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December 29, 2007

Game 13: The 94th Rose Bowl Game

The Trojans face No. 13 Illinois in their fourth visit to the Granddaddy in the past five seasons.

The Pac-10 Champion USC Trojans (10-2, 7-2 in the Pac-10, No. 6 AP and USA Today, No. 7 BCS) close out the 2007 campaign Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2008, against the consensus No. 13 Illinois Fighting Illini (9-3, 6-2 in the Big 10) at 2 p.m. (PDT) in the 94th Rose Bowl in Pasadena. This is USC's 32nd appearance in college football's original bowl game, dubbed "The Granddaddy of Them All." The Trojans boast a 22-9 mark in the Rose Bowl game. It's USC's sixth consecutive BCS bowl berth and fourth Rose Bowl in the past five seasons. Meanwhile, the Illini are making just their fifth appearance in Pasadena - and first since the 1983 season. Illinois is 3-1 in Rose Bowl games, but lost that last appearance in January 1984, 45-9 to UCLA. USC and Illinois have met 12 times, but never in the Rose Bowl game, with the Trojans leading the series 10-2. However, the last time the two schools met in Southern California, Illinois upset USC, 14-13, in the 1989 season opener.

In their previous game, the Trojans whipped crosstown-rival UCLA, 24-7, on Dec. 1 to clinch their unprecedented sixth consecutive Pac-10 championship. The Trojan defense held UCLA to just 168 yards - 12 rushing - and forced four Bruin turnovers. Meanwhile, the USC offense was paced by 231 yards rushing, evenly split among running backs Chauncey Washington, Stafon Johnson and Joe McKnight. The Illini have not played since downing in-state rival Northwestern, 41-22, in Champaign, Ill., on Nov. 17. Illinois rolled up 541 total yards - 321 rushing - on the hapless Wildcat defense. It was the Illini's 10th 200-plus rushing yard performance of the 2007 season.

Head coach Pete Carroll is in his seventh season at USC (75-14, 49-9 Pac-10) having led the Trojans to six consecutive Pac-10 crowns and BCS bowl appearances. A sixth straight 11-win season (unprecedented in college football history) and top-5 national finish is riding on the outcome on New Year's Day. He's also led the Trojans to two national championships (2003, 2004). Meanwhile, Illinois headman Ron Zook (13-22 at Illinois, 36-36 in six seasons as a head coach overall) is closing out his third season in Champaign. Following a 2-9 finish in 2005 and a 2-10 record in 2006, expectations for Zook's team - even with the quality recruiting classes he's garnered for the Illini - were low. However, Illinois has ridden the legs of running back Rashard Mendenhall and quarterback Isiah "Juice" Williams, as well as the defensive exploits of middle linebacker J Leman and cornerback Vontae Davis to unexpected heights. Illinois tied for second place in the Big 10 and is the only team during the wacky 2007 campaign to defeat two then-top-5 teams - No. 5 Wisconsin on Oct. 6 and No. 1 Ohio State on Nov. 10.

Illinois Offense
Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley oversees an Illini offense that - overall - averaged more than 423 yards and nearly 29 points per contest. However, how the Illini achieved those results was - rankings-wise - more than a little unbalanced. Only four teams in the Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) rushed for more than the 266 yards per game averaged by Illinois. On the flip side, just five teams averaged less than the 157 yards passing recorded by the Illini. Personnel consistency has been a major key for Illinois, as the same players have started every game at quarterback, running back and at all five offensive line spots. At quarterback, sophomore Williams has become a leader, setting school records for rushing by a quarterback for both a single season and a career. Williams has gained 774 yards rushing and thrown for 1,498 yards out of the Illini's spread-option attack. Slower than a Vince Young, but more physical than a Dennis Dixon, Williams has shown a knack for the limelight - including a career-best 4-TD pass performance in Illinois' 28-21 upset of Ohio State in Columbus. Redshirt freshman reserve Eddie McGee has seen action in nine games. He had a stellar performance against Missouri in the Illini's season-opening 40-34 defeat after replacing the injured Williams.

Predictably, Illinois' receiving unit didn't put up big numbers in such a run-heavy attack. However, freshman wideout Arrelious Benn, who was recruited by just about every school in the nation, has become an immediate playmaker. His 49 receptions are 31 more than the next most productive Illini wide receiver. He's scored just one TD, but is averaging 12.2 yards per grab. Illinois' second leading receiver is Mendenhall, who has 29 catches out of the backfield. Senior Jacob Willis, junior Kyle Hudson and freshman Brian Gamble are the other receivers who see the most time. The trio has combined for 44 grabs and five scores. Sophomore tight ends Jeff Cumberland and Michael Hoomanawanui (anyone need a vowel?) have 14 catches and five TDs (Cumberland is often split out like a receiver when he's in the game, and was recently re-dubbed a wideout in the Illini's positional charts).

