by Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman  on Twitter)
Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl
Illinois vs. UCLA
Date: Dec. 31, 3:30 PM ET
Location: AT&T Park, San Francisco, Calif.
The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl may have as much uncertainty as any game we will see in the postseason. Both Illinois and UCLA fired their head coaches following the season and will be led by interim bosses on New Year’s Eve in San Francisco. Bruins’ offensive coordinator Mike Johnson will take over in this contest for Rick Neuheisel, whose last game was a 49-31 loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship. UCLA missed the postseason in 2008 and 2010 under Neuheisel, and the Bruins had to have a waiver for this bowl after finishing 6-7. The departed UCLA alum did coach the Bruins to an EagleBank Bowl win in 2009 (30-21 over Temple).
After the bowl game, former Seahawks and Falcons coach Jim Mora will take over at UCLA.
Illinois’ defensive coordinator Vic Koenning will coach this game for the fired Ron Zook, whose Illini club started the season 6-0 before losing the final six games on the schedule. This will be the third postseason in seven years for Illinois. Zook took the Illini to the Rose Bowl in 2007 (49-17 loss to USC) and the Texas Bowl (38-14 win over Baylor) last season. Former Toledo coach Tim Beckman has been named as the new head coach at Illinois and will take over after this game.
WHEN UCLA HAS THE BALL:
Gritty junior Kevin Prince will start at quarterback, and he will need to stay healthy with backup Richard Brehaut suspended. UCLA was inconsistent throwing the ball this season. Prince is a solid runner, and his legs should help the Bruins avoid some of the ferocious Illini pass rush. UCLA leading receiver Nelson Rosario had 61 catches for 1,106 yards and four scores this year, while 6’8” tight end Joseph Fauria (nephew of NFL veteran, Christian) was a solid red zone target with six touchdowns.
The Bruins' pistol offense is led by the solid running tandem of Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman, and they helped UCLA rank 29th in the country this season in rush yards per game. The speedy Franklin tallied 947 yards and five touchdowns, while the bruising Coleman added 726 yards and 11 scores. The Bruins should also get some yards on the ground from Prince, and mobile quarterbacks hurt Illinois late in the year.
The Illini rank seventh in the nation in total defense and fifth in tackles for loss. UCLA will have to know where defensive end Whitney Mercilus is at all times, as he led the nation in sacks with 14.5 as part of 19.5 tackles for loss. Additionally, Illinois had two other defenders with over 12 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Leading tackler Jonathan Brown had 102 stops to go with 19 TFLs and six sacks, while pass rusher Michael Buchanan added 12.5 TFLs and 6.5 sacks. Illinois obviously plays well against the pass, but the main focus against the Bruins will be stopping the running duo of Franklin and Coleman.
WHEN ILLINOIS HAS THE BALL:
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase can be quite the dual threat for the Illini, and he passed for 1,971 yards (12 TDs, seven INTs) this season while also adding 514 yards on the ground with six scores. However, the athletic sophomore can also be inconsistent. He threw for 10 TDs and three INTs in Illinois’ first six games, but then tossed only two touchdown passes against four picks over the final six contests.
The Illini will be missing leading rusher Jason Ford (600 yards, seven TDs) who is academically ineligible. Scheelhaase will move the ball on the ground and will also get contributions from senior Troy Pollard and freshman Donovonn Young (who could miss the game with an ankle injury). Scheelhaase’s favorite target – by far – is receiver A.J. Jenkins (84 catches for 1,196 yards and seven scores). Spencer Harris had the second-highest number of receptions, 25, on the team.
UCLA ranks 96th in scoring defense and 95th in the country against the run. Plus, the Bruins only had 13 sacks in 13 games this season (versus 14.5 for Illinois’ Mercilus). Linebacker Pat Larimore was the Bruins leading tackler with 81 stops on the year, but he will miss this game due to thumb surgery. With top safety Tony Dye also out, defensive lineman Datone Jones – who led UCLA in tackles for losses and sacks – will have to lead the way.
Both teams have good kicking games but do not get much at all in the return game. Illinois has a very good kicker in Derek Dimke, who was 8-of-9 on field goals and perfect on 32 extra points this season. The Illini split the punting duties between freshman Justin DuVernois and receiver Ryan Lankford. DuVernois received most of the work, and the duo combined for a 38-yard per punt average.
UCLA has an excellent punter and a great story at kicker. Punter Jeff Locke averaged a solid 44.1 yards on 56 attempts. He had 12 punts over 50 yards and put 23 (41.1 %) of them inside the 20-yard line. After two Bruins’ kickers were hurt and Locke struggled with place kicking, UCLA found a solid replacement in Tyler Gonzalez. He started the semester as student manager for the men’s soccer team, but went 7-for-10 on field-goal tries after stepping onto the gridiron.
This one is tough to predict because of the uncertainty surrounding both programs in the month of December. UCLA finished better than Illinois, but the Bruins were wildly inconsistent throughout the season. The same applies to the Illini, and it will be interesting to see if both teams are motivated for this game.
Illinois 23, UCLA 17