UCLA Will Play Illinois In Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl

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In what is a welcome bit of good news after suffering through a whole lot of bad, UCLA’s Bruin football team will be involved in the post season.

Now coached by offensive coordinator Mike Johnson on an interim basis after Rick Neuheisel was let go, the 6-7 Bruins, having been granted a waiver by the NCAA due to their sub-.500 record, will face the Illinois Fighting Illini in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl – formerly known as the Emerald Bowl – on New Year’s Eve, December 31, at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

“I…know (that) all of us will enjoy our trip and the opportunity to compete again in a bowl game,” Johnson said.

The game will be televised by ESPN at 12:30 pm.

This will be UCLA’s second trip to the home stadium of the baseball Giants, having last played there in 2006, when after an epic 13-9 victory over USC the Bruins lost to legendary coach Bobby Bowden and his Florida State Seminoles, 44-27, in what was a clear letdown and hangover.

This time around, UCLA will be playing a team that is similar to them in that these Fighting Illini from Champaign will also have an interim coach, as Ron Zook was fired after going 6-6, going on an 0-6 collapse after starting the season winning six straight.

This game could easily be called the Interim Bowl or the Fired Coaches Bowl.

These two teams have met 11 times before, the last time in 2004 when the Karl Dorrell-led Bruins went into Memorial Stadium in Champaign and beat the Illini, 35-17. UCLA and Illinois have played each other in three previous bowls, including the 1984 Rose Bowl when Neuheisel quarterbacked the Bruins to a big 45-9 win over the then fourth ranked Illini, and the 1991 Hancock (Sun) Bowl, a 6-3 win for UCLA.

Personally, I was relieved when it was announced that UCLA would play Illinois, as I was worried that the Bruins may have been sent to the MACCO Las Vegas Bowl and forced to play 11-1 Boise State, who only have the NCAA’s all-time leading passer in Kellen Moore and a coach who has now turned down the UCLA coaching job three times, Chris Peterson, and have made it a habit of blowing out opponents.

Being that the Illini has had problems of their own, this is a team that the Bruins can clearly beat.

Hopefully the team can get motivated enough to play with the same effort that they played in the Pac-12 Championship Game against Rose Bowl-bound Oregon; if they come out with that same kind of passion, it can well turn out to be a good New Year’s Eve for Bruin Nation.