SAN FRANCISCO — UCLA players walked off the field at AT&T Park, through the tunnel and into the wrong side of the program's proud history.
With coach Rick Neuheisel already fired, interim man Mike Johnson on the sideline and successor Jim Mora watching from the stands, an already odd postseason appearance for the Pac-12's prime punchline came with low expectations.
Even those proved too hard to reach.
Kevin Prince threw a costly interception that Terry Hawthorne returned for a touchdown, finishing off UCLA's forgettable season with a 20-14 loss to Illinois in the Fight Hunger Bowl on Saturday.
"This is not the way we wanted to go out, to send our seniors out," tight end Joseph Fauria said. "But at the same time, I guess there's some sort of relief for guys that have another year and looking forward to new beginnings."
The final mark this UCLA team leaves will be its record: an embarrassing 6-8 campaign for a bowl team.
All hope at a non-losing record for the Bruins ended when 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.
"It's extremely disappointing," Prince said. "Going for a month thinking about this game, preparing for it, spending a week here, everything leads up to this one moment. And then to fall short, it's very disappointing.
"It's upsetting that we couldn't get one for the seniors."
The game between two six-win teams who have already fired their head coaches matched the underwhelming expectations.
UCLA was held to 18 yards rushing in its third straight loss. 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.
"All gas, no brakes for me," Hawthorne said. "Once I catch it, I'm gone."
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 matchup 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 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.
The Bruins made it to the league title game in the weak Pac-12 South because the Trojans were ineligible due to NCAA sanctions. They needed a waiver from the NCAA even to be eligible for this game because of their losing record.
With their head coaches gone and new coaches Tim Beckman at Illinois and Mora at UCLA not set to take over until January, interim coaches Vic Koenning and Johnson ran the Illini and Bruins respectively.Comment on this story
"I don't know if I learned anything differently, but it's definitely a different role having to deal with all the things you have to deal with as a head coach," Johnson said. "But I was extremely pleased the way the team practiced, the way they prepared. I thought they came out, I thought they played hard."
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 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.