Illinois Vs. UCLA, Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl 2011: Interims And Athletes

CHAMPAIGN, IL - OCTOBER 15: A.J. Jenkins #8 of the Illinois Fighting Illini is tackled by Andrew Sweat #42 of the Ohio State Buckeyes at Memorial Stadium on October 15, 2011 in Champaign, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With interim coaches outnumbering players (give or take) in this one, good luck figuring out what's going to happen. But with players like Whitney Mercilus, Tevin McDonald, A.J. Jenkins and Nelson Rosario, this game does still feature quite a bit of talent. So there's that.

NOTE: Confused? See the quick glossary at the bottom.

We talk a lot about motivation and the role it plays in bowl games. With momentum having ground to a halt after a few weeks off, bowls are often decided by who shows up ready to play their A-game and who doesn't. The stats below treat the game as if both teams will be equally motivated, but the likelihood of that being the case is minimal. With both teams playing for interim coaches (and Illinois dealing with some other interesting coaching issues as well), reeling from disappointing seasons, and ranking high on the Schizophrenia scale, the odds of getting the same level of game out of each are miniscule.

But hey, read this anyway. You're here already, right?

Team Record AP Rank 2011 F/+ Rk 2011 Off.
F/+ Rk
2011 Def.
F/+ Rk
2011 S.T.
F/+ Rk
Illinois 6-6 NR 59 91 9 104
UCLA 6-7 NR 85 66 96 83
Team Pace Rk Covariance Rk MACtion Rk Schizophrenia Rk
Illinois 58 25 61 6
UCLA 93 42 98 32

Illinois and UCLA reached their mediocre records (and rankings) in entirely different ways. Illinois began the season 6-0 and reached as high as 16th in the country in the AP Poll, but the cracks they were showing quickly became chasms, and when the losses began, the losses never actually stopped. Six straight wins and potential "Ron Zook as Big Ten coach of the year" talk turned into six straight losses and a job opening. UCLA, meanwhile, was up and down in almost perfect symmetry. Loss, win, loss, win, loss, win. They won two in a row in early-November, which was somehow enough to give them an edge in the Pac-12 South race, and they claimed the South title with a 50-0 loss to USC. They played worse than I expected, honestly (which is saying something), but they somehow ended up with better results, mostly because of a 3-1 record in close games.

When Illinois Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Illinois Offense 91 94 106 81 101 96 84
UCLA Defense 96 87 114 83 68 106 49
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Illinois Offense 62.0% 86 44.1% 59
UCLA Defense 57.3% 73 27.8% 61
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

With so many interim coaches involved in this game, I'm not going to even attempt to talk about each team's tendencies. For all intents and purposes, there are no tendencies. Instead I'm just going to give you four players to watch when each team has the ball. That could mean they're good, and that could mean they are very much on the spot.

Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois. For the season as a whole, Scheelhaase's numbers actually look quite solid: 1,971 passing yards in a run-first offense, a 64-percent completion rate, 12 touchdowns to seven interceptions. Plus, he threw in 771 pre-sack rushing yards as well. When he is on, he is smooth, poised, efficient and faster than you expect. The problems: 1) He gets sacked all the time. Poise becomes indecision when when things go poorly, and a good portion of Illinois' 110th-place ranking in Adj. Sack Rate can be attributed to Scheelhaase. 2) "When he's on" suggests he's actually on sometimes. It's been a while. Scheelhaase's average passer rating in the first six games: 173.4. And in the last six games: 102.4.

A.J. Jenkins, Illinois. Part of the reason Scheelhaase has struggled so much in the last half of the season is that teams finally figured out that Jenkins is basically his only read. The senior from Jacksonville, Florida, was absolutely ridiculous in the first six games: 46 catches, 815 yards, seven touchdowns; I repeatedly claimed he was the most underrated receiver in the country. Eventually teams threw half their defenders at him (slight exaggeration), and with his effectiveness went the entire passing game. Jenkins last six games: 38 catches, 381 yards, no scores. With attrition (injury and suspension) at running back, Jenkins is easily Illinois' most explosive weapon (and the most frequently-targeted receiver in the country). But UCLA probably knows that too, eh?

