Illini Feast on Bruins' Mistakes at the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl

December 31, 2011

Illinois' Whitney Mercilus Pursues Fumble
Tri Le / The Daily Sports Herald
San Francisco – A troubled Illinois Illini program gained back some momentum for next year, defeating an error-prone UCLA Bruins squad, 20-14, on a sunny New Year's Eve day in front of 29,878 fans at the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

Dual-threat quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase sparked the Illini with 110 yards rushing and 139 yards passing.

Entering the game however, much of the focus was off the field, as both squads were led by interim head coaches.

Illinois started the season 6-0, and then collapsed, dropping its final six games.  As a result, head coach was Ron Zook was dismissed and replaced by Vic Koenning.

To add further instability to the situation, Koenning did not know whether his offensive assistants would be available until the morning of game day.

Meanwhile, UCLA had won the Pac-12’s South Division, but entered the game with a 6-7 record marked by inconsistent play and a humiliating blowout loss to rival USC.

That loss prompted the dismissal of coach Rick Neuheisel and the hiring of former NFL coach Jim Mora for the 2012 season. Interim coach Mike Johnson was therefore given the task of manning the fort solely for this bowl game.

The first quarter was simply a battle of field position, as both offenses were stymied repeatedly on third down.

UCLA’s defenders made several standout plays during the quarter, with perhaps the most important being a touchdown-saving tackle by Keenan Graham on an Illini trick play.

With the Illini driving, Scheelhaase threw a lateral in the flat to receiver Darius Millines, who then completed a pass back across the field to a wide-open Scheelhaase. With daylight ahead and only one man to beat, Graham was able to make a nice open-field tackle.

On the very next play, the Bruins would make a drive-killing interception when a Scheelhaase pass bounced off of Illinois' Jon Davis and into linebacker Jordan Zumwalt's hands.

UCLA's Taylor Embree Catches TD Pass
Tri Le / The Daily Sports Herald
After the UCLA D stuffed the Illini on a fourth-and-one at the Illinois 45, the Bruins opened the scoring in the second quarter when Kevin Prince connected on a 16-yard fade pattern to receiver Taylor Embree in the corner of the endzone.

Prince lofted a nice ball to the 6’3” Embree, who subtly pushed the smaller Illini defensive back to create space for the grab.

The Bruins defense would come through again later in the quarter, stuffing the Illini on fourth down when Illinois pitched the ball to kicker Derek Dimke on a fake field goal.

UCLA's special teams read the play and did not let Dimke break contain on the right side, tackling him for a four-yard loss.

On the very next series, the UCLA offense would botch a center-to-quarterback snap in the pistol formation, as the ball flew beyond the reach of Prince and was recovered by the Illini at UCLA's 30-yard line.

Once more, the Bruin defense would make a stand, as Glenn Love and Datone Jones sacked Scheelhaase for a 15-yard loss on third-and-goal.  That win on third down would lead to a 36-yard Dimke field goal to close the half at 7-3.

The third quarter developed into a series of errors by both teams, essentially revealing why each squad has struggled throughout the year.

Both teams would make deep drives into their opponent's territory, only to then shank makeable field goals – 34 yards by UCLA’s Tyler Gonzalez and 37 yards by Dimke – wide right.

UCLA’s Prince would add in his own mistake for good measure, throwing a pick six to cornerback Terry Hawthorne on a pass across the wide side of the field for a 10-7 Illinois lead with :43 seconds left in the third quarter.

Hawthorne would make a nice read on the ball, step into the passing lane, and then waltz 39 yards uncontested into the endzone.

From that moment onward, the Bruins appeared to be on their heels the remainder of the game.

UCLA's Kevin Prince Scrambles
Tri Le / The Daily Sports Herald
"The corner just jumped it," Prince said. "'It was a little hitch route. I was anticipating him playing in the quarters-type look, where he's going to be off, cover-two look. And he just picked the ball off. Good play by him."

The Illini would add to their momentum at the start of the fourth quarter, as Scheelhaase made several great cuts on a beautiful 37-yard run.

That run would lead to a 37-yard Dimke field goal, and a 13-7 Illinois lead with 12:17 left.

Scheelhaase would put the nail in the coffin on the Illini’s next series, connecting with wideout A.J. Jenkins on a quick slant for a 60-yard touchdown. That score would give Illinois a 20-7 edge with only 5:36 remaining in the contest.

UCLA struggled to generate much offense in the second half, finishing the game with a paltry 18 yards rushing on 30 carries.  As a result, the Bruins ball-control attack would possess the pigskin for a mere 26 minutes the entire game.

UCLA eventually would score a late touchdown in garbage time when Prince completed a 38-yard pass to Nelson Rosario.  However, the Bruins subsequent onside kick attempt would fail.

Illinois improved to 7-6 with the win.  UCLA fell to 6-8 on the year.

Illinois Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase Prepares to Pass
Tri Le / The Daily Sports Herald

Player of the Game: Nathan Scheelhaase

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was a virtual one man band for Illinois, wearing down the Bruins defense in the second half with both his arm and his legs.

The Illini gave UCLA a heavy dose of designed quarterback keepers, which Scheelhaase eventually turned into big gains.  That in turn opened up the Illini's passing game.

"He was slippery," said UCLA linebacker Jordan Zumwalt.  "We did not expect him to run as much as he did."

News and Notes

1. Former 49ers Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott, and Joe Montana were present for the coin toss.

2. Standout Illinois defense end Whitney Mercilus had three TFL's and 1.5 sacks to finish with 16 scks on the year, tops in the country.  His 16 sacks equaled the school record set by Simeon Rice. Of tying the record, Mercilus said it was "a great, humbling feeling."

3. New Bruins coach Jim Mora was in the press box and spoke briefly with the media. He dismissed any Neuheisel-era talk of a Los Angeles "monopoly," stating that he was focused only "on the future."

By Mike Elliott
Staff Editor for The Daily Sports Herald

Photos by Tri Le
Photography Editor for The Daily Sports Herald

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