Illini see chance to start fresh

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois officially is playing in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against UCLA on New Year's Eve, but for the Illini it's already being branded as the Redemption Bowl.

"There's no better way to redeem yourself than to go out and win," senior offensive tackle Jeff Allen said. "This is my last game as an Illini. It will be a great chance to go out and redeem myself and redeem ourselves as a team."


The Illini (6-6) are in dire need of something to improve their reputation and their spirits.

They ended the regular season on a six-game skid. Coach Ron Zook was fired, which had some players questioning whether they wanted to play in a bowl. The identity of the next coach is unknown. And the status of many current assistants is up in the air as they search for jobs.

But interim coach Vic Koenning said the team is eager to prove its worth.


"We hoped very much to get a chance to play again," he said. "It would boggle my imagination to not have our football team ecstatic."

Illinois is going for the first back-to-back bowl victories in program history after beating Baylor in the Texas Bowl last season.

UCLA also is in limbo and doesn't have a replacement for fired coach Rick Neuheisel.

Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said a Dec. 17 bowl never was on the table, but the Illini did have other options. The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl is an attractive bowl, he said, because of Illinois' large alumni base in San Francisco and the opportunity to play a Pac-12 team.

Army was designated to be a first option for the bowl, but because it's ineligible at 3-8, the Illini filled the spot. Either Illinois or UCLA will finish the season with a losing record.

Illinois will have an allotment of 8,000 tickets, and the payout is $750,000. Ticket sales could determine whether this bowl is a moneymaker for the Illini.

Koenning said it's not a guarantee that he or his assistants will be on staff at the time of the bowl game. He said he has urged all of them to put family first and actively seek out new jobs, as he is doing.

Thomas took a short break from his hunt for a new football coach to announce the bowl but gave nothing away about how the search is progressing. Asked about the timeline, he said, "As soon as possible."


Twitter @sryantribune