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2008 Rose Bowl - Illinois vs. USC
Illinois QB Juice Williams
Illinois QB Juice Williams
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Dec 31, 2007


Happy New Year! Do Juice Williams and Illinois really have any sort of a shot against USC in the 2008 Rose Bowl? A fantastic day of New Year's Day games hits its peak in Pasadena in the start of the BCS season. Check out the Stream of Consciousness Quarter by Quarter Notes later on today.

 

USC (10-2) vs. Illinois (9-3)

January 1st, 5:00 p.m. ET, ABC

Get Tickets for the Rose Bowl 
- 2007 CFN Rose Bowl Preview
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WhatIfSports.com Rose Bowl Prediction & Box Score 

2008 Rose Bowl History, Each Team's Best Bowl Moments, & More

Alright Illinois, prove to the world that you really belong here over Georgia, and prove you actually belong in a big game like this.

The Illini finished 13th in the final BCS rankings, behind Missouri, Arizona State and Florida, who didn't get into a big BCS game either because of conference limits, or because they got screwed, or both, and most of the college football world wanted to see a Georgia - USC showdown in a battle of two of the hottest teams at the end of the regular season. Instead, the nod was given to a traditional Big Ten - Pac 10 matchup, even if tradition is dictates that the two best teams from the respective leagues are supposed to play each other. Even so, the excitement will be there. At least for the Illinois fans.

National Rankings
USC Illinois
Total Offense
41st  418.42 ypg 35th  423.33 ypg
Total Defense
2nd  258.83 ypg 41st  355.42 ypg
Scoring Offense
41st  31.25 ppg 54th  28.75 ppg
Scoring Defense
3rd  15.92 ppg 20th  19.50 ppg
Run Offense
33rd  185 ypg 5th  266.17 ypg
Run Defense
4th  79.17 ypg 24th  114.50 ypg
Pass Offense
53rd  233.42 ypg 114th  157.17 ypg
Pass Defense
7th  179.67 ypg 76th  240.92 ypg
Turnover Margin
63rd  -0.08 47th  0.08
USC
Idaho W 38-10
at Neb. W 49-31
Wash St W 47-14
at Wash. W 27-24
Stanford L 24-23
Arizona W 20-13
at No Dame  W 38-0
at Oregon L 24-17
Oregon St W 24-3
at Cal W 24-17
at Ariz St W 44-24
UCLA W 24-7
Illinois
Missouri L 40-34
West Illinois W 21-0
at Syracuse W 41-20
at Indiana W 27-14
Penn State W 27-20
Wisconsin W 31-26
at Iowa L 10-6
Michigan L 27-17
Ball State W 28-17
at Minn. W 44-17
at Ohio St W 29-21
Nwestern W 41-22
Position Ratings
relative to each other
USC 5 highest
1 lowest
I
4 Quarterbacks 4
4 RBs 5
3.5 Receivers 3
4 O Line 4.5
5 D Line 4
5 Linebackers 4.5
5 Secondary 3
3 Spec Teams 3
5 Coaching 3.5

How little does everyone think of this matchup? Illinois is a 14-point underdog, easily the biggest spread of the bowl season. When the "investing" world gives Ball State more of a chance to beat Rutgers and thinks a Florida State team missing half its squad has a better shot to beat Kentucky than the Illini has to walk out of Pasadena with a win, Ron Zook will be allowed to play the disrespect card.

Is Illinois really this outmatched? Is USC really this good? Call it giving USC and Pete Carroll the benefit of the doubt. To go 13-year-old Gossip Girl-watcher, it's been there, done that for the Trojans. 

It's not just that USC has the big brand name and won its final four games of the year with the nation's No. 2 defense, it's that Carroll is terrific in the big bowls with this his sixth straight trip to a BCS game, his fourth trip to the Rose Bowl, and with a win, this would be his sixth straight 11-win season. By comparison, before this year, Illinois had won a grand total of ten games over D-I teams from 2002 to 2006. Over that four-year span, USC had won 59.

USC was almost everyone's number one team coming into the season, but the offense never jelled, injuries were a major problem on both sides of the ball, and the team never looked like USC. You know you're good when you've had a down year and end up in the Rose Bowl, and now this game will show if USC really might have been the best team in the country but simply couldn't stay healthy, or if it was all a mirage.

John David Booty isn't Matt Leinart. There isn't a Reggie Bush or a Dwayne Jarrett, even though there are several tremendous prospects, and there isn't the flash or dash of past Trojan teams. This version gets it done with a stifling run defense that should provide awful matchup problems for the Illini ground game. With time to prepare, and with time for the offensive line to finally heal up and be in one piece, this should be the USC team everyone's been waiting to see that didn't show up all year long.

The epic 24-23 loss to Stanford will be the signature moment of the 2007 Trojan season no matter what happens in the Rose Bowl, and there was also the loss to the Dennis Dixon-led Oregon team back when it was actually trying. But the wins were underwhelming, and in hindsight, overrated. Beating Nebraska 49-31 in Lincoln wasn't that big a deal. Blasting Notre Dame 38-0 wasn't anything to write home about, and beating Cal 24-17 and Arizona State 44-24, while nice on the surface, were wins, nothing more.

Illinois pulled off one of the year's most stunning turnarounds as the young talent brought in over the last two years blended in nicely with a good group of veterans to lead the way to the first Rose Bowl appearance since 1983 (a 45-9 loss to UCLA) and the first bowl game since losing to LSU in the 2002 Sugar Bowl.

