|USC Legends News|
Illini come up thorns: USC's weapons too much for Illinois in Rose Bowl
Southern California (11-2), a two-touchdown favorite, proved it had far too much firepower, winning big early and late to post a 49-17 victory. If this was USC’s chance to tell the nation it just might be the best team in the country, consider the mission accomplished.
But Illinois (9-4), which looked outmatched initially, at least discovered it had the courage to battle back and, if not for a series of bizarre plays (none of which seemed to bounce Illinois’ direction), maybe the Illini could have made it a closer score.
If nothing else, it was an experience Illinois will not soon forget. As quickly as the game was over, players and coaches were talking about it being a springboard to next season, when the Illini figure to be in the preseason top 25, with more experience and savvy in their understanding of life under college football’s bright lights.
“I’d like to congratulate (USC) coach (Pete) Carroll,” Illini coach Ron Zook said. “We knew coming in that was a great football team. We knew to play with them we’d have to play our best game, and we didn’t do that.
“In the second half, we got some things going, but you can’t turn the ball over against a team like that.
“I’m very proud of our team. We made it here, and even though we didn’t play the way we’re capable of playing … this is one of those things you have to learn from, and we’ll learn from it. We’ll get back here, and it will be a different story.”
Linebacker Brit Miller, who returns as a senior next season, said this might have been a necessary step in the process of becoming a big-time football program.
“I can look back right now and say a lot of us have now played in a game of this magnitude, and that experience is a big deal,” Miller said. “As the Illini Nation should know, this is just the first of many great seasons. We’re not a one-and-done kind of a team.”
Four turnovers and some bizarre bounces haunted an Illini team that until this game had not been beaten by more than 10 points.
And USC got its offense revved up to the tune of 633 total yards and 30 first downs. Quarterback John David Booty, named the offensive player of the game, completed 25 of 37 passes for 255 yards and three touchdowns. USC rushed for 344 yards, including 125 by speedy Joe McKnight.
Illinois finished with respectable offensive numbers (445 total yards) but had just 79 yards in the first half when USC built a 21-3 lead.
Rashard Mendenhall, who ripped off a 79-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, carried 17 times for 155 yards. And quarterback Juice Williams got untracked after a rocky first half, finishing with 21-of-35 passing for 245 yards. He also threw two interceptions.
“I felt like at the beginning we were playing like our feet were in sand,” Zook said. “Whether they were caught up in the moment, I don’t know. We settled down, and at times, we played extremely well. In the second half, we got our offense going, but we kept turning the ball over.“
The sluggish start allowed Southern Cal to take a 21-0 lead in the second quarter. That lead came on two touchdown runs by Chauncey Washington and a flea-flicker TD pass that went from John David Booty to Garrett Green back across the field to Desmond Reed, a 34-yard play that Illinois never saw coming.
Despite the awful start, Illini coaches and players felt they had a chance to get back in the game early in the third quarter.
A 28-yard field goal by Jason Reda got Illinois on the board just before halftime. Early in the third period, Mendenhall ripped through a hole in the middle of the line and sped 79 yards for a touchdown that cut Southern Cal’s lead to 21-10.
A defensive stop followed, and Illinois got the ball back on its own 19-yard line. This time, Williams threw a short pass to Mendenhall that he turned into a 55-yard sprint down the sideline.
From the USC 24, Williams fired a pass over the middle to Jacob Willis, who caught the ball and turned toward the end zone. But Willis had the ball jarred loose, and USC linebacker Brian Cushing recovered in the end zone.
If Willis controls the ball and Illinois scores a touchdown, it’s 21-17. But instead, USC took the ball and drove 80 yards for a score that made it 28-10.
Many players felt that was a turning point, in part because it felt so demoralizing.
“Who knows what happens after we come back and make it 21-17?” Williams said. “The momentum is there, the crowd is back involved again and guys are back believing we can be successful out there.
“There’s so much that could have happened if we had scored there.”
Co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch, who said his defense didn’t execute well all night, felt a touchdown there might have triggered something positive.
“All year our defense has fed off some of the excitement our offense has generated, and a touchdown there would have gotten us the momentum.
“We never had anything go our way, and they’re too good. If you don’t get some breaks, you won’t beat them.”
After USC went ahead 28-10 on John David Booty’s 2-yard flip to tight end Fred Davis, Illinois seemed to run out of gas.
Williams threw his second interception, and USC needed just five plays to score again for a 35-10 lead. The rout was on.
Illinois’ only other score came on a 56-yard connection from backup quarterback Eddie McGee to Arrelious Benn.
The loss stung Zook on another level, since he told the team it had an obligation to perform well on behalf of the Big Ten Conference.
“It’s not good for us and it hurts the Big Ten, and that’s one of the frustrating things,” Zook said. “There’s no doubt in my mind the Big Ten can compete with anybody. I can say that, but we still have to do it.”
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