UCLA to face Illinois in Fight Hunger Bowl
By JOSH DUBOW
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) For critics of the bowl system who believe the proliferation of games has only served to reward undeserving teams, this year's Fight Hunger Bowl could serve as a prime exhibit.
Illinois and UCLA will be run by interim coaches during Saturday's game, with the Illini having already fired Ron Zook and the Bruins letting go of Rick Neuheisel after disappointing seasons.
Illinois (6-6) comes into the game on a six-game losing streak and will be 12 weeks removed from their most recent win when the game starts. UCLA (6-7) has fared even worse, with a lopsided loss in a late-season rivalry game against Southern California and then another defeat in the Pac-12 title game to Oregon. They are the first team to go to a bowl with a losing record in a decade.
"We're both in this game having gone down similar paths," UCLA interim coach Mike Johnson said. "We all want to get our swagger back and come out on a positive note and end this season with a positive taste in our mouth."
Even though there hasn't been a whole lot of positive for either team this season, the players and coaches are making no apologies about playing in a bowl game.
"That's the rule every year: You get six wins you are bowl eligible," Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. "This is a great opportunity for both teams. As college athletes, to put all this work in and get this chance at the end of the season, I think it's awesome that there are a lot of teams that do get a chance to go to bowl game."
The way the season started, the Illini had high hopes for a bowl. They won their first six games and made it to No. 16 in The Associated Press poll before a loss to Ohio State sent them into a tailspin.
The Illini then lost tight road games in back-to-back weeks to Purdue and Penn State before falling at home to nationally ranked Michigan and Wisconsin. Illinois then lost 27-7 at Minnesota in the season finale, giving the Golden Gophers just their third win.
That led to Zook's firing and the promotion of defensive coordinator Vic Koenning to interim coach for the bowl game. Tim Beckman will take over next month but the Illini players are already viewing the bowl game as a fresh start.
"We hit rock bottom after our last game, when we lost our coach," All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus said. "It hit our morale and confidence a little bit, too. It happened so quickly, back to back, it was like a hundred hits at once. We got past it the week that it happened and we just started getting excited to be back at practice and have everything back to normal a little bit."
Now the Illini are trying to put those losses and changes to the side and focus on accomplishing something that has never been done before at the school.
Following last year's Texas Bowl win over Baylor, Illinois is looking to win bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time. Illinois has just seven bowl wins ever, with the closest being five seasons apart.
"Obviously there's going to be a lot of changes in our program after this bowl game," Scheelhaase said. "But we have a chance to make history. To be able to say that would be an amazing feat and accomplishment."
The motivation for UCLA is avoiding a losing record. A 50-0 loss in the final regular-season game led to Neuheisel's firing. The Bruins made it to the conference title game in the weak Pac-12 South because the Trojans were ineligible because of NCAA sanctions.
They then lost that game with Neuheisel still in charge 49-31 and needed a waiver from the NCAA even to be eligible for this game because of their losing record. They then hired Jim Mora as coach earlier this month to take over after the bowl game.
"It's been crazy, real crazy. The SC game was obviously a huge letdown for us," quarterback Kevin Prince said. "But to be able to come to a bowl even though we're 6-7 is big-time. Even though we've been real up and down this year, we want to go out on a win. There's no way we want to go out of here 6-8; 7-7 feels a lot better than 6-8."
Updated December 30, 2011