Turnovers, USC's strong offense doom Illini in Rose Bowl
No. 13 Illinois came out of nowhere to play in the Rose Bowl for the first time in 24 years. When the season began, the Illini were regarded as a second-division Big Ten Conference team after winning eight games total over the previous four seasons.
No. 6 Southern Cal started the year as the overwhelming national title favorite.
When the two teams met in the Rose Bowl on Tuesday on a glorious afternoon, USC showed the Illini just how far they still have to go. The Trojans marched 72 yards for a touchdown on their first possession, converted a flea-flicker 34-yard touchdown pass on their second possession and rolled to a 49-17 win before a crowd of 93,923.
"We knew that was a great football team,'' Illini coach Ron Zook said. "For us to be able to play with them, we'd have to play our best game. Whether it was the atmosphere or the first time in a bowl, we didn't play the way we're capable of playing.
"It's one of those things you have to learn from it. We'll get back here, and it will be a different story.''
A two-touchdown underdog, Illinois lost turnovers on three consecutive possessions in the third quarter, just when it appeared this might really be a game. Loaded with playmakers on offense, USC pulled away with a barrage of big plays in the third quarter to lead 42-10 with less than a minute gone in the fourth quarter. The Trojans finished with 633 yards of total offense.
Meanwhile, the USC defense, ranked No. 2 in the country, had the speed to slow the Illini running game in the first half. USC led 21-3 at halftime after allowing Illinois only 24 yards rushing on 24 carries.
Illinois ended the season at 9-4 overall after failing to earn the program's first Rose Bowl victory in 44 years. By the time the sun set behind the San Gabriel Mountains and nightfall turned the scene into the most picturesque in college football, this game had turned ugly.
"You want to play better, but that's what happens sometimes,'' said Illini linebacker J Leman. "If you lose by one or 50, it's the same. You can talk about hanging with them . . . whatever. We just got beat.''
For a moment in the third quarter, running back Rashard Mendenhall gave Illinois life. His 79-yard touchdown run on Illinois' second play from scrimmage in the second half pulled Illinois to within 21-10. On Illinois' ensuing possession, Mendenhall turned a short screen pass into a 45-yard gain.
But senior wide receiver Jacob Willis fumbled inside the USC 5-yard line. Illinois also lost turnovers on its next two possessions.
"Who knows what happens if we come back and score to make it 21-17,'' Illinois quarterback Juice Williams said. "The momentum is there. The crowd is involved again. The guys are back believing that we can be successful. We've experienced this now. We have to build on it.''
USC scored touchdowns after all three turnovers, a run ignited by a lucky bounce. The game turned when USC running back Joe McKnight caught an errant lateral pass on one hop, then raced 65 yards. The Trojans scored four plays later for a 28-10 lead with 5 minutes 18 seconds left in the third quarter.
"When you give a guy that has that kind of talent opportunities, he's going to do some special things,'' said USC coach Pete Carroll. "Joe made something happen and accelerated. I really thought the game shifted from that point.''
When USC converted a Williams interception one play later into another touchdown, the only thing left was to watch the sun turn the adjacent mountain range into a postcard setting. Illinois wide receiver Jeff Cumberland lost another fumble fighting for extra yardage at the USC 18.
"Three turnovers on three consecutive drives and you don't have a chance,'' said Illini offensive coordinator Mike Locksley. "It's been the one thing that we haven't done all year long.''
Boosted by the one long run, Mendenhall had 155 yards rushing on 17 carries. But Illinois finished with only 144 yards rushing, 122 yards under its average as the nation's fifth-best rushing attack. Williams was 21-for-35 passing for 245 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns. He was sacked five times.
Illinois had only 79 yards of offense in the first half, falling behind 21-3 at halftime. The Illini lost four turnovers overall.
USC (11-2) posted 11 wins or more for the sixth time in seven years under Carroll, after playing in the Rose Bowl for the fourth time in five seasons. The Trojans could still finish in the top four in the season-ending Associated Press top 25 for the sixth straight season.
Even though USC had its sights set on the national championship game this year, they had the desire to match the talent.
"We're thrilled about it,'' Carroll said. "We love playing in this setting and love playing here. To end it with another win is enormous.''
USC quarterback John David Booty threw for three touchdowns. McKnight and running back Chauncey Washington combined for 229 yards rushing.
NOTES: Mendenhall finished with 1,999 all-purpose yards to set a single-season school record. He moved to seventh all-time at Illinois with 2,539 yards rushing. … Williams set career highs with passes, attempts and passing yards. … Illinois set a single-season record with 5,525 total yards.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. For more coverage, read Illini Talk blog at www.sj-r.com and www.pjstar.com.
Illinois report card
Except for a brief moment in the third quarter, Illinois couldn't make a game of it. The Trojans were determined to stop the run, and quarterback Juice Williams couldn't come up with enough passing plays to keep USC from loading the box. Was this the last time we saw running back Rashard Mendenhall in an illini uniform?
The Illini came up with some plays in the first half, when there wasn't much help from the other side of the ball. Safety Justin Harrison's interception and 45-yard return gave the offense a scoring opportunity that was wasted. But the Illini couldn't slow USC in the second half.
Special teams: C-
Placekicker Jason Reda's missed 29-yard field goal in the first quarter didn't help, and Illinois couldn't muster anything on kickoff returns. Punter Anthony Santella had perhaps his best day of the year.
The offense was so bad, it didn't give the Illini a chance. If this is what the oddsmakers expected and the TV network feared, it materialized after the Illini attempted to make a game of it in the third quarter. It was an unexpected trip to the Rose Bowl and a bitter finish for Illini seniors who had suffered through so much losing in the first three seasons of their careers.