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.”