Mendenhall, a junior, has been a revelation for Zook and Co. in 2007. He's gained 1,526 yards on the ground (a 127.2 yards-per-game average), averages more than six yards per carry and has scored 18 TDs (16 rushing). The nation's No. 8 rusher was named Big 10 Offensive Player of the Year. He's a bruiser, at 224 pounds, but also has good speed - similar to Oregon's Jonathan Stewart. With Williams the team's No. 2 rusher, no other back is much of a factor. Sophomore Daniel Dufrene is Mendenhall's nominal backup and sees 3-5 carries per game. The Illini also like to give Benn some looks in the rushing attack, and he's gained 158 yards this season on 32 attempts.

Leading the way for the vaunted Illini ground game - and allowing only 11 sacks this season along the way - is a front five that has started every game together in 2007. All-American left guard Martin O'Donnell, a senior, has made 44 career starts and, along with junior center Ryan McDonald, is the group's emotional leader. Senior RT Akim Millington successfully transitioned in 2007 after starting 12 games at LT in 2006. In doing so, he made way for solid junior Xavier Fulton, a second-team all-conference choice at LT. The right guard is sophomore Jon Asamoah. Experienced depth could be an issue here, as three redshirt freshmen are on the two-deep.

Illinois Defense
Much like the Illini offense, Illinois' defense - Zook's baby, along with help from co-defensive coordinators Dan Disch and Curt Mallory - has benefited from good health most of the season. The Illini allow just more than 355 yards per game - but more than 240 through the air (No. 77 nationally). Illinois is the No. 23 rushing defense in the nation, allowing just less than 115 yards per contest. Illinois has forced 24 turnovers and ranks No. 19 nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 19.5 points per game.

Up front, senior defensive tackle Chris Norwell is the leader. A tough run-stopper, Norwell has started more games (45) than any other in the history of Illini football. He's joined in the middle by junior David Lindquist, whose 44 tackles are the most of any Illinois defensive linemen this season. He also has 4.5 sacks. Senior Mike Ware is a solid reserve inside. Outside, a trio - sophomore Doug Pilcher and juniors Will Davis and Derek Walker - have shared time at the defensive end spots. Each has eight starts this season, and Davis leads the team with 9.5 sacks. Pilcher and Walker have combined for seven more.

The animated and active Leman leads the Illini defense from his MLB spot. The All-American and Lott Award finalist has 124 tackles and is seemingly always around the football. He's joined by senior Antonio Steele - the team's second-leading tackler with 83 and brother of former USC LB Markus Steele - and junior Brit Miller, who has 57 tackles. Miller leaves the field in nickel situations, but otherwise this group is nearly inseparable. The only reserve to make an impact has been highly touted freshman Martez Wilson, who has 26 stops behind Steele.

While the Illini secondary has given up yards and some big plays, they've also made their share of key stops. Experience at the safety spots has helped, with seniors Justin Harrison (76 tackles, six pass breakups) at free safety and Kevin Mitchell (65 tackles, five interceptions) at strong safety both having solid seasons. The third safety, senior Justin Sanders (55 tackles, three sacks, seven pass breakups), is Illinois' top nickel defender. All-Big 10 sophomore Davis has had an excellent sophomore season at one CB spot, including 63 tackles and four key interceptions in Big 10 play. He's also blocked two punts. Classmate Dere Hicks has had an up-and-down year. Freshman Marcus Thomas could also see time at corner.

Illinois Special Teams
Senior Jason Reda has had an excellent season, making 15-of-16 field goal attempts (and 42-of-43 PATs). His only miss was on a 47-yard attempt vs. Michigan, and he has made all three attempts of 50 yards or longer. Sophomore Michael Cklamovski handles kickoffs and has been solid, with six touchbacks among 59 kicks. At punter, redshirt freshman Anthony Santella, a transfer from Utah, is averaging less than 37 yards per boot. Benn is the Illini's top kick returner and is averaging nearly 30 yards on eight returns, including a 90-yard TD. Willis are also threats. Hudson handles punt returns and is averaging 7.5 yards per.

