Amid disappointment, Illinois seniors remember success of regular season

John Supinie

A senior class that endured so many losses before a remarkable final season saw it come to an end in a blowout.

Illinois made its first bowl appearance in six seasons, but three third-quarter turnovers by the offense and 633 yards allowed by the defense doomed No. 13 Illinois in a 49-17 loss to No. 6 Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl on Tuesday. The glorious season ended with a thud.

"We had a heck of a year,'' said Illini senior safety Kevin Mitchell. "When you look at the overall picture, I'm proud of just being out here. I'm proud of proving everybody wrong, because for the most part, I know a lot of people said we'd only win three games.

"It was up to the seniors this year, not to listen to the media, not to listen to the fans or whatever, and just play. That's what we've done. I believe we've been the catalyst to start this program on the up and up. Hey, we were in the Rose Bowl. I don't know too many people who can say that.''

Illinois won eight games in the previous four seasons. In their final season, these seniors enjoyed eights wins but swallowed one last big loss. The day began with senior linebacker J Leman running to the corner of the end zone during pregame warmups, stirring a reaction from the Illini crowd in orange.

It ended with a 32-point loss in Illinois' first Rose Bowl appearance in 24 years and the program's first bowl trip in six seasons, but Leman felt his classmates had made a difference in the direction of the program.

"I can't say enough about our senior class, what they've done in terms of leadership,'' said Illini coach Ron Zook.

Instead of quitting or making the transition difficult under Zook, a handful of seniors helped the Illini's young recruits get over the hump.

"You wish you would have finished better,'' Leman said. "You can't take away where we brought the program. I told the young guys that we got you this far. It's up to them to take the next step. That's winning Big Ten championships and national championships.

"We elevated this program to a level where people think we couldn't get. It's tough to handle it when your last game is in the Rose Bowl.''

Hard-hitting senior safety Justin Harrison had one of his best games. He made big hits early, then returned an interception 45 yards to provide Illinois a scoring opportunity in the first quarter. The interception was Harrison's first of the season and the fourth of his career.

"The things I made my name for, I feel like I did today,'' Harrison said. "I went out there and had some big hits. I went out there and played with all my heart, left it all out on the field.''

On offense, Illinois couldn't handle USC's speed. All-America senior left guard Martin O'Donnell felt the big loss overshadowed the rest of the season -- at least until the pain subsides.

"It's disappointing to go out there and not perform the way you thought you could on a big stage,'' O'Donnell said. "Right now, it covers up everything. As time goes by, we'll see. Right now, it puts a downer on the whole season.''

In the other locker room, USC would like to keep playing. The overwhelming preseason favorites to win the national championship, the Trojans would just like to keep playing.

"The last thing I want to do is sit up here and lobby,'' said USC coach Pete Carroll. "We did everything we could with what we had. The rest of it is up for discussion. But would we like to be playing right now? You bet we would. We would go anywhere, any time and see what we could do.''

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