believing in the offense. Coach Koenning needs to develop a solid game plan, focusing on using ONE quarterback and make sure to focus on the things that led to the 6-0 start.
The offense starts with QB Nathan Scheelhaase. He needs to feel comfortable in the pocket and get back to being the dual-threat QB that led them to their fast start. While it's important to develop Riley O'Toole, the switching in and out is taking away momentum and creating frustration for Scheelhaase if one watches his play. For this game, Paul Petrino's offense has to be all in with No. 2 to succeed.
Another key player who will have to find September versions of himself is A.J Jenkins. During the first six games, Jenkins averaged 135.8 yards per game receiving. During the losing streak, that number was cut by more than half as he averaged only 63.5 yards a contest. Defenses have focused in on him, but if he is truly among the conferences elite receivers, he will need to work on getting separation and catching the passes headed his way.
UCLA will win if...Defensive Coordinator Joe Tresey figures out how to get pressure on QB Nathan Scheelhaase and can contain A.J. Jenkins. Offensively, the Bruins need to figure out to stop first team Big Ten DE Whitney Mercilus. Mercilus, who has been named one of six finalists for the Ted Hendricks Award, has 14.5 sacks and has nine forced fumbles.
Illinois breaks their six-game slide and finishes 7-6 with a 17-14 win over UCLA.
Here's to 2011-12 being better for the next head coach and the Illini fanbase.