Both UCLA and Illinois have had seasons they would like to forget entering the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Saturday, but what the Fighting Illini did down the stretch was historic — and not in a good way.
The Fighting Illini started the season by winning its first six games, including a 17-14 win over then-No. 22 Arizona State, but lost its last six, with three coming against ranked teams.
Illinois, which was ranked No. 19 on Oct. 8, became the first Football Bowl Subdivision team to win its first six games and lose the next six.
“We have a lot to prove,” Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus said at a news conference at AT&T Park on Tuesday. “We have to prove can we win another bowl game.”
Those six losses cost Ron Zook, who had been with Illinois for seven seasons, his job as coach, but interim coach Vic Koenning has not let up on his team.
“[Koenning] has not been light on us. It’s going to be a battle royal this Saturday,” Mercilus said. “I just want to get that feeling back. We’ve been feeling that down-and-out feeling a lot and I want to get rid of it.”
Koenning has started to mix it up in practice and, after starting slow, has picked up the pace and rhythm of practice.
“We’ve been working extremely hard in healing ... getting our motion back, getting our confidence back,” Koenning said. “I haven’t seen happier young men in a long time.”
Despite the lengthy losing streak, Illinois’ selection to the Kraft Bowl marks only the second time in school history they will have made consecutive bowl appearances.
“There is a lot here sending these two programs off in a positive note,” Mercilus said. “Whoever gets this ‘W’ is definitely going to propel them to get better.”
A win on Saturday would mark the first time Illinois has won bowl games in consecutive seasons. Saturday also marks the first time a Big Ten Conference team has been selected to the annual bowl played at AT&T Park.
Niners legends Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott were present for Tuesday’s news conference for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl and embraced the message of the game.
“It’s a bittersweet thing for me because I’m a [USC] Trojan and being here with a [UCLA] Bruin is a little tough, but I accept it because of what this game stands for,” Lott said.
The Kraft Bowl will donate one meal for every ticket that is sold, donating to Glide Memorial Church and the San Francisco Food Bank, among others.
“I just want to have a great football game, but the most important thing is that it is bringing awareness to hunger,” Rice said.
Along with Rice and Lott, Joe Montana will take part in the coin toss prior to the game, in which an Oreo cookie will be used instead of the coin.
WHEN: Saturday, 12:30 p.m.
WHERE: AT&T Park
RADIO: KTCT (1050 AM)