2008 Rose Bowl Preview
#7 USC (10-2, 7-2 Pac-10) vs. #13 Illinois (9-3, 6-2 Big Ten)
January 1, 2008 @ 4:30 PM (EST) – ABC – Pasadena, California
Coming into the season, USC was expected to be in a BCS game - just not this one.
On the other side, coming into the season, Illinois was expected to be better under second-year head coach Ron Zook - but not this good.
Along the way, one of the wildest college football seaons in recent memory happened, and here we are, with the Rose Bowl getting its traditional Pac-10 vs. Big Ten matchup, as Pac-10 champion USC will take on Illinois (an at-large on New Year’s Day.
USC was the preseason #1, but their national championship aspirations were over by the end of October due to a shocking upset loss at home to Stanford and a loss at Oregon three weeks later.
However, they rebounded to win their last four games, and with Oregon’s collapse down the stretch, and by virtue of their head-to-head win over Arizona State, USC is in the Rose Bowl for the third straight season and fourth time in five years.
And you’ve got to like their chances to make it three straight over the Big Ten (Michigan in both the 2004 and 2007 Rose Bowls), and win for the fifth time in their sixth consecutive BCS bowl appearance dating back to the 2002 season.
Their offense hasn’t been as explosive this year as it has been in recent years, but it‘s still extremely dangerous.
QB John David Booty was primed for a huge senior season, but had to deal with injuries, subpar performances, and being replaced by Mark Sanchez under center. But, he finished strong down the stretch, and has several targets to get the ball to, including tight end Fred Davis and receivers Patrick Turner and Vidal Hazelton.
It’s not all on Booty’s shoulders, however, as the Trojans have one of the most formidable backfields in the country, with senior Chauncey Washington (894 yards, nine TD), sophomore Stafon Johnson (584 yards, 5 TD), and speedy freshman Joe McKnight (415 yards, 2 TD).
The defense might be the most talent-laden unit in the country, with numerous members of the Trojans’ unit sure to be high draft picks in the near future. But, that talent has shown where it matters, allowing only 15.9 points per game and 258.8 yards per game - only allowing more than 300 yards of total offense in only three of 12 games thanks in large part to be strong from the front (Sedrick Ellis and Lawrence Jackson), to the middle (Keith Rivers, Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing), to the secondary (Terrell Thomas, Taylor Mays, Kevin Ellison).
But, their opponents on New Year’s Day certainly aren’t pushovers, which the nation should be aware of already. With their plethora of young talent on both sides of the ball, Illinois was expected to do big things soon, but they decided to push their way into the national spotlight a little earlier than expected. Illinois won at #1 Ohio State and also defeated Wisconsin and Penn State on the way to a 9-3 (6-2 Big Ten) season, but were not far from being unbeaten, with a six-point loss to Missouri in the season opener, a 10-6 loss to Iowa, and a 27-17 loss to Michigan in which the game was tied 17-17 going into the fourth quarter.
USC’s defense is going to have to slow down dual-threat QB Juice Williams, who has thrown for 1,498 yards and 13 touchdowns and run for 774 yards and seven touchdowns. Against OSU, Williams had four touchdown passes, so he knows how to perform on the big stage.
The other offensive weapon the Trojans must slow down is junior running back Rashard Mendenhall, who has 1,526 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground this season and should be a future first-round pick, whether it be in 2008 or 2009.
However, much of the pressure will fall on the Illini defense to slow down the slew of weapons that the Trojans have on offense, and that task might be a little too tough, considering that slowing down just one of the trio of Washington, Johnson, and McKnight is tough enough, but when you have to contend with all three, it’s another thing entirely.
Booty might have the chance to rack up the stats, as Illinois gives up more than 240 pass yards per game, but that’s only if he has the time to throw and find open receivers - the Illini have 38 sacks, led by Will Davis’ 9.5, along with 16 interceptions as a team.
If the defense can keep the Trojans’ offense at bay for much of the game, and Williams and Mendenhall can make a few things happen, then the upset is certainly possible.
But, USC has the speed on defense to keep Williams and Mendenhall from going wild, and the speed on offense to exploit Illinois’ defense, and in the end, should be just a little too much for the upstart Illini, as long as they don‘t beat themselves with mistakes like the Buckeyes did.
USC 27 - Illinois 13
by Eddie Griffin
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