PASADENA, Calif. (AP) -Southern California's Lawrence Jackson set the tone early, sacking Illinois quarterback Juice Williams on the third play of the Rose Bowl and high-stepping off the field in celebration.
Rey Maualuga's first-quarter interception set up a touchdown, and he sacked Williams three times in the second period, matching his regular-season sack total.
The USC defense was simply too big, too strong, too athletic and too fast for Illinois, making big plays all day in the Trojans' 49-17 victory over the Illini on Tuesday.
Oh, Illinois had its offensive highlights in the second half, thanks mainly to Williams and running back Rashard Mendenhall. But the Trojans turned Maualuga's first interception of the season and three third-quarter turnovers into touchdowns en route to their decisive triumph.
Jackson and fellow defensive lineman Sedrick Ellis figure to be first-round picks in the NFL draft this spring, and Maualuga, Keith Rivers, Brian Cushing, Thomas Williams and Kaluka Maiava make up one of the country's best linebacking corps.
Giving a talented Pete Carroll-coached defense a month to prepare made it a most difficult proposition for sophomore quarterback Williams and his teammates.
No. 6 USC (11-2) struggled at times defensively early in the season, mainly due to injuries. Once the Trojans got healthy, it was a different story. They allowed only 51 points in winning their last four regular-season games to earn at least a share of their sixth straight Pac-10 title, and just 17 more in their fourth Rose Bowl appearance in five years.
USC finished the regular season ranked second in the country in total defense, behind No. 1 Ohio State. Yep, the same Ohio State team that Illinois beat 28-21 on Nov. 10 for the Buckeyes' only loss of the season. Williams and the Illini held the ball the final 8:09 of that game.
Illinois allowed only 11 sacks during the regular season. The Trojans had five in this game, pressuring Williams throughout.
In building a 21-3 first-half lead, USC allowed only 79 yards of total offense. The 13th-ranked Illini (9-4) matched that total on the second play of the third quarter on Mendenhall's 79-yard touchdown run, but the Trojans wouldn't allow another point until the final 4 1/2 minutes, when Illinois scored a meaningless touchdown.
Maiava and Cushing combined for the game's biggest play midway through the third period with USC leading 21-10. Williams completed a pass to Jacob Willis, but Maiava jarred the ball loose inside the Trojans' 5-yard line, and Cushing recovered in the end zone for a touchback.
A USC touchdown followed, and so did two more after Cary Harris came up with an interception and a fumble recovery later in the period, assuring the Trojans of their 23rd victory in a record 32 Rose Bowl appearances.
Maualuga had a team-leading 75 tackles this season despite being slowed by a hip pointer. There had been speculation that he'd bypass his senior year to turn pro, but the 6-foot-3, 250-pound junior recently dispelled that notion.
Cushing, a junior who earned defensive player of the game honors in USC's 32-18 triumph over Michigan in last year's Rose Bowl, also said he'll stick around for his senior year. Cushing was hampered much of the season by a sprained ankle.
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