Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl 2011: Key Matchups for UCLA vs. Illinois
The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl has announced its two participants for 2011, and they are the Illinois Fighting Illini and the UCLA Bruins.
Each team only has six wins, and each had a very disappointing season. UCLA was the favorite to win the Pac 12 South, and though they did in the end (because of the USC Trojans' ineligibility), they did so unimpressively.
Illinois started the season 6-0 and got as high as No. 15 in the polls, but then lost each of their last six games.
Both teams would love to get a big bowl victory to stop the bleeding and get some momentum going into the 2012 season. Here are the five most important matchups in this New Year's Eve matchup between Illinois and UCLA.
Mike Johnson vs. Ron Zook
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If this game had been played a month ago, it would have pitted two coaches on the hot seat against each other. Instead, Rick Neuheisel was fired by the UCLA Bruins, and now offensive coordinator Mike Johnson will assume the duties of interim head coach.
The man he'll face, Ron Zook, is still hanging on to his job with the Illinois Fighting Illini, despite a 34-50 record in Champagne.
This game presents an interesting matchup between a career offensive coach (Johnson) against a career defensive coach (Zook). Moreover, it's a game that both coaches will desperately want to win; Johnson because it's his first audition as a head coach, and Zook because he's fighting to keep his job.
Illinois Offense vs. UCLA Defense
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What happens when a very stoppable force meets an easily movable object? Well, we're going to find out when the Illinois Fighting Illini offense faces the UCLA Bruins defense.
The Illini offense is only 91st in the country in points per game. In Illinois's last six games (all losses), they have scored an average of 11 points, and they haven't scored more than 17 in any of those games.
The UCLA defense is equally hapless, as they rank 96th in the country in points allowed. They've given up at least 45 points in each of their last three games.
Whichever one of these units steps up and exceeds expectations could decide who wins the game.
Kevin Prince vs. the Illinois Defense
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Kevin Prince has been one of the few bright spots for the UCLA Bruins this season. After Richard Brehaut went out for the season, Prince took the starting spot, and for the most part he's done well. He's thrown for over 1,600 yards and 10 touchdowns.
He had a rough game against the Utah Utes a month ago, but he's done better since and threw two touchdowns and zero interceptions Friday in the Pac 12 Championship.
He'll be facing a solid Illinois unit. The Fighting Illini defense is only giving up 20 points per game, which ranks them 21st in the country.
AJ Jenkins vs. the UCLA Secondary
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Illinois Fighting Illini wide receiver AJ Jenkins is perhaps the top pro prospect playing in this game. He has 84 receptions for 1,196 yards and seven touchdowns on the season.
The secondary he's facing has been very mediocre this season. They give up an average of 232 yards per game, and they have allowed 27 touchdowns on the season. The UCLA defensive backs will have to step up to keep Jenkins from having a big game.
Nathan Scheelhaase vs the Ball-Hawking UCLA Defense
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UCLA may give up a lot of yards and points, but they do force turnovers. The Bruins defense has intercepted 13 passes this season.
On the other hand, Illinois Fighting Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in the second half of the season. Whether he can protect the ball or the UCLA defense can force him to make mistakes could be the deciding factor in this game.