Illinois Football: Four Keys for the Illini at the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl

Jeffrey BatheContributor IIIDecember 7, 2011

CHAMPAIGN, IL - OCTOBER 15:  Whitney Mercilus #85 of the Illinois Fighting Illini rushes against Jack Mewhort #74 of the Ohio State Buckeyes at Memorial Stadium on October 15, 2011 in Champaign, Illinois. Ohio State defeated Illinois 17-7.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

History will be made for the Illini regardless of the result of their bowl game against UCLA.

Lose, and the Illini become the first team to lose seven straight games in one season after winning six straight. If they win, it will be the first time that the Illini win bowl games in consecutive seasons.

There are many things that influence the game, but here are four keys that can impact the Illini on New Year's Eve.


Illinois vs. The Ghosts of UCLA Bowl Games Past

The last two times the Illini have played UCLA in bowl games, it has ended with an ugly game from the Illini's perspective.

In 1991, the Illini had a new coach for the bowl game, as Lou Tepper led the Illini into the John Hannock Bowl. In a game that most Illini fans would want to forget, the Illini's offense struggled on their way to a 6-3 loss.

That loss pales in comparison to the 1984 Rose Bowl loss to UCLA.  The Illini turned Rick Neuheisel into a UCLA icon as he passed for 298 yards and four touchdowns en route to a 45-9 win for the Bruins.

If the 2011 Illini remember the feelings of last year's bowl experience, they should shake the struggles and win bowl games in consecutive years for the first time in the program's history.


UI DE Whitney Mercilus vs. UCLA RB Johnathan Franklin

The Hendrick Award winner Mercilus leads the nation in forced fumbles (nine) this season.

He has the speed and strength to make him a viable candidate for all of the major defensive player awards he is eligible for. Franklin has demonstrated the ability to run the ball, but he has had problems fumbling, with 18 in the past three seasons.

This matchup has the ability to be fun for the Illini unless something dramatically changes.  


UI WR A.J. Jenkins vs. CB Andrew Abbott

Biletnikoff Award semifinalist Jenkins showed in the first half of the season he was a beast. He gained 815 receiving yards and seven touchdowns on 46 receptions.

As teams keyed on him, he faded in the second half of the season but was still the favorite target of the Illini quarterbacks.

Abbott earned honorable mention Pac-12 honors this season. He has made a presence in the secondary with four interceptions and seven pass deflections.

He will have to step his game up to compete with the athletic Jenkins. 

If the Illini are committed to getting the ball to Jenkins, he will have a matchup that can be exploited.


UI AD Mike Thomas vs. UI Coaching Staff

First-year athletic director Mike Thomas is conducting a search to replace Ron Zook.

We have seen that he has been hindered by the search process at the university. This delay has led to some leading candidates being picked up by other institutions.

A bigger short-term problem is that it leaves the current coaching staff in limbo.  They have been told by interim coach Vic Koenning that they need to put their family first.

We see that offensive coordinator Paul Petrino has already left the team, and others are seeking to find a position.  The sooner a new head coach is hired, the sooner the current coaches will know their fate and can focus on the game plan at hand.

Go Illini!