Illinois says it doesn't mind underdog status.
December 8, 2007
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) -When Illinois runs out onto the lush green of the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, it'll be facing a hostile road crowd and playing a game few expect the Illini to win.
For quarterback Juice Williams, that sounds a lot like the Illini's trip to Ohio State. That trip last month ended with the 28-21 win over the top-ranked Buckeyes that punched Illinois' ticket to Pasadena.
``It's gonna be a similar environment to what it was in Columbus,'' Williams said. At Ohio State, ``it was almost like it was Illinois versus the entire state.''
Take away the San Gabriel Mountains that give the Rose Bowl its made-for-TV backdrop, and there are strong similarities between the game at Columbus and the one they're about to make out west.
Ohio State has the top-ranked defense in the country, one spot better than Southern California. Illinois took on the Buckeyes at the Horseshoe, one of the biggest stadiums in the country, laden with football history.
The Illini will face USC, ranked 7th in the BCS, at the Rose Bowl, one of the biggest stadiums in the country. The 84-year-old stadium was the scene of some of Southern Cal's best memories. Nine of USC's 11 national titles have been sewn up with Rose Bowl wins.
Illinois coach Ron Zook said the Rose Bowl is practically USC's home stadium - they play their regular season home games not far away at Memorial Coliseum.
With almost all of the 25,000 tickets allotted to Illinois already spoken for, Zook expects more Illini fans in Pasadena than he saw in Columbus.
``I'll bet you're gonna see a lot of orange in that stadium,'' he said.
And he doesn't believe his 9-3 team, second in the Big Ten behind the Buckeyes and 13th in the BCS, will be overwhelmed.
``Our guys kind of thrive on that kind of thing,'' he said.
Or, as Williams put it, ``Just like when we played Ohio State, we were on a national stage.''
In that game, Illinois used a suffocating ground game and a handful of well-timed big pass plays from Williams to win.
Illinois ran for 260 yards against a defense that has allowed 225 total yards a game this season. Williams had 70 of those yards, plus four TD passes.
Most impressive was the Illini's last drive, a 15-play slog that moved the ball 48 yards, killed the final 8:09 and drained the life out of the Buckeye crowd.
What Illinois accomplished at Ohio State should help on New Year's Day, senior guard Martin O'Donnell said.
``When you play defenses that are at that next level,'' he said, ``all those experiences I think help you.''
The Trojan defense doesn't give up much, just 258 yards a game, and only 79 on the ground.
``Their defense is fast and they like to hit people,'' O'Donnell said. ``We gotta come out and we gotta be aggressive.''
O'Donnell, a fifth-year senior, remembers the last trip to the Rose Bowl. A freshman at the time, he didn't play in that 6-3 loss to UCLA.
``It's just incredible,'' O'Donnell said. ``I was kind of in awe the first time I went there. ... I was kind of in awe of a lot of places that year.''
Judging by its 1-11 record, so was the rest of the team.
For O'Donnell and the handful of current players who were part of that team, a trip back to the Rose Bowl feels right.
``What a way to come full circle,'' he said. ``I mean, going 1-11 our first year here, going through a lot of bad seasons, no bowl games before this year and then finishing up with the Rose Bowl.''
Re: Rose Bowl
Rose Bowl: Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Southern Cal Trojans
- Illinois already enjoyed their bowl game - an upset win on the road at Ohio State. But they will happily add Rose Bowl champions to the list of accomplishments in their unlikely 9-3 season. USC meanwhile shakes off the disappointment of a season gone wrong with losses to try to capture a 23rd Rose Bowl at Pasadena.
Illinois rushed for 341 yards in a 41-22 win over Northwestern last time out, covering the 14-point home spread. The 63 points scored were OVER the posted total of 58.
Juice Williams was 15-for-23 for 220 yards, one touchdown and one interception, while running for 136 yards and two scores. Rashard Mendenhall had 27 carries for 124 yards and a pair of touchdowns for the Illini.
USC held UCLA to 167 yards and forced four turnovers in a 24-7 win last time out, failing to cover the 18.5-point home spread. The 31 points scored were UNDER the posted total of 46.
John David Booty was 19-for-34 for 191 yards, one touchdown and a pick, while Joe McKnight had 13 carries for 90 yards for the Trojans.
