UCLA, Johnson playing for pride

UCLA fans are warming to the idea of Jim Mora as the Bruins coach, perhaps because of some perky recruiting speculation and good staff hires. They are celebrating a volleyball national championship. They are trying to figure out whether the basketball team is getting its legs under it after getting back to .500.

The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against Illinois on New Year's Eve? Well, it's a bit down the list of buzz-generators in Westwood.

But the message from interim coach Mike Johnson is the Bruins are going to show up to play and they will play hard.

"They've been excellent," Johnson said of practices since he took over for the fired Rick Neuheisel. "I've enjoyed the time with them and the way they've approached it. I know it's a tough situation. There are a lot of distractions."

The chief distraction, of course, was Neuheisel's firing. That's always a big one. The Illini players surely understand. They also are playing under an interim coach -- Vic Koenning -- after the termination of Ron Zook. Both Johnson and Koenning are headed elsewhere after the game.

This is not a bowl destination for teams that are happy about how their season went. The Bruins mostly alternated wins and losses in desultory fashion -- Johnson used to the word "inconsistent" about 15 times in a 15-minute interview. But after getting pounded in their final two games, including the Pac-12 championship against Oregon, which dropped them to 6-7, they were forced to request a waiver from the NCAA to play in a bowl game with a losing record.

Not exactly something you put on a T-shirt.

Illinois took a different approach, winning its first six and rising to 16th in the nation before cratering with six consecutive defeats. Sure everyone associated with the program is weary of the term "collapse."

Johnson said he focused on fundamentals last week and will focus on Illinois this week before breaking for Christmas. The Bruins' offensive coordinator this year after replacing Norm Chow, he said he's not planning any major changes to the Bruins' pistol scheme. "I don't think you can put a new offense in in three weeks," he said.

He knows that he's not joining Mora's staff. A long-time NFL coach, he is a candidate for the Akron head coaching job. It would seem perfectly reasonable for him to be distracted by his uncertain future.

But Johnson insists that he and his players -- like all good competitors -- are focused on going out a winner, trying to hang a small rose on what has been a dreary season for all.

"It's about pride and respect for us," Johnson said. "We have to go out and earn the respect that everyone wants."