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All selections, analysis and thoughts will be posted on the Bowl Express Thread
SPOOKY EXPRESS BOWLING FOR DOLLARS SELECTION AND ANALYSIS THREAD Hunger Bowl
Illinois vs. UCLA
Saturday, Dec. 31, 3:30 pm
The Illinois Fighting Illini and UCLA Bruins come to San Francisco to play in the Fight Hunger Bowl on December 30. Frankly, it’s difficult to find many bowl games throughout history that featured two teams in such a horrible state. Their combined record of 12-13 only tells part of the story. It’s just strange to see two schools in a bowl game whose coaches were both fired for their teams being so bad. But with each team on the ropes and crawling to the finish, it presents an interesting handicapping challenge.
Illinois became the first BCS team to win 6 straight before losing 6 straight. There is no understating the deflating nature of such a drastic turn. At 6-0, you’re thinking about a potentially great season and before you know it, you’re completely lost and wallowing in a nightmare. At 6-0, who could have possibly thought that Zook would be fired before the season was even officially finished?
UCLA obviously has their own issues. The Bruins have only won 3 games against teams with winning records in Neuheisel’s 4-year tenure. This season was a topsy-turvy one, but with much more disappointment than success. At the same time, they have been spared the thudding crash back down to earth that Illinois has been forced to endure. UCLA was never that far off the ground to begin with. They actually did fairly well in their conference--good enough to represent the Pac-12 South Division in the championship game against Oregon, though NCAA sanctions against USC made that possible. Following the Neuheisel firing, they were quite plucky in a 49-31 loss to Oregon, as 31-point underdogs. Seeing how UCLA did not phone it in against Oregon suggests some spunk still exists on this squad. Losing 50-0 to USC the week before the Oregon game was another story. But 3 games ago, they pounded Colorado 45-6. It’s difficult to tell what you will get with this team, but 4 covers in their past 6 games doesn’t really indicate a team that has folded up the tent and gone home for the winter.
And while Illinois’ demise is historically bad, their defense must be respected. The fact they are number-four against the pass is probably stacked more at the beginning of the year, but this defense is still showing up to play. In the midst of this dismal stretch, they still managed to hold Penn State to 10 points and high-powered Wisconsin to 28 points two games ago--the Badgers’ lowest point-output of the entire season. The problem for Illinois lies with an offense that has simply dissolved in the second-half of the season. QB Nathan Scheelhaase got benched late in the year. Replacement Reilley O’Toole has been even worse, though to be fair, the freshman has only thrown 65 passes. Big-play WR A.J. Jenkins’ production has gone down with the depleted form at quarterback. A mere 66 points during this 6-game skid shows how inept this group has been, particularly after putting up 208 points in their first 6 games. The tough second-half scheduling had something to do with that, but their 6 straight losses didn’t all come against great teams. The Bruins run-attack matches up well with an Illini “D” that is better against the pass.
The UCLA defense, on paper, could be more porous than the teams Illinois has been struggling against. Then again, the bad defensive stats for the Bruins came about from facing powerful offenses that bear no resemblance to the anemic Illinois offense that has shown up for the past 6 games. The numbers seem a bit erratic due to the quality of teams they have played but I have Illinois winning this by 2 touchdowns and I guess that makes Illinois a no brainer in this game. Will come back closer to kickoff for some more thoughts.