Published December 31, 2011
| Sports Network
The bowl, formerly known as the Emerald Bowl, has a contract to slate the sixth-place finisher of the PAC 12 with multiple contracts for an opponent. This year Army was replaced by Illinois after the Black Knights failed to gain bowl eligibility.
The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl will be the 12th meeting between Illinois and UCLA. The Bruins have won the last four meetings between the two teams, taking victories in Champaign in 2004, in Pasadena in 2003, in the 1991 John Hancock Bowl and in the 1984 Rose Bowl. Illinois' last win over UCLA was a 26-7 triumph in Champaign in 1964.
After a promising six-game winning streak to start the season, Illinois lost its final six games to arrive at a 6-6 record. The poor finish resulted in the firing of head coach Ron Zook. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning will serve as interim head coach for the bowl game as Tim Beckman prepares to take over the program in the off-season.
Koenning commented on his team's morale.
"They're just excited to be here and excited for the opportunity to prove they are a better than what people have told them."
Illinois is 7-9 in postseason play all-time and picked up that seventh bowl win last year with a 38-14 victory over Baylor in the Texas Bowl.
UCLA also fired its head coach, Rick Neuheisel, after a lackluster 6-6 finish in the regular season. Neuheisel coached the team in its 49-31 loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 Conference Championship game, which made the Bruins the only team to be invited to a bowl game with a losing record (6-7). Offensive coordinator Mike Johnson is going to be the interim head coach for the bowl game while Jim Mora Jr waits to take over the program at the conclusion of the contest.
UCLA's bowl resume is much longer, with this game representing the Bruins' 31st postseason outing. The team is 14-15-1 all-time in bowl action, including a 30-21 victory over Temple last year in the EagleBank Bowl.
Illinois' offense began the year scoring 20 or more points in five of its first six games, however it did not surpass that mark during its six-game losing skid once. In their last outing, the Fighting Illini lost to Minnesota 27-7 after gaining just 160 yards of total offense. Despite the struggles, UCLA's interim head coach Mike Johnson is not underestimating the Fighting Illini's attack, "They have a physical offensive line. They have a quarterback that is extremely athletic and they've got a very good wide receiver that���s a big time playmaker so it���s going to be a good football game."
Nathan Scheelhaase completed 166-of-261 attempts for 1,971 yards and 12 touchdowns with seven interceptions to lead the Fighting Illini this season. Scheelhaase had just one 300-plus yard passing performance this season. The sophomore quarterback struggled in the second half of the year and has not thrown a touchdown pass in his last three appearances. He did a decent job as a duel threat as he dashed for 514 yards and six touchdowns.
A.J. Jenkins is the top offensive weapon for Illinois. The senior wideout was second in the Big Ten and 15th in the nation with 1,196 yards on 84 catches. The First-Team All-Big Ten star began conference play with 268 yards and three touchdowns on 12 catches against Northwestern. He followed that with 182 yards and two touchdowns on six catches against Indiana. Jenkins has been held out of the end zone and has had just one 100-yard receiving game during Illinois's losing streak.
Jason Ford, Illinois's leading rusher, is academically ineligible to compete in the bowl game. With Ford out, Troy Pollard will be given the bulk of the carries.
The strength of the Fighting Illini program is on the defensive side of the ball. Illinois is ranked seventh in the nation in total defense (291.8 yards of total offense allowed per game), 21st in scoring defense (20.1 points allowed per game), and fourth in passing defense (159.1 passing yards allowed per game). The aggressive front is also ranked in the top 10 in the country in sacks and tackles for loss. Jonathan Brown leads the team in tackles (102) and tackles for loss (19). Whitney Mercilus has been unstoppable all year as he leads the nation with 14.5 sacks.
UCLA's offense was streaky down the stretch. The Bruins were shut out by USC in their regular season finale before scoring 31 points in their loss in the conference championship game. Kevin Prince is not an easy player for the opposition to gameplan against. Prince has had huge passing and rushing games this season as he dashed for 163 yards against California and threw for 225 yards and four touchdowns against Colorado. The main issue with the junior quarterback has been inconsistency. He can look like a budding superstar one week before delivering a sub par performance the next. Prince contributed three total touchdowns and 195 total yards with no interceptions in his last outing.
Johnathan Franklin and Nelson Rosario are the biggest weapons in the UCLA offensive attack. Franklin enters with 947 rushing yards on the year and has displayed big-play ability over the course of the season. Rosario eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving mark in the regular season finale loss to USC. The sure handed wide out has had four 100-plus yard outings this season and racked up 98 yards and two touchdowns in his last outing versus Oregon.
Although UCLA's defense has unimpressive numbers, it has had the misfortune of going up against some of the top offenses in the nation. The Bruins allowed over 500 yards of total offense to USC and Oregon in their last two outings, but held Utah and Colorado under 300 yards of total offense in their games prior. Patrick Latimore is the anchor of the defense with 81 tackles.