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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