USC Offensive Gameplan
From the looks of things, it would appear that the Trojans would come out hurling the ball all over the field against an Illini defense that allowed more than 300 yards passing to Missouri, Wisconsin and Northwestern (as well as 298 to Penn State's vaunted … ahem … aerial show). After all, only Indiana, Ball State and Ohio State averaged as much as four yards-per-carry when rushing against Illinois' stingy front seven. It only seems logical that USC would go after the Illini's perceived weakness in the secondary - especially when the bulk of Illinois' 38 sacks come from the front four.

While Zook does like to attack the quarterback from different spots with blitzes, Illinois is not nearly one of the most blitz-happy teams USC has seen this year. The Trojans have allowed just 15 sacks this season and should be able to give John David Booty time to see the field. Fred Davis is more athletic than just about any tight end the Illini have seen this season and, unless Leman is covering him, presents a physical mismatch to the middle of the Illinois defense. The health of Patrick Turner remains questionable, and if he's unable to play in Pasadena, that will put more weight on the shoulders of young receivers Vidal Hazelton, David Ausberry and Ronald Johnson. If Turner is limited, could this become Hazelton's breakout game?

Is this to say that the Trojans will not balance the offense? Not at all. With Washington sitting out a couple weeks of preparation with a hip injury, expect sophomore Johnson to carry a bigger load come New Year's Day. Johnson appears healthier than at anytime since the Nebraska game, and that could make things tough on the Illini. Turner's health could also affect how McKnight is used in the gameplan - will he split out more often to give USC another weapon in the passing game?

USC Defensive Gameplan
USC's efforts against different versions of the "spread-option" and "zone-read" offenses have been covered ad nauseum in the run up to the Rose Bowl. Yes, Illinois uses an offensive style that - at times - has confounded USC defenders. No, it's not exactly the same as the offenses used by Texas in the 2006 Rose Bowl or Oregon this year. Among other things, Illinois uses a fullback more than Oregon did, while it doesn't make as much of a weapon out of the tight end spot as Texas did. Mostly, though, the difference is that Williams doesn't present the passing threat that Young or Dixon did.

Williams' two best passing days of the year came against Minnesota and Northwestern - both of which sport less-than-stellar pass defenses (and, yes, I'm being kind). He did make big plays in the upset of Ohio State, tossing four TDs into a bevy of Buckeye broken coverages. He's also thrown 10 interceptions - part of the reason that Illinois has given away 23 turnovers this season. These numbers are a far cry from anything that Young or Dixon produced in the seasons that people point to as examples of USC's troubles.

People also conveniently forget that the USC defense held Dixon's Oregon team to 200 yards and 20 points fewer than its season averages to that point. It was not the USC defense that failed to convert on two early turnovers deep in Oregon territory in the first half, nor was it the USC defense that fumbled inside its own 15-yard line in a tie game in the third quarter. Fully expect the Trojans to disrespect the Illinois passing game - outside of the threat that Benn presents - in order to focus on locking up Williams and slowing Mendenhall on the ground. This is not the kind of game where USC will pile up sacks - Illinois' offense is designed to avoid them - but if the Trojans can keep Illinois in third-down-and-more-than-five situations often, the Illini will struggle to move the ball consistently.

The Pick
With USC making its third consecutive Rose Bowl appearance - and the fact that Illinois is not a championship level opponent - there has been some worry that the Trojans will not be motivated come Jan. 1. Is it possible? Sure, it is. Is it likely? Carroll need only point to Oct. 6, 2007 for all the motivation this team should need. Every opponent should be respected and faced with maximum intensity, and the Trojans are likely to show this game, this opponent and the stage that is the Rose Bowl the proper level of intensity.

Illinois will be as motivated as any opponent USC has seen this season. This is a proud team that has won some pretty big football games in difficult environments this season - and they sure as heck don't believe they are a two-TD underdog. But motivation can only take the Illini so far if USC is on top of its game. The six-week layoff faced by Illinois - especially considering the precision it takes to successfully operate its offense - could put a quick damper on such enthusiasm.

In texture and feel, I see the 2008 Rose Bowl unfolding quite similarly to last season's USC-Michigan game - a low-scoring, touch-and-go first half followed by a Trojan deluge beginning in the third quarter. While the Illini defense is likely to play well early as the Trojans get a feel for the game, I see the layoff affecting the Illini's offense early against the stout Trojan defense. But when USC's passing game gets it going in the second half, the Illini will continue to struggle against the adjustments made by Carroll and his defensive staff. What looks like a tight 10-7 game at the half will turn into another Rose Bowl victory for the Trojans. USC 30, Illinois 16.

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for seven years. He is the editor-in-chief of a monthly trade magazine in the television advertising industry and is a graduate of the USC School of Journalism (1994). He has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at Thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.


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