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Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini vs. UCLA Bruins

It’s not often that two teams with fired coaches will face each other in a bowl game, but that is the case in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl where the UCLA Bruins will take on the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Illinois, formerly led by Ron Zook, and UCLA, formerly led by Rick Neuheisel, have underachieved this season, and predictably so. In fact, that seems to be a reason why Ron Zook was fired, if not the major reason. After starting the season undefeated and atop the Big Ten, Illinois lost its final six games, finishing the year with a record of 6-6.

UCLA didn’t start the year undefeated, they pretty much sprinkled in wins and losses wherever they saw fit, but they actually had a chance to beat Oregon at the end of the year in the Pac 12 title game, if you can believe it.

Of course, Oregon took care of business, and that’s why these two teams will play this game very much looking forward to the future and a fresh start.

Both teams have some very interesting young pieces, and that could make for a very entertaining game. Illinois has the players offensively to be the best team in the Big Ten, and once again, they have a player who came virtually out of nowhere to dominate this season and wow NFL scouts.

That player is defensive end Whitney Mercilus, whose name is fitting since he terrorized opposing quarterbacks all season long, leading the country with 14.5 sacks. His numbers are especially impressive since prior to the season, he lost half of one of his index fingers in a weight-lifting accident.

Mercilus and the Illinois defense need to come up with some big stops early for the offense, because UCLA may have under-performed this season but they can move the ball offensively, thanks to the production of senior receiver Nelson Rosario and the running back duo of Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman.

One duo I’m looking forward to watching this game is Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, who have not hooked up for a touchdown since the team’s last victory against Indiana back on October 8th.

That is a huge reason this team has not been able to win a game the last six weeks, and maybe even more so is the lack of a running game. In year’s past, we’ve seen guys like Rashard Mendenhall and Mikel LeShoure lead an absolutely unstoppable rushing attack for Illinois, and they really don’t have that in 2011.

The team’s leading rusher is Jason Ford, who is averaging less than four yards per carry and has only seven touchdowns and one game over 100 yards this season.

Scheelhaase was also expected to be one of the team’s leaders in rushing this season, and he is, but he’s not getting it done efficiently, averaging just three yards per carry with 18 combined touchdowns this season.

We will see if Illinois can come together and show some of what they were able to do during their six game winning streak to start the season, because they have a really good chance of beating a UCLA team that was 6-7 this season.

Photographs by spatulated, Triple Tri, and chrischappelear used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.