Illinois: 9-3 SU, 7-4 ATS
Southern Cal: 10-2 SU, 7-5 ATS
Illinois most recently:
When playing in January are 0-1
When playing on grass are 1-9
After outgaining opponent are 6-4
When an underdog on the road are 2-8
Southern Cal most recently:
When playing in January are 5-1
When playing on grass are 8-2
After outgaining opponent are 8-2
When favored at home are 9-1
A few trends to consider:
Illinois is 9-2 SU in its last 11 games
Illinois is 7-3 ATS in its last 10 games
The total has gone UNDER in 9 of Southern Cal's last 10 games
Southern Cal is 6-1 SU in its last 7 games
Southern Cal is 5-2 ATS in its last 7 games
Re: Rose Bowl
Rose Bowl Preview
By Brad Young
Illinois (9-3 SU, 7-4 ATS) vs. Southern Cal (10-2 SU, 6-6 ATS)
How they got there:
Illinois finished second in the Big Ten Conference, finishing the regular season by winning its last four games SU (3-1 ATS). The Fighting Illini toppled Northwestern in their latest effort as a 14-point home ‘chalk,’ 41-22. The combined 63 points eclipsed the 57-point closing total, helping the ‘over’ improve to 7-2.
Illinois wouldn’t be playing in Pasadena if it wasn’t for its upset of Ohio State late in the season as a 15-point road underdog, 28-21. The combined 49 points went ‘over’ the 46-point closing total. This marks the Illini’s first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1983.
Southern Cal is making its third consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl (a record 32 appearances overall), but the team had its sights on the national championship game. The Trojans fell to Stanford as an overwhelming 39 ½-point home favorite, 24-23, and Oregon a few games later as a three-point road underdog, 24-17.
USC wrapped up the regular season with a four-game winning streak (3-1 ATS) after beating rival UCLA as a 19-point home ‘chalk,’ 24-7. The combined 31 points failed to topple the 46-point closing total, helping the ‘under’ improve to 2-1 the past three outings.
What to expect:
Illinois is the classic underdog story in this spot, making a rare Rose Bowl appearance against a team that is one of the few marquee programs in college football. The Illini finished second in the Big Ten to Ohio State, but get to make the Pasadena trip for a couple reasons.
First, the Buckeyes advanced to the national championship game against LSU. Secondly the Rose Bowl loves the tradition of a Big Ten-Pac 10 matchup, passing over other BCS teams like Georgia and Hawaii.
Illinois will need a monster game from quarterback Juice Williams, who is a duel threat that gave the Buckeyes fits. The Illini ranked fifth in the country in rushing yards, gaining an average of 266.2 yards per contest. Illinois will need to run the ball effectively, chew the clock and shorten the game for a chance to upset the Trojans.
Southern Cal is making its annual trip to Pasadena, playing in the Rose Bowl for the third consecutive season. The Trojans didn’t dominate teams this year because of injuries, but they started to get healthy late in the season.
USC didn’t rack up its usual gaudy numbers over opponents, ranking 34th in rushing yards per game (185), 55th in passing yards (243.5), 47th in total yards (428.5) and 42nd in points scored (31.3). The Trojans captured another Pac-10 title with their defense, and figure to load the line against Illinois in an effort to stop the run.
Players to Watch:
Illinois quarterback Juice Williams creates havoc with his speed, leading his team to a road upset of Ohio State. The sophomore signal caller enjoyed a breakout season, completing 57 percent of his passes for 1,498 yards with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Williams was also the Illini’s second leading rusher, gaining 774 yards with seven scores.
USC quarterback John David Booty is much less mobile than Williams, but a more proficient passer. The Louisiana native passed for 2,106 yards with 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions while completing 63 percent of his passes. Booty missed part of his senior season due to a broken middle finger on his throwing hand, but has fine since returning to action.
Illinois is making its first Rose Bowl trip since 1983 when the school lost to UCLA, 45-9. The Fighting Illini haven’t participated in a bowl game since 2002 when they fell to Louisiana State in the Sugar Bowl, 47-34.
USC is a staple in the Rose Bowl, making its record 32nd appearance and third straight trip to Pasadena. The Trojans dropped the national championship game to Texas two years ago, 41-38, before roughing up Michigan last season, 32-18.
Inside the Line:
Las Vegas Sports Consultants opened Southern Cal as a 14-point ‘chalk’ over Illinois, with the total set at 50 ½. The line has remained constant throughout, while the total has dipped slightly to 50. This marks the biggest point spread of any bowl game. ABC Sports will provide coverage of the Rose Bowl beginning Tuesday at 2:00 p.m. ET.
