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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Terry Hawthorne returned an interception 39 yards for Illinois’ first touchdown late in the third quarter and the Illini snapped a six-game losing streak by beating UCLA 20-14 in the Fight Hunger Bowl.
Nathan Scheelhaase added a 60-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Jenkins midway through the fourth quarter to seal the first victory for Illinois (7-6) since beating Indiana 12 weeks ago.
The game between two six-win teams who have already fired their head coaches matched the underwhelming expectations as there was little excitement before Hawthorne’s third-quarter touchdown that gave Illinois its first lead.
UCLA (6-8) was held to 18 yards rushing in its third straight loss. Kevin Prince threw two TD passes, including one in the closing minute to Nelson Rosario after the game had been decided.
But it was an earlier pass by Prince that proved decisive and helped give Illinois its first bowl wins in consecutive seasons in school history. Three plays after Derek Dimke missed a 37-yard field goal for Illinois late in the third quarter, Prince dropped back and threw to his left looking for Shaquelle Evans.
Hawthorne read the play perfectly and stepped in front of the throw for the interception and had a clear path to the end zone for the score that gave the Illini a 10-7 lead.
Dimke added a 37-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter and Scheelhaase and Jenkins combined on their big play to make it 20-7 with 5:36 to go. Scheelhaase finished 18 for 30 for 139 yards with 110 yards rushing to lead the Illinois offense.
Prince completed just 14 for 29 for 201 yards and the Bruins were held to a season-low in rushing, well below their 190.7 yard per game average, by the stout Illini front.
The match-up between Big Ten and Pac-12 teams on New Year’s weekend at a picturesque setting in California conjures up memories of Rose Bowls past. But this game was played on San Francisco’s waterfront instead of with the San Gabriel Mountains in the background in Pasadena and was between two teams that had little to celebrate this season.
Both teams fired their coaches after disappointing regular seasons with Ron Zook getting let go by Illinois after losing six straight games to end the season and Rick Neuheisel getting run out at UCLA after a 50-0 loss to rival Southern California in the regular season finale. Neuheisel coached the Bruins when they lost the Pac-12 title game at Oregon, leaving them as the first team to go to a bowl with a losing record since North Texas in 2001.
With their head coaches gone and new coaches Tim Beckman at Illinois and Jim Mora at UCLA not set to take over until January, interim coaches Vic Koenning and Mike Johnson ran the Illini and Bruins respectively.
The Illini, operating under interim offensive coordinator Jeff Brohm, opened up the playbook in the first half but still trailed 7-3 at the break. They called a throwback pass to Scheelhaase, a reverse, a fake field goal and went for it on fourth-and-1 from their own territory.
UCLA stuffed Donovonn Young for a loss on that run from the Illinois 45, setting up Prince’s 16-yard TD pass to Taylor Embree for the first score of the game.
The Bruins were unable to capitalize after stopping the fake field goal. Holder Tim Russell flipped the ball over his head to Dimke, who was tackled by Shelden Price for a 4-yard loss.
UCLA then botched a shotgun snap on the ensuing drive, giving the Illini the ball at the Bruins 30. Illinois settled for Dimke’s 35-yard field goal on the final play of the half.
The game, which is sponsored by Kraft, generated three meals for local food banks for each of the 29,878 tickets sold. Officials used an Oreo cookie for the opening coin toss.
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