Commentary

Trojans' defense respects but doesn't fear Illini attack

Updated: December 31, 2007, 12:45 PM ET
By Bruce Feldman | ESPN The Magazine

LOS ANGELES -- At USC, some great players set records. Other Trojans standouts win trophies. Sedrick Ellis, the powerhouse nose tackle, though, is responsible for a different kind of hardware.

[+] EnlargeSedrick Ellis
Jeff Golden/Getty ImagesDefensive tackle Sedrick Ellis is the driving force of the USC defense.

The 6-foot-1, 305-pound senior has grown so strong that the Trojans had to buy a set of 200-pound dumbbells for their weight room just to accommodate him. "Before, the heaviest we had were 160s," said Chris Carlisle, the Trojans' strength coach, who adds that Ellis can now do sets of eight reps on the incline bench with the bigger iron.

But as any Pac-10 opponent will tell you, Ellis is much more than just a weight room freak. He is the motor behind a fierce defensive line that sets the tempo for the Trojans. This season, while the USC offense sputtered, the defense was dominant for much of the season. In fact, it's no stretch to say the D-line comprised of Ellis and DT Fili Moala and ends Lawrence Jackson, Kyle Moore and Everson Griffen gives USC the most feared defensive front in the country.

"Sedrick really has been phenomenal," coach Pete Carroll said. "The whole D-line really has been outstanding all season. The Cal game we didn't play the run as well, but the rest of the year, Lawrence, Sedrick, Fili have been so consistent. Look at their numbers. They're excellent. These guys have been huge to the success of this football team. We can always count on them."

The Trojans are fourth in the nation in run defense, eighth against the pass and second in total defense. They've also been at their best in the last part of the season. The Trojans have 21 sacks in the season's final four games. Then again, they haven't faced any spread offenses over that time either and Ellis & Co. will now have to cope with one of the country's top rushing offenses when they face Illinois in Tuesday's Rose Bowl (ABC, 4:30 p.m. ET).

"I like SC's chances," says one Pac-10 coach. "They are so strong up front, it's hard to sustain anything against them. Ellis is, by far, their best player. I think he's really underrated. He's almost unblockable. Everything they do begins with him. He can overpower pretty much everyone in our league. [Lawrence] Jackson is very good too, especially when he gets into a rhythm. Their linebackers are probably overrated. They're really big and athletic, but they get out of position a lot, although because the guys up front are so good, they're still gonna make a lot of plays."

Ellis' numbers are eye-opening, especially for an interior lineman. He has 12½ tackles for loss and 8½ sacks. His numbers compare favorably to those of LSU All-American DT Glenn Dorsey (11 tackles for loss, 6 sacks), who won every award a defensive tackle can get this fall.

"That's just how it is," Ellis said. "The SEC tends to get more credit from the writers, but anybody who knows football knows the work that I put in. It would've been nice to get some of those awards, but he got them and more power to him. I'll try to get him out at the combine."

Ellis' assessment of the LSU star: "He is very good going straight up the field. He causes a lot of disruption, but I feel like I'm better moving laterally and going sideline to sideline."

Inside the USC program, Ellis has merited comparisons to former All-American Mike Patterson, the gold standard of Trojans defensive linemen from this era. Carlisle, the team's strength coach, says Ellis is actually more powerful, but doesn't have the explosiveness that Patterson had. "Mike was a 10 on explosiveness and an eight on strength, where Sedrick is an eight on explosiveness and a 10 on strength."

Says Jackson, "[Ellis'] strength out there is crazy."

[+] EnlargeLawrence Jackson
Jeff Golden/Getty ImagesLawrence Jackson has 14 tackles for loss and 9½ sacks this season.

Thanks to the attention Ellis warrants inside, Jackson, a 6-5, 265-pound senior, has been able to do a lot of damage outside. He is the team's top pass-rusher, with 14 tackles for loss and 9½ sacks. Bookend mate Kyle Moore is a solid end against the run, while Griffen, a 6-3, 260-pound freshman who relies on a great spin move, has a flair for rushing the passer. Moala, the other tackle, has five tackles for loss and two sacks helping hold down the middle.

The group knows it will be in for a challenge on New Year's Day. Illinois comes into the Rose Bowl with the nation's No. 5 rushing attack. Earlier this season, the Illini went into Ohio State and ran all over the then-top-ranked Buckeyes and their vaunted defense, rolling up 260 rushing yards. Adding another twist to the matchup is the fact that Illinois runs a spread offense with a mobile quarterback, something that has really given Pete Carroll teams fits over the years.

While everyone remembers the awesome show Texas' Vince Young put on in the 2006 Rose Bowl against USC, carving up the Trojans' defense, there have also been big games from Kansas State's Ell Roberson and Virginia Tech's Bryan Randall. Earlier this season, Washington's Jake Locker and Oregon's Dennis Dixon caused problems for USC and each was sacked only once by the Trojans.

Juice Williams is the triggerman for the Illinois offense and has powered his way to 774 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. In the upset in Columbus, he threw four TD passes and made a bunch of tough runs to keep the chains moving. Williams has proved to be quite a complement to the Illini's standout tailback Rashard Mendenhall. However, the Trojans don't sound very worried.

"He's not like Dixon or Vince Young," Jackson says bluntly of the 6-2, 225-pound sophomore. "Isiah is big and strong and powerful, but he is more strong than he is fast or quick."

Wait … Isiah?

Jackson, one of the better quotes in college football, says he's no fan of nicknames. He begins to get philosophical, even evoking the movie "300" when asked why he chooses to call the Illinois quarterback by his given name.

"I won't call him Juice," Jackson says. "To call him Juice, that brings him into another category that I don't think he should be in."

The approach Carroll and his staff have preached to combat a running quarterback is that everyone must focus on doing his job, but not try to do too much. If USC's guys don't remain disciplined, Juice, er, Isiah and Mendenhall could be primed to take down another college football powerhouse in its own backyard.

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. His new book, "Meat Market: Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting," is on sale now.

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