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Jan. 1 — Rose Bowl Preview at Pasadena, Calif., Southern California (10-2) vs. Illinois (9-3), 5 p.m. (ABC)
CFB – Rose Bowl – ILLINOIS vs. USC (1/1 5:00 PM ET – ABC)
The “Granddaddy of Them All” boasts the greatest point spread of any bowl game in 2007-08, with USC playing as a favorite of 14-points over an upstart Illinois team. The Trojans are well familiar with this stage, having played in three of the L4 Rose Bowl games.
USC is 4-1 SU & ATS in their L5 bowl games, all BCS, and have a 3-game SU & ATS winning streak in this bowl series vs. Big Ten foes. The Illini haven’t played in Pasadena since 1984, and in fact, haven’t played in any bowl game in six seasons. HC Ron Zook’s team brings in a 9-3 SU & 7-4 ATS record, with wins over #1 Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin to its credit. In fact, Illinois is 8-0 ATS against top-level teams (Win Pct. > 75%) over the L2 seasons. They operate a run-oriented version of the spread offense, gaining 266 YPG and 5.7 YPR in ’07. USC stuffs the run at a 2.4 YPR clip.
Head coach Pete Carroll is stockpiling talent, Pac-10 titles (six straight) and wins (75-14 record, .843 winning percentage) at an alarming rate. Senior quarterback John David Booty ranks among the school’s top six all-time in both passing yards and total offense.
Senior tailback Chauncey Washington needs 104 yards to hit the 1,000-yard season rushing plateau and he has rushed for nine touchdowns. Senior tight end Fred Davis, an All-American, has a team-best 55 receptions for 794 yards and seven scores. His 110 career catches is a USC tight ends record. Senior two-time All-American tackle Sam Baker anchors a terrific offensive line.
The Trojan defense is in the national top seven in every statistical category: second in total defense (258.8), fourth in scoring defense (15.9) and rushing defense (79.2), sixth in pass efficiency defense (99.7) and seventh in pass defense (179.7). Among the top defenders are two-time All-American defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, defensive end Lawrence Jackson (50 tackles for a loss, 29.5 sacks in his career), linebacker Keith Rivers and cornerback Terrell Thomas. All are seniors who have NFL scouts absolutely salivating. Safety Taylor May (62 tackles, one INT), just a sophomore, is a future pro as well.
Illinois, which won just twice in 2006, finished second in the Big Ten this year at 6-2 and posted wins over a pair of then-top five teams in No. 5 Wisconsin and No.1 Ohio State. Head coach Ron Zook, the 2007 Big Ten Coach of the Year after posting college football’s biggest turnaround this season, has the Illini in a bowl for the first time since 2001.
Illinois features a run-oriented offense that ranks fifth nationally in rushing offense (266.2 yards per game). Leading the way is junior running back Rashard Mendenhall (1,526 yards, 18 TDs). He runs behind a front headlined by All-American left guard Martin O’Donnell. Sophomore quarterback Juice Williams has thrown for 1,498 yards with 13 TDs and run for 774 yards with seven scores. Freshman wide receiver Arrelious Benn, a guy who USC recruited hard, was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year after catching 49 passes for 596 yards.
The Illini defense—ranked 19th nationally in scoring defense (19.5 ppg)—is led by senior linebacker J Leman (124 tackles in 2007) and sophomore cornerback Vontae Davis (63 tackles, four INTs).
With a two-deep roster littered with future pro players, the Trojans are clearly the more talented team. In fact, if not for a slew of mid-season injuries, USC would be playing in the BCS title game rather than the Rose Bowl.
A win here and the Trojans will likely finish in the Associated Press’ top four for a sixth straight year—quite a run in today’s parity-ridden college football. But, Illinois won’t roll over and play dead in this game. In Juice Williams, the Illini has the mobile run-pass type of quarterback (i.e. Vince Young of Texas, Dennis Dixon of Oregon) that has given USC some trouble the past couple years. The question is: Can Illinois’ offensive line block a ferocious front seven, led by two-time All-American defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis and game-changing defensive end Lawrence Jackson, something that numerous programs have struggled to do the past few seasons?
Ron Zook has authored quite a turnaround in Champaign this fall and will reap the benefits on the recruiting trail in the coming weeks.
Rose Bowl Free Pick:
But look for the star-studded Trojans to get the best of Zook and Co. here in what amounts to a home game for the Men of Troy.
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