Expert Opinion: Jorge Gonzalez
“Illinois is the biggest underdog this bowl season for a reason,” stated Gonzalez. “The Illini only made the Rose Bowl because of the Big Ten-Pac 10 tradition and the fact that Ohio State is playing for the national championship.
“Southern Cal had some injury issues earlier, but started to get healthy late in the season. The Trojans have been winning behind a dominating defense, and that’s will this game will be decided. It will be interesting to see how well the Illinois ground game can do against USC.”
Re: Rose Bowl
Rose matchup against Illinois fails to fire up USC fan base
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- As always this time of year, the buzz in Southern California is about college football. More specifically, the front-page news is about this city's "other" program, UCLA, and its new celebrity coach, Rick Neuheisel.
Today's Rose Bowl and Southern California -- they've been shuffled to the back, both locally and nationally, thanks to Neuheisel and a few other reasons:
1) USC seems to play in this game pretty much every year.
2) The Trojans, despite always making the Rose Bowl their No. 1 goal, are in Pasadena for the second straight season after squandering a decent chance to play for the national title.
3) Their opponent, Illinois, is arguably the freshest story going on here this week. But the Illini are a three-loss team, Big Ten Conference runners-up, don't have the warm-and-fuzzy potential of, say, Hawaii or Boise State, and are the biggest underdogs of this season's 32 bowl games, at 14 points.
It's hard to remember the Granddaddy of 'Em All ever looking like this much of an undercard.
Can anyone say "playoff?"
"I know there's other games out there, and now and then, you get a chance to go," USC coach Pete Carroll said Monday. "But to come back here again is a great thrill, and it's really the target of our program."
Apparently not the target of many USC fans out there.
Trojans boosters are a hard-core group, and lots of them have money. Fans spent thousands to fly to Miami to watch USC in the Orange Bowl in 2005. And $1,000 wasn't enough to even get them in the stadium two years ago to see the Trojans against Texas in the Rose Bowl, when that was the national title game.
But they're not paying much for this matchup. Over the weekend, tickets on the 50-yard line were going for around $350.
Even Carroll acknowledged that he would love to see how far the sixth-ranked Trojans (10-2) could go in a playoff system. Four weeks ago, when the BCS pairings came out, he lobbied for a spot in the national title game and said it was clear nobody in the country would want to play his team.
"I'm not here to say that would make us national champions," Carroll said of a playoff. "It would be really exciting to be part of that process. Each year that we've been in this, we felt like we would like that opportunity. Why we don't have it, I don't know. I don't know those rules and issues and all that. I don't really care about them. That's the way we would like to do it."
One reason the bowl system stays the way it is, is because of teams such as Illinois.
Sure, the 13th-ranked Illini (9-3) appear to be overmatched in this game and made it because the Big Ten champion, Ohio State, is slated for the BCS title game. (And because Rose Bowl officials were insistent on a traditional Big Ten/Pac-10 matchup.)
Still, this trip is nothing less than the culmination of an impossible dream for both coach Ron Zook and the program.
Illinois averaged slightly more than four wins a year for the last decade. Zook went 4-19 after taking the job in Champaign following his choppy three-year tenure at Florida.
"I've always been depressed" come New Year's Day, said senior safety Kevin Mitchell. "I always came into the season thinking we'd be somewhere, but we never were. You didn't really want to watch any of the games on TV. You just kind of waited for it to all be over."
This time, though, Mitchell and Illinois are America's New Year's Day entertainment.
At least they hope they can be.
Zook said he's trying to keep his team focused and "ready to handle the onslaught" for Illinois' first appearance in the Rose Bowl in 24 years, when none other than Neuheisel quarterbacked UCLA to a 45-9 blowout.
"I've had people tell me that when you come out onto the field, it's breathtaking," Zook said. "That's something we have to handle. The guys asked me what to expect and I told them, 'I've never been here, either.' I want them to appreciate it and enjoy it. But let's be ready to play in it, too."
Nobody knows the drill better than USC. This will be the 32nd "trip" to the Rose Bowl for the Trojans and the fourth in the last five years.
For those with a sense of the big picture, this is still something to celebrate. Before Carroll arrived, USC had fallen back to mediocrity, making trips to the Freedom and Sun Bowls and longing for the days when Rose Bowl trips seemed routine.