Led by QB Juice Williams and Big Ten Player of the Year, RB Rashard Mendenhall, working behind a tremendous offensive line, the Illini rushing attack led the Big Ten and was fifth in the nation averaging 266 yards per game. The spread pounded its way past Penn State and Wisconsin in back to back weeks to get on the national radar, but it was the 28-21 win over Ohio State in Columbus, complete with an epic fourth quarter drive to run out the clock, that made the season. A win over USC would be icing on the cake, but for a program that's been one of the bottom-feeders for the last few years, just getting to this game might be enough.

If USC plays up to its maximum ability and it tries like this is for the national championship, this could be the ugliest Big Ten - Pac 10 Rose Bowl since the 34-14 Washington win over Michigan in 1992. But if Juice and the Illini offense get going early, and USC thinks its can just go through the motions and walk out with a win, it'll be in for a huge surprise.

Players to watch: The Illinois lines are the best the Trojans have faced all year. 300-pound left guard Martin O'Donnell is the best of a tight, veteran offensive front that's been terrific at blasting open holes for Rashard Mendenhall and great in pass protection. On the defensive side, 290-pound senior tackle Chris Norwell has been a rock over the last few years and is the anchor the rest of the D works around. While he hasn't been the playmaker in the backfield he was in previous seasons, he's been tremendous against the run and will have to plug up the middle to force USC's ground game to work outside. Of course, the Trojan offensive front will have different ideas.

Almost never having the same starting five two games in a row, and using seven different starting combinations, the USC offensive line will be healthier, and better, than it's been since early on. Senior left tackle Sam Baker is the best pro prospect on the field and will be in charge of keeping John David Booty clean. 6-5, 305-pounds and and steady as they come, he and left guard Jeff Byers will be the ones the running game operates behind.

Defensively for the Trojans, the front seven is the best in America. 305-pound senior tackle Sedrick Ellis didn't get the national publicity of LSU's Glenn Dorsey, but he had just as good a year, if not better, doing more to get into the backfield than the Tiger star and being more consistent from start to finish. (Of course, a Dorsey knee injury had something to do with that.) On the outside is senior Lawrence Jackson, a 270-pound pass rushing terror who came up with 9.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss on the year. It'll be the job of these two to keep the Illinois ground game from getting going by not falling for the misdirection plays and the cutbacks. But if there are problems, the linebackers should clean up the mess.

How do you beat the read-option spread offense? Have sensational linebackers. The Trojan starting trio of Brian Cushing on the strongside, Rey Maualuga in the middle, and Keith Rivers on the weakside will all be starting in the NFL as soon as next year. Maualuga is the intimidating big-hitter of the group, but Rivers might be taken higher in the 2008 draft (assuming Maualuga leaves early). Cushing missed time hurt, but Rivers and Maualuga had few problems picking up the slack combining for 148 stops. These three will be keyed on stopping Mendenhall first, and letting the line deal with Juice Williams.

Illinois has to Mendenhall rolling from the start. With a blend of excellent cutting ability, good quickness, and the power of a 224-pound back, he's being projected as a possible top 15 pick if he chooses to leave early. The dream back for the Denver Bronco-style of offense, he has great vision to cut back through the holes, nice patience, and excellent speed on the outside.

USC will win if... it stops Williams and Mendenhall at the line. Illinois can't throw, and when the ground game doesn't work, things go south in a big hurry. Against Wisconsin, the Illini runners were able to work inside and out and always seemed to have the Badgers linemen leaning the wrong way, and the linebackers guessing wrong, on the way to 289 yards and three touchdowns. Against Ohio State, Williams and Mendenhall didn't break off any huge runs, but they consistently got past the line and into the second level with five-to-eight-yard runs that picked, picked, picked at the Buckeye defense for 260 yards. However, Michigan and Iowa, two team teams with excellent defensive lines, held their own and never let Williams get free to get the option going, Illinois quickly got frustrated, and the offense managed just 137 yards in both games, didn't get into the end zone against the Hawkeyes, and ran for just one score in the loss to the Wolverines. If USC's defensive line controls the action, this won't be pretty.

Illinois will win if... USC believes it's the USC of past seasons. Even when at full-strength to start the year, the offense was never anything special unless the line was playing at a high level with the passing game nothing special outside of TE Fred Davis. The Illinois defense has been solid ever since giving up 40 in the opener to Missouri, never allowing more than 27 points, and USC's offense simply isn't explosive enough to blow up for big scoring runs. USC isn't going to be able to dominate in the power running game like it was able to throughout the Pac 10 season.

While injuries played a major part throughout the year for the Trojans, they were mostly an issue on the offensive side. The defense had most of the key parts around all year long, and while the final stats are fantastic, there were some rough patches. Dennis Dixon and Jonathan Stewart combined for 179 yards and three touchdowns in Oregon's win over the Trojans. Illinois should be able to follow the same blueprint, hope to connect on a few early passes to loosen things up, and pray for the running game to be good enough to take control from then on.

What will happen: Don't expect anything special. USC will win, but it won't be the type of jaw-dropping, that-might-be-the-best-team-in-America, type of performance many are expecting. Illinois is too good on the lines to allow this to get out of hand, but as the game goes on, the USC linebackers will be more and more effective, Williams will struggle throwing the ball, and Booty and company will take advantage of the breaks and the good field position. Illinois can't punt, has a mediocre return game, and doesn't do enough of the little things right to pull off a game this big. Don't assume the Ohio State win was harbinger of things to come. USC will be focused, with so many players back in the mix and looking to make a statement, and there won't be the mistakes on offense that the Buckeyes made.

Line: USC -14 ... CFN Prediction:
USC 30 ... Illinois 17

2008 Rose Bowl History, Each Team's Best Bowl Moments, & More