SAN FRANCISCO –
Of all the fitting endings for a UCLA football season that bordered on absolute chaos, perhaps the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl was the most appropriate.
After all, the Bruins were starving for some offense on Saturday afternoon at San Francisco’s AT&T Park.
UCLA managed just 219 yards – gaining just 18 on the ground – as a bloodthirsty Illinois defense made the bowl live up to its name with a 20-14 win over the Bruins.
And if anything sums up the UCLA season, it’s this: After leading for nearly the whole game, the Bruins become the first team in college football history to finish 6-8.
“This one stings,” UCLA junior offensive lineman Jeff Baca said. “We led most of the game, had a great defensive battle. Our defense played lights out. You saw today how good our defense could be, and if we don’t put them in such bad positions, it’s a different ball game. I’m not really thinking about next year yet.
“This one stings.”
The Illinois defense did not so much sting UCLA as punch the Bruins in the gut, though.
With 2011 Hendricks Award-winning defensive end Whitney Mercilus leading the charge, the Illini pushed the Bruins offensive linemen back, back, way back, almost into McCovey Cove, finishing with five sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
UCLA was on its heels for much of the game, resorting to desperate heaves to spark an offense that simply could not get its footing. The Bruins tried to run early but found little success, ultimately finishing with 170 rushing yards under their season average.
“They won the line of scrimmage today, and when the opposing team wins the line of scrimmage, there really aren’t very many holes,” said junior running back Johnathan Franklin, who finished with just 29 yards on eight carries. “I can’t just point fingers at the offensive line; we have to hit the line faster. But we can’t just be one-dimensional. When we throw the ball, we have to be able to complete it.”
But Kevin Prince struggled, when he wasn’t bombarded by a river of orange.
Prince finished 14-of-29 passing for 201 yards and two touchdowns but was harassed in the running game to the tune of negative-31 rushing yards on 10 carries, with the five sacks.
One bad throw turned the tides for Prince, as a late-third quarter pass attempt was intercepted by Illinois’ Terry Hawthorne and returned 39 yards for a touchdown.
“We have to be a team,” Baca said. “We have to all respond to adversity. Not just one guy, two guys – you all have to respond to adversity. I don’t know if that’s something we’ve lacked, but I will say it’s a quality of a winning team. If you want to be a winning team, you all have to respond together.”
The offensive ineptitude spoiled what had the makings of a banner day for Joe Tresey’s much-maligned defense.
Illinois managed just 118 yards on 41 yards in the first half – though, for measure, UCLA had just 65 yards on 28 carries – while the Bruins limited quarterback Nate Scheelhaase to just 33 passing yards.
“Our defense came out on fire,” junior defensive end Datone Jones said. “There was nothing like it all year. I wish we could’ve played like that all year. We might’ve been in a different bowl game.”
Scheelhaase would eventually find some rhythm, though, and after Hawthorne’s quick-pick-six, it was almost all downhill for the Bruins.
Scheelhaase connected with wide receiver A.J. Jenkins for a 60-yard touchdown midway through the fourth quarter to put the Illini up two scores, and after a Prince-to-Nelson Rosario 38-yard touchdown pass with 29 seconds left, Illinois recovered UCLA’s onside kick attempt.
“We knew we were going to have to get some shots downfield, but we didn’t want to throw as much as we did today,” interim head coach Mike Johnson said. “We had trouble getting the running game started, and they were giving us throws down the middle so we had to take some shots. We didn’t make enough of those plays.”
After the game, the Bruins seemed to struggle to determine whether they considered the bowl game to be No. 14 of the 2011 season or 1A of the 2012 season, as Jim Mora assumes control of the program. Many looked at it as a showcase for the seniors, one last game to represent UCLA. Some considered it an audition for Mora, who has had scant involvement with the Bruins during their bowl preparation.
Ultimately, it was a little bit of both.
“This game is definitely going to linger a little bit, at least for a couple days,” Franklin said. “But it has been a rocky season, a rough one, and I’m ready for a fresh start. I want to win. I didn’t come here to be an average team. We’re average, and our talent is way better than that.”