Posted: Thursday December 29, 2011 5:04PM ; Updated: Thursday December 29, 2011 5:04PM
Stewart Mandel

Bowl Breakdown: Fight Hunger

Story Highlights

This unprecedented bowl will feature two six-win teams with interim coaches

DE Whitney Mercilus and LB Jonathan Brown key Illinois' consistent defense

UCLA had to apply for a bowl waiver and will be without at least five players

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Illinois' Whitney Mercilus emerged from obscurity to lead the country with 14.5 sacks.
Illinois' Whitney Mercilus emerged from obscurity to lead the country with 14.5 sacks.
Brad Schloss/Icon SMI

Illinois (6-6) vs. UCLA (6-7)
Dec. 31, 3:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)


Reason to watch: Morbid curiosity. There's never been a bowl matchup like this. UCLA has a losing record and required a waiver to earn a bowl bid. Illinois started the regular season 6-0, then finished 0-6. Both schools fired their coaches (UCLA's Rick Neuheisel and Illinois' Ron Zook) in late November, have since hired their permanent replacement (UCLA's Jim L. Mora, Illinois' Tim Beckman), but will be under the direction of interim coaches (UCLA's Mike Johnson, Illinois' Vic Koenning) for this game. As if that's not enough, at least five Bruins will miss the game with recent injuries or suspensions (including No. 2 quarterback Richard Brehaut), as will two Illini (including leading rusher Jason Ford).

Keep an eye on: Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus and linebacker Jonathan Brown. Even amid a six-game losing streak, the Illini's defense was a constant. Under Koenning's direction, Illinois finished the regular season seventh nationally in total defense (291.8 yards per game) and held eight of its first nine opponents to 21 points or less. It starts up front with Mercilus, who emerged from obscurity to lead the country in sacks (14.5) and forced fumbles (9), and Brown, who finished second in tackles for loss (19).

Did you know: UCLA and Illinois have met three times in bowl games, with the Illini winning the 1947 Rose Bowl and the Bruins taking the 1984 Rose (with Neuheisel at quarterback) and 1991 Sun bowls.

Final analysis: Neither team has had much to brag about this season, but there's no denying Illinois' dominant pass rush. That doesn't bode well for UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince, who struggled against lesser foes.

The pick: Illinois 22, UCLA 17
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