Illinois to play UCLA in Fight Hunger Bowl

SAN FRANCISCO — The Fight Hunger Bowl ought to be called the Interim Coach Bowl this season.

UCLA and Illinois accepted bids to the Dec. 31 game on Sunday after disappointing seasons that led both schools to fire their head coaches. That creates a matchup between a team with a losing record against one entering the bowl game on a six-game losing streak.

“I think it’s going to be a good matchup,” UCLA interim coach Mike Johnson said. “It’s two teams that have gone down similar paths.”

The Bruins (6-7) fired coach Rick Neuheisel last week before losing the Pac-12 title game 49-31 to Oregon to fall below .500. UCLA played in the game only because Southern California was ineligible because of probation. The NCAA approved a waiver for the Bruins because they were bowl eligible before the conference championship game. Johnson, who had been offensive coordinator, will coach UCLA in the bowl game.

The Bruins are the first team to make a bowl with a losing record since North Texas went to the New Orleans Bowl with a 5-6 record after winning the Sun Belt conference. The Eagles lost that game 45-20 to Colorado State.

“It’s a group that’s a resilient group,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it will be tough to get these guys focused on playing the game. Everyone, to a man, coaches and players, are determined to get the program back to where it should be. This is a stepping stone to get that going in the right direction.”

Illinois opened the season 6-0 and briefly surged into the Top 25. The Illini then lost six straight games, costing coach Ron Zook his job after a 27-7 loss to struggling Minnesota in the regular-season finale.

Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning is serving as interim coach, but athletic director Mike Thomas is already searching for a long-term replacement.

“We’re extremely excited,” Koenning said. “It’s an opportunity that, you know, we hoped very much to have a chance to play again. We have a lot of redemption to do. I think our players have been working very hard to try and heal up in a lot of ways.”

Some Illini players said after Zook was fired that they didn’t care whether the team went to a bowl game or not. Koenning said that, after a week, that ambivalence is gone.

“We need to be excited to play in the game,” he said. “Typically the one that does best in the bowl game is the team that’s happiest to be there.”

This is the fourth time these teams have met in a bowl game with UCLA winning the John Hancock Bowl in 1991 and the Rose Bowl in 1984 and Illinois winning the Rose Bowl in 1947.

The bowl is sponsored by Kraft and is dedicated to raising money and awareness about the issue of hunger in the United States.