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.
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Final: Stanford 60, UCLA 59

#UCLA guard #Lazeric Jones scores 26 points but misses the potential game-winner in the lane, blocked by Josh Huestis, with two seconds left as Stanford wins 60-59. UCLA made just 15 of 24 free throws and had 9 turnovers in the first half, cutting it to just two in the second half.
Every time the Bruins cut the lead to one or tied, Stanford answered.

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UCLA vs. Stanford…. Pac-12 opener

As reported earlier, Norman Powell and Lazeric Jones will play tonight. Both suffered left ankle sprains but returned to practice yesterday and participated in this morning’s shootaround and warmups just a while ago.
Game tips off at 8 p.m. here at Maples. Will update you at halftime and after the game. Hang in there as we’re on a tight deadline for the paper, too. You can also follow live updates at http://www.twitter.com/jillpainter.

And happy new year!

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Downey to discover what’s in a name

One of the things that makes college sports so special is the names.

Not just the Horned Frogs and the Thundering Herd and the Banana Slugs, but the players themselves.

UCLA had a fun one in 2009 with Kevin Prince, the freshman Prince of Bel-Air.
But the Bruins’ opponent in Saturday’s Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl boasts perhaps the most appropriate name in all of college football.

Whitney Mercilus.

Mercy. Less.

“Pretty much, I played up to my name,” said the Illinois junior defensive end. “Going through this whole season, I can step back and say all the hard work I put in got me here. I would say, yeah, I’m a pretty good player.”

Pretty good?

Pretty good isn’t a nation-leading 14.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles. Pretty good isn’t a head slap that would make Deacon Jones smile and a stutter-step to rival Allen Iverson’s. Pretty good isn’t what is keeping Brett Downey up at night.

The UCLA junior offensive tackle will get his first start on Saturday in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl with the Bruins’ offensive line in tatters.

“I’ve been hoping for a start ever since I got here,” Downey said. “The fact it’s a bowl game just doubles how intense it is. I’m going up against a really good defensive end – he’s quite good, an all-American – so I’ve been watching a lot of film on him. It’s going to be tough, but I’m up for the challenge.”
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Quick chat with Kenny Orjioke

Each of the past few years, UCLA has poached a highly touted prospect from the East coast.
In 2009 it was Damien Thigpen. In 2010 came Arimide Olaniyan. Then 2011 brought Kevin McReynolds.
This year’s Eastern special comes in safety Kenny Orjioke out of Georgia.
Orjioke is only in his second year of football, but he garnered over a dozen offers from schools across the nation including Cal, North Carolina, ASU, Oregon State and Georgia Tech.
The UCLA offer came down just over a week after Mora’s hiring and Orjioke didn’t take more than a day to jump on the offer. The 6-foot-4, 225 pound safety is originally from California where he attended JSerra Catholic High School and the opportunity to return home was too much to pass on.
Orjioke is currently being recruited to UCLA as a safety but he does have the frame to grow into an outside linebacker.
Here is a quick chat that Inside UCLA Campus Correspondent Jacob Ruffman had with Orijoke, about his commitment.

Ruffman: How long have you been looking at UCLA?
Orjioke: I have always been interested in UCLA but I didn’t look too hard until I got the offer.

JR: UCLA hadn’t been on you through the whole process, what changed?
KO: I got a call from coach (Demetrice) Martin and coach (Adrian) Klemm to see if I was interested, and I said yes, and then they offered me a few days later. They sent me some pictures of the campus and statistics and I talked to some people who had gone there and were going there and I decided to go there.

JR: What made you jump on the offer so quickly?
KO: You know, there’s nothing at UCLA I could find anywhere else. It was the whole package. I love the campus, it has a great education, coach Mora is an excellent coach, it’s in a place where there’s a lot of national exposure and UCLA is in the top 5 for getting jobs post-graduation.

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