(AP) — UCLA is the first team in a decade to earn a trip to a bowl with a losing record.
Illinois is the first FBS team in history to close the regular season with six straight losses after opening with six consecutive wins.
Therefore, it’s not surprising neither Rick Neuheisel nor Ron Zook will be around for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
In a matchup of two teams that have fired their coaches, the Bruins and Fighting Illini will meet Saturday in San Francisco with hopes that a bowl win can help diminish some of the frustration of painful seasons.
Illinois (6-6) became bowl eligible by beating Indiana on Oct. 8 to open 6-0 for the first time since winning the national championship in 1951, but it is just one of nine FBS schools that hasn’t won since. Despite ending the regular season on a six-game losing streak, the Illini, who reached as high as No. 16 in the Top 25, earned back-to-back bowl berths for the first time since 1991-92. That wasn’t enough to save Zook’s job, however.
Zook was fired after seven seasons at Illinois on Nov. 26, one day after a 27-7 loss to Minnesota in the regular-season finale.
Neuheisel was fired a day later after four seasons at UCLA, but still coached in the Pac-12 title game against Oregon on Dec. 2. The Bruins (6-7) only got to play in the game because Southern California was ineligible because of probation. A 49-31 loss to the Ducks dropped UCLA below .500, making the Bruins the first program to earn a bowl berth with a losing record since North Texas in 2001.
UCLA has since hired Jim Mora Jr., while Illinois has signed Tim Beckman from Toledo, but neither of those coaches will be on the sideline at AT&T Park. A pair of interim coaches will be in charge, with offensive coordinator Mike Johnson leading the Bruins and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning directing the Illini.
“I think it’s going to be a good matchup,” Johnson said. “It’s two teams that have gone down similar paths.”
It certainly could be an intriguing matchup with a UCLA offense that is capable of piling up points squaring off against Illinois’ stingy defense, and the Bruins’ vulnerable defense facing the Illini’s inept offense.
UCLA ranked third in the Pac-12 in rushing (190.7 yards per game) and was one of only two schools in the conference to have two players run for at least 600 yards. Junior Johnathan Franklin had a team-high 947 yards with five rushing touchdowns, while Derrick Coleman had 726 run yards and a team-best 11 TDs.
The Bruins had limited success passing with Kevin Prince throwing for 1,627 yards, 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions, but when the junior put the ball in the air, it was usually in Nelson Rosario’s direction. He finished the regular season with 61 catches for 1,106 yards, sixth-most in the Pac-12, for an average of 18.1 yards, ninth-best in the nation.
UCLA has alternated good and bad offensive performances in its last four games – combining for 76 points in two but just six in the other two – and now has the difficult challenge of facing Illinois’ high-pressure defense.
Despite being in the midst of an embarrassing skid, the Illini still finished the regular season ranked seventh in the FBS in total defense (291.8), fourth against the pass (159.1) and tied for 11th with 36 sacks. Much of this success stems from the play of All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who had an FBS-best 14 1/2 sacks and led the Big Ten with 19 1/2 tackles for loss.
With Illinois’ defense being its biggest strength, Koenning was given the opportunity to join Beckman’s staff as the defensive coordinator. He decided to turn it down but remains focused on getting the Illini prepared for their bowl game.
“We’re extremely excited,” Koenning said. “It’s an opportunity that, you know, we hoped very much to have a chance to play again. We have a lot of redemption to do.”
Much of that falls on the Illini’s offense.
Illinois averaged 11.0 points in its last six games – the second-fewest in the FBS since Week 7 – after averaging 34.7 points during its winning streak.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase averaged 122.2 passing yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions during the skid after averaging 206.3 yards with 10 TDs and three picks in the first six contests. The sophomore is playing behind an inferior offense line that allowed 35 sacks, tied for 12th-worst in the FBS.
Despite all their problems on offense, the Illini could have some success against UCLA.
The Bruins are ranked 96th out of 120 FBS schools in scoring defense (32.2 points per game) and tied for 111th in sacks with 13. They went 1-6 away from the Rose Bowl, yielding an average of 43.5 points in the defeats.
This is the fourth time these programs have met in a bowl game, with UCLA winning the John Hancock Bowl in 1991 and the Rose Bowl in 1984. Illinois won the Rose Bowl in 1947.
Updated December 25, 2011