UCLA and Illinois square off in the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on New Year's Eve. Although this bowl game is only in its 10th year of existence, it is developing a very positive reputation.
The game has been a sellout in four of the past five years, and bowl organizers are hoping for another big crowd. The participants in this year's game are UCLA, from the Pac-12, and Illinois, from the Big Ten. There is already a built-in conference rivalry, and this promises to be an exciting game.
I interviewed executive director Gary Cavalli, who is one of the co-founders of this bowl game. He was thrilled to be able to attract two big-name teams from these two conferences and match them against each other.
The conference rivalry stems from the Rose Bowl, when the then-Pac-10 champion always played the Big Ten champion. I will discuss each team later in this article, but first I want to delve deeper into why this is such a great game.
Kraft Foods, Inc. is the title sponsor for this bowl game and has been since 2010. Kraft uses this as one of its focal points in its effort to fight hunger across the country.
The "Huddle To Fight Hunger" campaign is a group effort between Kraft, football and Feeding America. In 2010, this charity provided 20 million meals to those in need. The 2011 goal is to increase that to 25 million meals served.
The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl donates three meals for every ticket sold. In 2010, when Boston College played Nevada, there were approximately 40,000 fans in attendance, which meant 120,000 meals provided.
According to Cavalli, who has been the executive director of this bowl game since its inception over nine years ago, they would like to see 45,000 fans at the game and would be able to donate 135,000 meals to the hungry.
Let's now take a look at the upcoming 2011 game between UCLA and Illinois.
UCLA fired head coach Rick Neuheisel after four seasons
The UCLA Bruins head into the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl without head coach Rick Neuheisel. He was fired after the Bruins' loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game. Neuheisel had compiled a record of 21-29 in his four seasons at UCLA.
UCLA had some very strong victories this year, including a 31-14 win over Cal and a 29-28 win over Arizona State. The problem was it also had some bad losses. UCLA was pummeled by Stanford 45-19, lost to lowly Arizona 48-12 and fell to Utah 31-6. The final straw was a 50-0 blowout loss to arch rival USC.
UCLA finished the season with a 6-7 record and had to petition the NCAA to allow it to participate in a bowl game with a losing record. This provided some anxious moments for the organizers of the Kraft bowl game. Fortunately, the appeal was granted, and UCLA will play.
Although the Bruins just hired Jim L. Mora to be their new head coach, offensive coordinator Mike Johnson will lead them in this game.
Tim Beckman takes over as the new head coach at Illinois
The University of Illinois began the 2011 season with six straight victories. The euphoria was running rampant, as the Fighting Illini were on a roll.
Unfortunately, the wins came against weaker opponents, and the tide turned dramatically once Illinois had to play some tougher teams. In its seventh game of the year, Illinois lost to Ohio State 17-7 and then proceeded to lose its next five games, ending up at 6-6.
Head coach Ron Zook was fired after this collapse and ends his tenure at Illinois with a 34-51 record in seven seasons.
Tim Beckman was hired as the new coach of the Fighting Illini. He joins Illinois after three successful seasons leading Toledo to a 21-16 record. Prior to his arrival in Toledo, the team was 3-8, and the Illinois faithful are hoping he can lead a similar turnaround in Champaign.
The Illinois defense is led by Whitney Mercilus
UCLA averaged 23.8 points per game in 2011, and it will be going up against an Illini defense that allowed 20.1 points per game.
The UCLA offense is very balanced with 191 yards per game rushing and 198 passing for a total of 389 yards per game. This ranked only 62nd out of 120 Division I-A schools in the NCAA.
Defense is the strong suit for the Fighting Illini. They allowed only 291.8 yards per game, which was seventh-best in the country.
UCLA is led by quarterback Kevin Prince, who completed 112 out of 195 pass attempts for 1,627 yards. Prince's completion rate was only 57.4 percent, and he had 10 touchdowns against seven interceptions. Prince also is a threat on the ground, as he rushed for 455 yards on the year.
The UCLA running ground attack is led by Johnathan Franklin, who rushed for 947 yards and had a 6.0 yards per carry average. Backup Derrick Coleman is also a threat, having rushed for 743 yards this year.
Senior wide receiver Nelson Rosario is the main target for Prince. He led UCLA with 61 receptions for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns. Rosario is a big-play threat, as his 18.1 yards per catch indicates. At 6'5" and 219 pounds, Rosario is destined to play in the NFL.
An interesting side note to the game is that Jerry Rice Jr., son of the former 49er great, is also a reserve wide receiver for the Bruins.
For Illinois, sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown leads the team with 102 tackles, including six sacks. He is joined by defensive end Whitney Mercilus, a junior, who is a beast coming off the end. Mercilus has 14.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss.
Mercilus is a first-team AP All-American and definitely someone UCLA must account for on every play. He also won the Hendricks Award as the top defensive end in college football.
Nathan Scheelhaase leads the Illinois offense
The Illinois offense has had problems moving the football, especially late in the year. The Illini rank 86th in the country in yards per game at 358.2. However, they will be going up against a very porous UCLA defense.
The UCLA defense has struggled this season. Injuries have hurt this unit, and it is ranked 91st in yards allowed with an average of 424.2 yards per game. UCLA also allows an average of 32.2 points per game, which is 96th in the nation.
The quarterback for the Fighting Illini is Nathan Scheelhaase, who has completed 166 of his 261 pass attempts, a 63.6 rate. Scheelhaase has thrown for 1,971 yards, 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
A.J. Jenkins leads the Illinois receiving corps with 84 receptions for 1,196 yards and seven touchdowns. No other player has over 25 catches for Illinois, so UCLA should be bracketing Jenkins on every pass play.
The Illinois rushing attack is led by Jason Ford, who has 600 yards on the year. This is a very low number and underscores problems Illinois has along the offensive line.
Scheelhaase is also a threat on the ground with 514 yards rushing. This ranks him second on the team. Only a sophomore, Scheelhaase will get his first taste of bowl-game action.
Defensively, there really are no standouts for UCLA. Linebacker Pat Larimore leads the team with 81 tackles, and defensive end Datone Jones has 6.5 sacks. Both are only juniors, so new head coach Jim L. Mora will have something to build around for the future.
The major weakness of Illinois is on offense, and the primary weakness for UCLA is on defense. We'll see if either group can take advantage of the other.
Jonathan Brown disrupts this pass attempt
I believe this game will be a close, hard-fought battle. It will be very interesting to see how Illinois responds to its new head coach and whether it can turn around its six-game losing streak.
UCLA also has a new coach, although interim head coach and offensive coordinator Mike Johnson will guide the Bruins in this game.
This game benefits both teams, as they get the extra practice time and their new coaches will get to make some initial evaluations. Also, any time you get to a bowl game, it's always a plus for recruiting.
However, the real winner will be charity, as thousands of meals will be donated to feed the hungry.
The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl is scheduled to start at 12:30 pm California time on New Year's Eve at AT&T Park. If you have never seen this beautiful park, now would be an excellent opportunity. This is the home of the San Francisco Giants and is a true jewel.
The start time allows everyone to watch the game on TV or attend in San Francisco without interfering with any New Year's Eve celebrations.
When I spoke to the executive director of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, Gary Cavalli, he was very excited to have these two teams playing, along with the Pac-12 vs. Big Ten matchup.
Cavalli is also extremely pleased that this game is the driving force behind the ability to provide so many meals to the needy. With three meals being donated for every ticket sold, plus additional donations, Cavalli is targeting 135,000 meals donated based on this game alone.
For more information on the game, its history, how to get tickets or make a charitable donation to this worthy cause, you can go to the website at www.kraftbowl.org.