They’ve waited nearly a month for this, and now its finally here.
UCLA’s football team, coached by a guy who will be leaving Westwood to seek other opportunities as soon as the clock hits three zeroes in the fourth quarter, will be playing in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl at a baseball stadium, AT&T Park in San Francisco, on New Year’s Eve – this coming Saturday – against the Illinois Fighting Illini, a team that likewise has an interim coach.
These Illini from Champaign has had problems of their own, namely losing six straight after a 6-0 start – the first time in NCAA FBS history that has happened – leaving them with a 2-6 record in the Big Ten Conference and resulting in the firing of coach Ron Zook.
Looking at Illinois, it is clear that this is a team that’s built on defense, which explains them being two-point favorites and will be a concern for the Bruins and their run-oriented pistol offense, as they haven’t really shown that they can be really successful against a quality defense this season, illustrated by USC shutting them out.
Whitney Mercilus is the star of Illinois’ defense and a guy that UCLA and Mike Johnson, the Bruins’ offensive coordinator who will be the interim head guy this Saturday, will have to worry about and contain as he leads the Illini in tackles for loss with 19.5 for 106 yards and sacks with 14.5.
As the Bruins’ offensive line has been merely OK – good in the running game but not as good in pass protection – and will be without Albert Cid because of him being academically ineligible, Mercelius will be looking to cause havoc in UCLA’s backfield, particularly on pass plays, but he’s not the only member of Illinois’ defensive front seven that the Bruins have to be concerned about.
Jonathan Brown and Michael Buchanan are two other guys who the Bruins will have to contain, Brown leading Illinois in tackles with 102, 19 of them resulting in lost yardage, while Buchanan is another beast with 6.5 sacks, giving the Illini a total of 36, averaging three a game.
As for the offensive side of the ball, that has been pretty much Illinois’ downfall in their six-game slide.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhasse has been merely adequate behind center, much like the Bruins’ Kevin Prince. He completed 63.6 % of his passes on his way to throwing for 1,971 yards and 12 touchdown passes, which is not exactly Heisman Trophy-level. His top running back is Jason Ford, who has only 600 net yards on the ground this season with a 3.9 yards per carry average, paling in comparison to UCLA’s thunder and lightning, Derrick Coleman and Johnathan Franklin.
A.J. Jenkins is the Illini’s go-to guy in the air, as he has 1,196 yards with seven touchdowns while the next best receiver has barely over 200.
All of this adds up to an opponent that, while a cause for concern on defense, doesn’t strike fear in Bruin Nation they way that Boise State would have if UCLA were to have been selected to play in the Maaco Las Vegas Bowl. Arizona State got smashed by those Broncos 56-24, and the same result would have likely happened to the Bruins.
In short, this is a winnable game for UCLA as they prepare to have Jim L. Mora take over the head coaching duties afterward.
The question is, can the Bruins overcome the challenge Illinois poses on the defensive front, play a well-executed game with no turnovers or costly mistakes, and leave the Bay Area with a win.