Through it all, one thing has remained the same. Every day, when the players take the "All-American" walk out of Heritage Hall to the practice field, they pass a wall-sized picture of the stadium in Pasadena that says "Own the Rose Bowl."
Indeed, USC has owned it of late, even though this year, it hardly seems like what it used to be.
NO. 13 ILLINOIS VS. NO. 6 SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
• RECORDS: No. 13 Illinois (9-3, 6-2 Big Ten) vs. No. 6 Southern California (10-2, 7-2 Pac-10)
• KICKOFF: 2:10 p.m. today at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
• TV/RADIO: ABC (13), KBAD-AM (920)
• LINE: USC -14; total 50
• THE BUZZ: Under third-year coach Ron Zook, the Fighting Illini are in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1984 and in their first bowl game since the 2002 Sugar Bowl. They are led by dual-threat sophomore QB Isiah "Juice" Williams (1,498 passing yards, 13 TD passes) and junior RB Rashard Mendenhall (1,526 rushing yards, 16 rushing TDs). The Illini won their final four regular-season games.
The Pac-10 champion Trojans are in the Rose Bowl for the fourth time in the past five seasons. Winners of their last four regular-season games, the Trojans are led on offense by senior QB John David Booty (2,106 passing yards, 20 passing TDs) and on defense by senior OLB Keith Rivers (73 tackles).
• PREDICTION: USC 30, Illinois 21
THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
Re: Rose Bowl
Illini healthy for Rose Bowl
Daily Herald Staff
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. --USC could be without its most experienced receiver for today's 94th Rose Bowl.
Six-foot-5 junior wideout Patrick Turner, a season-long starter who caught 48 passes for 569 yards and 3 touchdowns, will play little, if any, today due to a deep thigh bruise suffered in practice.
"We're not going to count on him," said Trojans coach Pete Carroll.
Turner will be replaced by David Ausberry and Ronald Johnson, a pair of freshmen who combined for 29 catches, 307 yards and 2 scores.
Illinois coach Ron Zook, on the other hand, reports his team hasn't been this healthy all season.
"We're as good as we possibly could be," Zook said.
Fullback Russ Weil, who missed most of the Ohio State win and all of the Northwestern regular-season finale with a bad knee, should be in the starting lineup.
Zook said freshman receiver Arrelious Benn, a game-breaking punt returner in high school, might return some punts for the first time all year.
His chronic right shoulder injury, a dislocation that occurred in a preseason scrimmage and will require surgery shortly after the Rose Bowl, hasn't been much of an issue lately.
"He's caught an awful lot of punts this week," Zook said. "He feels good about that. But we'll start with DaJuan (Warren) back there."
The mighty underdog: Las Vegas must have done a terrific job sizing up the Rose Bowl.
When the BCS pairings were revealed a month ago, Illinois started as a 13½-point underdog and the line barely wavered.
Just don't talk to USC tight end Fred Davis, the Mackey Award winner, about being a big favorite.
"We lost to Stanford," Davis said, "so you can't really look at the underdog and look at all the hype."
Stanford was getting 41 points on the betting line before it stunned USC 24-23 at the Coliseum on Oct. 6.
"You've got to definitely be humble and just play every team like it's the national championship," Davis said. "This, to us, is our national championship."
Monday's excitement: For security reasons, Rose Bowl officials don't allow access to the stadium until the last possible moment.
When Illinois and USC did their walkthroughs at the Rose Bowl on Monday afternoon, it served as the teams' only opportunity to inspect the stadium prior to today's game.
"It's like a little boy looking forward to Christmas the night before Christmas," Ron Zook said. "Obviously this is an exciting time."
Zook, a notoriously light sleeper, claimed he'd have no problem snoozing the night before the biggest game of his coaching career.
"It's the night after the game that sometimes I have trouble sleeping," Zook said with a smile.
Today's plans: Illinois will board its buses at 11 a.m. Pacific time -- three hours before the game -- and receive a police escort for the 30-mile trip to the Rose Bowl.
The police escorts have been one of the more fascinating parts of Illinois' week-long stay here.
Anywhere from five to nine California Highway Patrol officers have accompanied the Illini virtually everywhere.
Whenever their buses want to change lanes, the cops pull ahead on their motorcycles and virtually push other traffic out of the way.
Los Angeles' fabled traffic problems haven't been bad during this holiday week, which made the escorts less necessary than anticipated.
