USC (10-2) vs. Illinois (9-3)
5:00 p.m. ET, ABC
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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
41st 418.42 ypg
35th 423.33 ypg
2nd 258.83 ypg
41st 355.42 ypg
41st 31.25 ppg
54th 28.75 ppg
3rd 15.92 ppg
20th 19.50 ppg
33rd 185 ypg
5th 266.17 ypg
4th 79.17 ypg
24th 114.50 ypg
53rd 233.42 ypg
114th 157.17 ypg
7th 179.67 ypg
76th 240.92 ypg
at No Dame
at Ariz St
Missouri L 40-34
Syracuse W 41-20
State W 27-20
Wisconsin W 31-26
Iowa L 10-6
Michigan L 27-17
at Ohio St W 29-21
relative to each
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
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.
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 ...
2008 Rose Bowl History, Each Team's Best Bowl Moments, & More