Ever since the bowl matchups were announced, everyone has picked on the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl for being the the worst matchup of them all. The New Year’s Eve game features not one but both teams playing under interim coaches because the regular head coach was recently canned.
And both teams made dubious “history” on the way here. Illinois comes in riding a six-game losing streak, after starting 6-0. Before the 2011 Illini, no team in FBS history had started 6-0 and finished 6-6. Their opponent is 6-7 UCLA, who required an NCAA waiver to compete in this game despite a losing record. So these traditional college basketball powers play in a college football game with a combined 12-13 record. Ack.
On top of that, UCLA has four players ineligible for the game, including backup quarterback Richard Brehaut. Illinois has two ineligible, including leading rusher Jason Ford.
So sure, this bowl game has a lot going against it. But it is also has a lot going FOR IT. First of all, it’s in an awesome city. San Francisco along with New York, L.A., Boston, is one of the very few places I would dare live if I didn’t dwell in Chicago. And just like in real estate, location matters. Who the hell wants to go to Mobile, Shreveport, Nashville, Charlotte or other similar third world destinations for a bowl game?
Also, this game is being played in AT&T Park, a state of the art MLB facility home of the San Francisco Giants. AT&T Park is awesome! It’s beautiful. As an AT&T shareholder, I feel I should disclose that AT&T Park is sublime; they’re not playing in an old, dilapidated Liberty Bowl.
Come to think of it this game is way better than the Pizza City Bowl, or Pizza Pizza Bowl or whatever that thing is in Detroit.
When last we caught up with the Bruins, they were getting very predictably waxed by the Oregon Ducks in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game. What a shame for the conference to begin a wonderful new tradition with a pathetic game, thank the USC sanctions for that, and hope the same thing doesn’t happen next year with Ohio State in Big Ten.
Of Illinois’ 17 bowl appearances, UCLA will be the opponent for the fourth time. The Bruins took two of the previous three meetings. And this very match-up was the women’s volleyball national title game too. Which the Bruins also won. UCLA comes in led by tailback Johnathan (no, that’s not a typo, it’s really how he spells it) Franklin who averages6 yards a carry and needs just 53 more yards to hit a grand. WR Nelson Rosario has 1,100 receiving yards on the season. QB Kevin Prince is unimpressive; as are his numbers. The Bruins really struggle defending the rush as 7/12 opponents have put up 200+ yards on the ground.
Is this is a little thin, by my standards anyway. on opponent analysis? Yes, but this is a 6-7 team, and I run a Chicago-Midwest site, not a SoCal one.
And here’s one’s more insult of this game I found on the web
(Dr. Saturday) “This is supposed to be about genuine human uplift: The game itself is a culmination of Kraft’s “Huddle to Fight Hunger” initiative, which aims to donate 25 million meals this year through Feeding America. And what worse way could there be to draw attention to the cause than by inviting Illinois and UCLA,”
Junior defensive end Whitney Mercilus was named to the Associated Press All-America first team. That means he’s truly “everybody’s All-American” and he’s been named to 10 different All-America teams. Nine of which were first-team.
He also took home the Hendricks Award, given annually to the nation’s top defensive end.
“There’s a lot of great players out there, and I just happened to beat them out. It’s a blessing,” Mercilus said during halftime of a recent Illini basketball game.
Mercilus becomes the first first-team AP All-American from Illinois since offensive lineman Martin O’Donnell in 2007 and is the first Illini defensive player to earn first-team AP laurels since linebacker Kevin Hardy in 1995. Mercilus leads the nation in sacks (14.5), sacks per game (1.21) and forced fumbles (9) in 2011. He also is tied for fifth in the nation and leads the Big Ten in tackles for loss with 19.5.
This four bowls in a row the Illini have faced an opponent in their home state. (Baylor in the Texas Bowl last year, USC in the Rose Bowl ’07, LSU in the Sugar Bowl ’01).
Ford isn’t that big of a loss for Illinois though. In fact, no Ford could be addition by subtraction. Ford’s TD numbers are greatly inflated as his size warranted a lot more carries in goal line situations than all the other backs who played at Illinois during his four years. Also Ford has shown a tendency to be fumble prone in key situations.
Unfortunately, the Illini will be awfully thin at running back as sophomore Jay Prosch will be out with a staph infection. Prosch was just released from the hospital a few days ago, and his staph infection was quite serious. Prosch is rather obscure, but he’s very good at what he does. NFL scouts rank him the top fullback prospect in the class of 2014.
The Illini will have to split the carries between Troy Pollard and Donovonn Young, which might be an upgrade over Ford. Both backs ran for over 400 yards and had a much better yards-per-carry this season. Pollard ran for 7.5, Young 5.4.
Prediction (Picks record 39-19): Illinois 28, UCLA 21
Here’s the full bowl history of Illinois.
Last five starting tailbacks in Champaign in sequence: Pierre Thomas, Rashard Mendenhall, Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford. One of these things is not like the other! But the Illini can shred UCLA, who just gave up 352 yards rushing to the Oregon Ducks in their last game, with a 3rd-string Arena League talent at the position. They don’t need a future NFL player to run all over this team. Ford is MOST CERTAINLY NOT going to the NFL, but Young might someday.
Let’s just hope the Illini care enough to show up, because they really didn’t at Minnesota, and it REALLY showed.
But I don’t want to end on a downer. So here’s another factoid: Illinois is going for the first back-to-back bowl wins in program history. I think they’ll play for it and get it.
Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports Bank.net, an official Google News site generating millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Walter Football.com, Yardbarker, and Fox Sports
A Fulbright scholar and MBA, Banks has appeared on live radio all over the world; and he’s a member of the Football Writers Association of America, U.S. Basketball Writers Association, and Society of Professional Journalists. The President of the United States follows him on Twitter (@Paul_M_BanksTSB) You should too.
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