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Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl 2011: Illinois Fighting Illini Earn National Accolades Heading Into Bowl Game

The Fighting Illini may not have finished their regular season schedule the way they would have liked, but they have done well in the post-season -- even before the bowl games have begun.

The Illinois Fighting Illini (6-6) may not have finished their season with a win on the gridiron, losing six straight on their way to a .500 season, but the did finish the 2011 regular season with a few wins off the field.

The Illini, going through a very public coaching transition, have not let their unsavory finish to the season spoil their accomplishments. For starters, the Ted Hendricks foundation announced on Wednesday that redshirt junior DE Whitney Mercilus (pronounced "merciless"), who led his team and the nation with 14.5 sacks and an amazing 9 fumbles, had won the Hendricks Award, the award for the nation's top defensive end.

Mercilus's accomplishments are even more impressive when taken into context: Mercilus, playing for an Illini team that was often playing from behind, did not have an excess of opportunities to sack the quarterback as the team was often playing with a deficit. The award is the university's first major award since 1995, when Kevin Hardy wont he Butkus Award for the nation's top linebacker.

On Thursday, Mercilus was also awarded a first team spot on the 2011 Walter Camp All-American team, pushing his accolades to an impressive distinction:

Mercilus Honors in 2011 (as of Dec. 8)
Ted Hendricks National Defensive End of the Year Award winner
First Team All-American (Walter Camp, AFCA, CBSSports.com)
First Team All-Big Ten (Coaches and Media)
Bronko Nagurski Trophy Finalist
Bednarik Award and Rotary Lombardi Award Semifinalist

The Fighting Illini have also placed 11 different football players on the 2011 Fall Academic All-Big Ten team, honors preserved for student-athletes earning a 3.7 GPA or higher. The Nebraska Cornhuskers football team led the way in this category, totaling 27 football student-athletes worthy of academic honors.

Not to be forgotten, the UCLA Bruins -- who will take on the Illini in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl this December 31 -- also earned an accolade of note, placing their freshman saftey, Tevin McDonald, in CBSSports.com's Freshman All-American team. The redshirt freshman collected 3 interceptions, 10 pass deflections and 1 forced fumble in his rookie campaign.

For more, keep tabs on SB Nation Chicago and SB Nation's NCAA football page. For more on the Fighting Illini, check out Hail to the Orange, SB Nation's Illinois Fighting Illini blog.

Can't get enough of Whitney Mercilus? Check out Mocking the Draft's analysis on the soon-to-be-NFL defensive end.