That should change today when more than 1 million people descend upon hard-to-access Pasadena for the Rose Parade and the Bowl game.
Re: Rose Bowl
A look at the 94th Rose Bowl game between USC and Illinois
KEYS TO THE GAME
1Control the quarterbacks. USC must put the clamps on Illinois quarterback Juice Williams, a more powerful runner than Oregon's Dennis Dixon, and cannot afford to over-pursue or arm tackle. The Fighting Illini need to pressure Trojans quarterback John David Booty, but defensive backs must be aware if offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian puts Booty on the move as he did against Arizona State.
2Run for the roses. Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall must play well to occupy the Trojans and clear the running lanes for Williams. USC's Chauncey Washington and other runners cannot afford a repeat of the Trojans' paltry Rose Bowl rushing effort against Michigan a year ago. Booty might love to sling it, but the Trojans need balance.
3Take care. If USC avoids the interceptions and fumbles that plagued it in losses to Stanford and Oregon, it could start the year with its third Rose Bowl victory in four years. Illinois can position itself for an upset if it follows the formula it used against Ohio State: No interceptions, no fumbles.
* USC rushing offense vs. Illinois rushing defense: Chauncey Washington will start but Stafon Johnson and Joe McKnight will rotate in for the Trojans, who were stymied on the ground in last year's Rose Bowl victory over Michigan. The offensive line is rested, healthy and intact for the first time all season. The Illinois defense ranks 23rd in the nation against the run and held five opponents, including nationally ranked Missouri, to fewer than 100 yards. All-American middle linebacker J Leman has a knack for shedding blocks and getting to the point of attack. Edge: Illinois.
* USC passing offense vs. Illinois passing defense: Quarterback John David Booty came back from a broken finger and passed for eight touchdowns with only one interception in the last four games. Fred Davis, the Mackey Award winner as college football's top tight end, is Booty's main target for a receiving corps that could be without injured split end Patrick Turner. The Fighting Illini have good reason to worry about Davis -- Wisconsin tight end Travis Beckum caught 11 passes for 160 yards against them in October. The secondary is led by senior safety Kevin Mitchell, who had five interceptions and 16 passes defended this season. Edge: USC.
* Special teams: USC kicker David Buehler has converted 16 of 19 field-goal attempts. Freshman Ronald Johnson averages 25.5 yards per kickoff return. Desmond Reed is the most reliable punt catcher but McKnight provides a breakaway threat. Punter Greg Woidneck averages 38.1 yards per kick. Illinois kicker Jason Reda ranked third nationally in percentage by converting 15 of 16 field-goal attempts and was one of only three college kickers to make three of 50 or more yards. The return teams were below average, so the Illini might need Arrelious Benn, a star freshman receiver, to pitch in. Edge: USC.
* Illinois rushing offense vs. USC rushing defense: Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall ranks seventh in the nation with 127.2 yards rushing a game. When defenses have focused too intently on him, quarterback Juice Williams has been effective running out of the zone read and option. All-American nose tackle Sedrick Ellis, the Pacific 10 Conference's defensive player of the year, and linebackers Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers anchor the Trojans front. USC ranks fourth nationally against the run. Edge: USC.
* Illinois passing offense vs. USC passing defense: Williams is a dual-threat quarterback who can look to receiver Benn, the Big Ten freshman of the year, but has been more dangerous when running than passing. Illinois' passing offense ranks a lowly 114th in the nation. USC cornerbacks Terrell Thomas and Cary Harris and safeties Kevin Ellison and Taylor Mays abide by Coach Pete Carroll's mantra of keeping the play in front of them. They have only seven interceptions between them but rarely get burned for long gains. Edge: USC.
* Coaching: Carroll has guided the Trojans to their sixth consecutive Bowl Championship Series bowl game. He is 4-1 in BCS games, the only loss coming in the title game against Texas in the 2006 Rose Bowl. Ron Zook revived the Illinois program and led the Fighting Illini to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1984, but still faces critics who say he isn't a good game coach. Edge: USC.
* Intangibles: USC is playing a bowl game in its backyard for the fourth time in five years. Some might question the Trojans' motivation against a three-loss team, but the seniors are determined to go out as one of the most successful classes in college football history. The Illini have been down this road before, playing the underdog to ranked teams such as Missouri, Wisconsin and Ohio State -- and scoring a few upsets along the way. Against USC, they have nothing to lose. Edge: USC.
* Prediction: USC, 34-17.