Bruins, Illini hoping to put an end to laughter

SAN FRANCISCO -

Cue the laugh track, folks.

So many jokes have been told since the announcement of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 4, Henny Youngman would be proud. College football writers became Catskills comedians, using UCLA and Illinois as punch lines.

Here are two teams that backdoored into the postseason, further proof that the bowl system is a farce, two teams with interim head coaches who will not be retained, two teams who have elicited more guffaws than a season of Saturday Night Live.

Just don’t tell the players that.

“We’re both teams who’ve had up-and-down seasons, both coaches have been fired, we’re both in the same spot,” UCLA junior quarterback Kevin Prince said. “And in bowl games like this, it’s the team who wants to win it the most that does. The team that wants to be here. We have to make sure that we’re that team.”

The two teams may find themselves in similar circumstances, but their respective paths varied greatly.

UCLA’s season was a roller-coaster, the peaks and valleys of a mountain range, the ride so nauseating that fans turned purple in the face. Just when all appeared lost, a 48-12 loss to Arizona in Week 7 indicating a tailspin, the Bruins surprised everyone won two straight over Cal and Arizona State, eventually heading to USC in Week 12 on a 3-1 streak. What followed was nothing short of a disaster – a 50-0 loss to the Trojans that spelled the beginning of the end of the Rick Neuheisel era, followed by a 49-31 loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship game, after which offensive coordinator Mike Johnson assumed the role of interim head coach.

In the beginning some guys were questionable about being at school for another month, but now all guys are all in,” UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin said. “You look at the last two games we played, 50-0, then losing to Oregon to go to the Rose Bowl, and we definitely need a win. Losing? Being 6-8? No.”

Illinois, meanwhile, had one big rise and one big fall.

The Illini started the season 6-0 behind a relentless defense that ranks seventh out of 120 FBS teams in total defense, fourth in pass defense, ninth in sacks and fifth in tackles-for-loss. To that point, Illinois’ offense had been keeping up its end of the bargain, ranking 33rd nationally. Then came a six-game slide against a brutal schedule, with losses to Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan, and ultimately, the termination of Ron Zook a day after Neuheisel’s firing, and with it the promotion of defensive coordinator Vic Koenning as interim head coach.

“We have a clear mind of who we’re playing and what we’re going up against,” UCLA junior cornerback Andrew Abbott said. “We know what their season was like. We respect them, but this game is more about us. It starts at home.”

It starts at home, and more specifically, it starts up front.

UCLA picked a poor time to have its offensive line reeling from injury and suspension, as Whitney Mercilus leads a ferocious front four into AT&T Park. UCLA junior offensive tackle Brett Downey, a former walk-on, will make his first start against the guy who led the nation in sacks (14.5) and forced fumbles (nine). He’ll get a little help, though.

“It will be a test, and a lot of it will fall on my shoulders,” Prince said. “I’ll have to make sure we’re in the right protection and that guys know where they’re going. It’s going to be on me that when we are throwing the ball, that I’m getting it out fast and that I know where I’m going with it.”

So often this season, that has been Nelson Rosario.

The senior wide receiver has perhaps the most to gain among Bruins, already over the 1,000-mark but with a chance to boost his draft stock with an impressive showing.

And Prince is sure to go to him, early and often, because that’s what you do when everything around you is tumbling down. You stick with what you know and who you know, and you hope that everyone rises to the occasion along with you.

And you try to make everybody stop laughing.

“It’s been weird; any time you have a coach who’s fired, it’s strange,” Prince said. “The way we have practiced has been different. The way we’re coached is different. Being able to adjust to that and get our focus onto this game has been tough, but I think we’ve done it.

“We’re here, we’re in San Francisco, and we have the feeling that the game is right here for us.”

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  • Coach Thom

    Any chance of hiring Koenning as our new DC?

  • Anonymous

    Toilet Bowl

  • 50-0

    Wonder what fartman thinks of this farce?

  • BE REAL

    It is sad how mean people have become over the last 20-years. History will deduce that a lot of this nastiness is a result of the internet, where people can anonymously say whatever they want without any fear of repercussions.

    That said, ucla and the Illinois’ kids worked their tails off to get to this point, they did not have the success they wanted, but they are better than a lot of other teams in this country.

  • Anonymous

    WAAAAH!!!

  • BruinFaithful

    BE REAL:

    Dude, seriously, put the pipe down. Leave already man, and don’t come back. The last thing we need is the sympathy of some Condom Blow Hard. I don’t even know why you come here. I don’t go over to Wolfie’s site to witness your Condom Matt Barkley circle jerk or his creepy pedofilic admiration of College Cheerleaders. So why are you here? You must cheer when you see a train wreck or a natural disaster. You sadist.

    Jon:

    Thanks for further perpetuating the aforementioned stereotypes. Way to kick us when we are down. But seriously, it’s not exactly the Rose Bowl. I mean, how many Bowl worthy candidates do they have at their disposal?

  • Bruin Gold

    I’ll be there!

    I’ll be cheering for the Bruins even as I scream at the players for being lazy, stupid, soft, sleepy, and gutless, telling them to drink coffee before playing to wake their spoiled selves up so they can give a damn about UCLA.

    Coach Mora is going to change things big time for the better. Words like accountability, responsibility, hard-nosed, and dedicated are music to my ears.

    Go Bruins!

  • BruinFaithful

    BTW BE REAL:

    Those so called mean anonymous posters are all your Condom bretheren. Those comments exemplify your fanbase. We may suck at FB, but you all SUC as humans. Which do think your win at all costs fanbase would prefer? Being good humans, or good at FB?

  • bushwhite

    Man 2011 has to be the best year yet. Looking at this nuclear meltdown of Westwood high fans will make me happy for years to come. And to top if off the delusional Notre Dame fans are at each other’s throats too!I couldn’t ask for a better Xmas gift! Nothing like seeing bruin and Irish fans realize the
    futility of their ways.

    Life is good sometimes..

    I hope Mora turns things around at the University of Common Little Adults. He is obviously a top tier
    coach. (cough cough)

    The Pac 12 is not getting any respect we need more good football teams. You had managed to keep Rick neweasel from running any more betting and gambling rings while he was there why did you fire him? Are you
    guys giving away handicapped parking stickers to football players again? I mean, like he said, he had “closed the gap” with USC..the gap is down
    to 50-0 now maybe in a decade or so the 2 teams will
    be even…but just idle thought.

    BTW nice game vs. Oregon. Your D is going to be monster in 2012 after giving up 99 points in your last 2 games.
    The “what were they thinking???” all white unis really
    summed your guys season up.

    OK good luck in 2012 and thanks for keeping Hiva Lutui
    busy during recruiting season. After he signs with USC
    we will send you all a nice photo of him with his USC
    hat on. :))

  • BE REAL

    “…to witness your Condom Matt Barkley circle jerk or his creepy pedofilic admiration…” wrote Bruinfaithful.

    BruinFaithful, you just proved my point, and at the same time you illustrated what “being good humans” means to you.

    But heckler censorship seldom works, especially on a sports blog, so maybe in 2012 you should work on sticking to the topic, which in this case was ucla and today’s bowl game.

    Happy New Year, BruinFaithful, and good luck with your life.