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UCLA, Illinois in search of a positive finish

UCLA will either finish a tumultuous season on a high note or become the first bowl-eligible team to lose eight games in a season. The Bruins were drubbed, 50-0, by USC, then, after their head coach was fired, lost to Oregon in the Pac-12 Conference title game, requiring a waiver from the NCAA to go to a bowl game with a losing record. Illinois also had a roller-coaster season, climbing high when it opened with six consecutive wins, then plummeting to six straight losses — a turn of events that also resulted in a coaching change. Times staff writer Chris Foster examines the game’s issues and matchups:

A lot to think about

Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus has been on the mind of UCLA coaches and players. In practice this week, Bruins quarterbacks were doing daily drills in which they ducked from pressure.

The Illini have not had this kind of defensive presence since linebacker Dick Butkus was patrolling the field in the early 1960s. Mercilus, an All-American, leads the nation with 14.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles. He won the Ted Hendricks Trophy, given to college football’s best defensive end.

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Mercilus is a big reason that Illinois ranks seventh nationally in total defense.

UCLA tackle Brett Downey, a former walk-on, draws the assignment of slowing him down.

KP duty

The type of defensive pressure the Illini can bring should require UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince to be on his toes.

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Since regaining the starting job when Richard Brehaut was injured against Washington State, Prince has been an effective runner and passer. In the last eight games, he has passed for 1,543 yards with 10 touchdowns and four interceptions and has 442 yards rushing.

UCLA’s offense has not been its problem. The Bruins scored 45 points against Colorado, 29 against Arizona State and 31 against California — all victories. Even in losing to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game, the Bruins scored 31 points.

The defense rests

It would be unfair to characterize the Bruins defense in the 50-0 loss to USC as 11 pylons. People trip over a pylon and fall once in a while.

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UCLA’s defense has had horrific moments this season, giving up 45 or more points five times.

There were solid individual efforts from middle linebacker Patrick Larimore, cornerback Andrew Abbott and safety Tevin McDonald. But as a whole, the Bruins have been a sieve.

UCLA has 13 sacks, 1.5 fewer than Illinois has from Mercilus alone.

UCLA will be without four defensive players who were starters when the season began — Larimore (thumb), linebacker Sean Westgate (concussion), safety Dietrich Riley (neck) and safety Tony Dye (academically ineligible).

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Illini ills

Illinois seemed fine offensively … when the Illini were playing Arkansas State, South Dakota State and Western Michigan.

But in its six losses, Illinois averaged 11 points. The Illini will be without Jason Ford, their leading rusher with 600 yards. He is academically ineligible.

The Illini could use a spark from quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, but he has not thrown a touchdown pass in three games.

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Illinois has 27 turnovers this season.

More turmoil

Illinois seems determined to one-up UCLA’s chaotic season.

Like the Bruins, the Illini are playing with an interim head coach who won’t be part of the staff next season. Making matters worse, four assistant coaches have threatened to boycott the game Saturday because of a contract dispute.

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Joe Gilbert, Jeff Brohm, DeAndre Smith and Chip Long contend they were unaware they would be paid only through February if their contracts were not renewed.

“I’m trying to stay out of it,” interim Coach Vic Koenning told reporters Friday. “That’s their deal … we didn’t realize we didn’t have two-year contracts until we were released” a few weeks ago.

By the numbers

Illinois has lost its last four games to UCLA and has not beaten the Bruins since 1964. … UCLA has lost its last four games in the Bay Area since beating Stanford in 2007.

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chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter.com/cfosterlatimes


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