Finishing second in the Pac-12 South, the UCLA Bruins will accept an invitation to play Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. UCLA last played in this particular bowl in 2006, when it was called the Emerald Bowl, losing 44-27 to Florida State.
After ending the season with a 6-7 record, UCLA had to petition for a bowl bid.
The Bruins are 6-5 overall against Illinois, including a 2-1 record in bowls. The two teams last met in the postseason during the 1991 Hancock Bowl, a game UCLA won 6-3. The Bruins also won their most recent meeting with the Fighting Illini, a 35-17 romp in Champaign.
If UCLA is to win this time around, it will need big contributions from its star players on both sides of the ball. The Bruins showed a lot of heart during their valiant 49-31 loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game and will need to do so again.
One familiar Bruins face that onlookers won’t see on the sideline is Rick Neuheisel. The former UCLA head coach was fired after four years of underachievement and leaves the program in the hands of offensive coordinator Mike Johnson on an interim basis.
On the heels of another disappointing season in Westwood, and with a national coaching search in full swing, UCLA needs something positive to build on for the future. While it will take a complete team effort to beat the Fighting Illini on Dec. 31 in San Francisco, these five Bruins in particular will need to perform well if UCLA is to win.
The Bruins’ success in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl begins and ends with the play of starting quarterback Kevin Prince.
More of a runner than a thrower, Prince’s ability to execute UCLA’s pistol offense has dramatically improved over the season. His decision-making and fakes have been above average ever since he won back his starting job against Washington State, and he has run with a reckless abandon you wouldn’t expect from an infamously injury-prone quarterback.
Unfortunately, the offense has stalled against teams will stellar defenses—defenses like the one they’ll face come Dec. 31. Illinois ranks seventh nationally in total defense and boasts one of the best secondaries in college football.
When he does decide to throw, Prince will have to display uncommon accuracy to avoid costly interceptions. Prince has only passed for 1,463 yards through the air with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions.
If Prince can execute the pistol like he did in wins against Cal, Arizona State and Colorado, UCLA should compete. Alongside Prince and the offensive line, another huge factor in the Bruins’ running game will be...
Currently the team leader with 11 touchdowns, Derrick Coleman will have to rebound from two forgettable games against USC and Oregon if UCLA intends to have success on the ground.
Used primarily in short-yardage situations, Coleman has displayed better ball security than his running mate Johnathan Franklin, along with the ability to fight for first downs. However, he lacks Franklin’s explosiveness in the open field, which at times has cost UCLA touchdowns.
While Franklin will still get carries, Coleman will have the important ones in short-yardage situations and inside the red zone. Illinois has been far less effective against the run than it has against the pass, so expect the offense to pound the ball inside early and often.
Coleman needs to forget about his last two games and regain the form that led UCLA to the Pac-12 title game. If he can do that, the Bruins should have a good chance to leave AT&T Park with a win.
When the Bruins are forced to gain yards through the air, expect Nelson Rosario to get a lot of balls thrown his way.
A senior who commits unfathomable drops as often as he skies for mind-boggling grabs, Rosario will need to bring his good side to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl if UCLA expects to win this game.
Rosario leads his team with 1,008 yards receiving, 603 yards more than the next Bruin on that list (TE Joseph Fauria). At 6'5", Rosario will have an advantage in most matchups out wide and should be able to compensate for Kevin Prince’s overthrows.
Despite his size, Rosario has some speed running downfield, so expect him to win some jump balls deep along the sideline in single coverage. If he can consistently make the catches he’s proven capable of, it’ll go a long way toward keeping UCLA out of long-yardage situations.
He’ll have his hands full against a talented Fighting Illini secondary, but if Rosario shows up, he could relieve a lot of the pressure on the running game.
Defensive pressure up front will be key in disrupting Illinois’ offensive attack, and Datone Jones will be the man to provide it.
Jones leads UCLA in tackles for losses and sacks and is by far its best defensive prospect for the next level. UCLA hasn’t always been able to pressure opposing offenses, but when it does, Jones has been involved along the defensive line. He’s displayed effectiveness on the inside as a DT and on the outside as a DE, so Illinois should be prepared to see him coming from anywhere.
The Bruins' redshirt junior will have his hands full stopping Illinois’ ground game. The Fighting Illini employ a four-headed rushing attack with Jason Ford, Troy Pollard, Donovonn Young and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase all gaining at least 400 yards on the ground. With the exception of Pollard, each of those players has at least six touchdowns on the ground and has appeared in 11 or more games.
If Jones and the rest of the Bruins defense can consistently stuff the run, Illinois will have to rely on Scheelhaase to win the game for it. Scheelhaase has not looked good during the Illini’s six-game losing streak, so perhaps that’s where UCLA will want the ball. If UCLA’s defense shows up, expect Jones to be at the forefront.
Bowl games are often close affairs, and this year’s edition of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl might very well come down to a field goal. If that’s the case, UCLA will need Tyler Gonzalez to be on point if it expects to win.
Gonzalez started the year as the student manager for the UCLA men’s soccer team, having not kicked since high school years ago. When starting kicker Kip Smith went down with a hip flexor and punter Jeff Locke proved inaccurate from short range, Rick Neuheisel recruited Gonzalez to the squad.
Since his debut against Washington State, Gonzalez is 7-of-10 with a long of 44 against Oregon in the Pac-12 title game. He’s shown poise in pressure situations and will need to do so again in San Francisco.
If the game indeed comes down to a field goal, UCLA could have a worse leg on the field than Gonzalez.