Datone Jones, UCLA. The Bruins' defensive line was absolutely, positively dreadful in 2011, ranking 115th in Ad. Line Yards and 110th in Adj. Sack Rate. Scheelhaase may wait too long to throw the ball, but if he never receives any pressure, he can wait as long as he wants. The most experienced member of the aggrieved line, Jones "led" the Bruins with three sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in 2011. It would behoove him to rack up one or two more.

Tevin McDonald, UCLA. UCLA's horrid pass rush detracted from the fact that their secondary was actually quite strong, and McDonald was perhaps the biggest reason why. Corner Aaron Hester will likely be tasked with covering Jenkins the most, but McDonald is the most likely play-maker in the unit. He picked off three passes, broke up seven more, and registered 2.5 tackles for loss. On a better defense, McDonald might be a household name.

When UCLA Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
UCLA Offense 66 42 48 36 32 38 20
Illinois Defense 9 11 5 10 8 13 13
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
UCLA Offense 67.9% 28 38.2% 64
Illinois Defense 66.5% 7 39.6% 21
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

And now, the same treatment for when UCLA has the ball.

Johnathan Franklin, UCLA. There is a common theme in UCLA's 2011 season: when Franklin and Derrick Coleman are finding running lanes, UCLA is giving themselves a very good chance to win. The Bruins are a run-first, run-second team, and this duo produced solid season-long numbers: 1,673 yards, plus-13.2 Adj. POE, 16 touchdowns. But the two averaged a full yard higher per carry (6.1) in wins than in losses (5.1). If the Bruins are staying on schedule and in standard downs, they actually have a really nice offense. But quarterback Kevin Prince is very much not a passing downs dynamo. If the Bruins fall into passing downs too much, they will lose.

Nelson Rosario, UCLA. If the running game isn't working, the game plan becomes "Lob it to Rosario and hope something happens." Something often does -- the 6-foot-5 senior (fun fact: his legs are six feet, three inches long) averaged 11.2 yards per target on passing downs. If Prince actually gets time to find Rosario -- Illinois' defense ranks second in Adj. Sack Rate, while UCLA's offense ranks 85th -- he could make some plays and save the Bruins.

Whitney Mercilus, Illinois. Or Jonathan Brown, or Michael Buchanan. Illinois' defensive line is easily the most accomplished of any unit in this game, and this trio (Mercilus and Buchanan are ends, Brown a weakside linebacker) are the primary reasons for the strong stats, having combined for an incredible 51 tackles for loss and 27 sacks. Mercilus is the leader, with 19.5 and 14.5. He has somehow lived up to his wonderful name, and we get one more chance to watch him in an Illinois uniform.

Terry Hawthorne, Illinois. If Prince does occasionally find time to throw the ball, then Hawthorne's battle with Rosario could be really fun to watch. The East St. Louis native picked off two passes and broke up seven more, and he is most likely Illinois' best cover corner. He will have his hands full. Unless Illinois sacks Prince 10 times, anyway ... which is possible.

The Verdict

Illinois by 6.9.

It is difficult to feel too confident about picking a team to win when they have lost six in a row. But somebody has to win this game, right?

--------------------

A Quick Glossary

Covariance: This tells us whether a team tends to play up or down to their level of competition. A higher ranking means a team was more likely to play well against bad teams while struggling (relatively speaking) against good ones. (So in a way, lower rankings are better.) For more, go here.

F/+ Rankings: The official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

MACtion: This is a look at how closely teams are associated with big-play football (like those high-scoring, mid-week MAC games). Teams that rank high on the MACtion scale play games with a ton of both big plays (gained and allowed) and passing downs. For more, go here.

Pace: This is calculated by going beyond simply who runs the most plays. Teams that pass more are naturally inclined to run more plays (since there are more clock stoppages involved), so what we do here is project how many plays a team would typically be expected to run given their run-pass ratio, then compare their actual plays to expectations. Teams, then, are ranked in order from the most plays above the expected pace, to the least.

Passing Downs: Second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more.

PPP: An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game.

S&P+: Think of this as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

Schizophrenia: This measures how steady a team's performances are throughout the course of a full season. Teams with a higher ranking tend to be extremely unpredictable from week to week. For more, go here.

Standard Downs: First downs, second-and-6 or less, third-and-4 or less.

Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

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