Rose Bowl appearance caps dramatic turnaround for Illini

LOS ANGELES -- Illinois All-America guard Martin O'Donnell remembers how bad the Illini used to be when they'd take the field. Not decades ago, more like months ago.

"Just a couple of years ago, we were trailing by 50 in our homecoming game," O'Donnell said, referring to a 63-10 loss to Penn State in 2005.

Ron Zook was in his first season as the coach of the Illini when the Nittany Lions embarrassed his team at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. Afterward, Zook told his players, "This is as bad as it's going to get. It will never be any worse than this."

Zook was right. The Illini lost their final nine games of the 2005 season to finish 2-9 and 0-8 in Big Ten play. Their record wasn't any better the next year, when a seven-game losing streak to end the season left Illinois at 2-10, including a 1-7 mark against Big Ten foes.

But at least the Illini were more competitive. In Zook's second season, they had a chance to beat No. 17 Wisconsin on the road in a 30-24 loss. Then Illinois gave No. 1 Ohio State all it could handle in a 17-10 loss near the end of the 2006 season.

"Even when things were bad, I just told myself, 'It's going to work. Stay the course,'" Zook recalled.

Fast forward one year and two months. On Friday morning, O'Donnell and three of his teammates were sitting in a plush ballroom in a ritzy hotel in Beverly Hills. The Illinois players were being bombarded with questions from media members about how they would compete with No. 7 Southern California in the Rose Bowl presented by Citi on New Year's Day (ABC, 4:30 p.m. ET).

Outside of Illinois, few college football fans believe the Illini really deserve to be here. They finished 9-3 and were the only team with more than two losses selected to play in a BCS bowl game. Few people really expect them to fare much better than they did in their last Rose Bowl appearance, a 45-9 loss to UCLA on Jan. 2, 1984.

Many college football fans believe if not for the Rose Bowl's long relationship with the Big Ten and Pac-10, a more deserving team -- say Missouri or Kansas -- would have ended up playing here. After the Rose Bowl matchup was announced, the Trojans opened as two-touchdown favorites in Las Vegas.

"If people say we don't belong in the BCS, I guess we'll just have to show them that we do belong here," Illinois receiver Arrelious Benn said.

When you've produced one of the greatest turnarounds in recent college football history, anything seems possible. Illinois entered the 2007 season hoping to improve after winning only two games in each of Zook's first two seasons. Anything close to mediocrity would have been a vast improvement. But even winning as many games as it lost seemed like a stretch for Illinois.

The Illini had endured five consecutive losing seasons after a 10-2 record and a Sugar Bowl appearance in 2001. Worse, Illinois had taken out a mortgage on the Big Ten cellar, losing 30 of 32 games against conference foes from 2003 to 2006.

"No matter where you go, there are going to be tough days," Zook said. "There are going to be problems."

Illinois' biggest problem was that it didn't have the players it needed to compete in the Big 10. So Zook and his staff recruited like madmen for three years. With Red Bull seemingly pumped into his veins, Zook signed a recruiting class ranked among the top 30 nationally two years in a row.

With offensive coordinator Mike Locksley staking out faraway places like Washington D.C., the Illini landed highly regarded players such as Benn and cornerback Vontae Davis, a Thorpe Award semifinalist as a sophomore this season and the younger brother of San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis. Benn, who chose the Illini over more-established programs such as Florida State and Notre Dame, was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year after catching 49 passes for 596 yards.

Just as important, Zook and recruiting coordinator Reggie Mitchell, who was lured away from Michigan State, re-established the Illini's presence in Chicago. With renewed emphasis on the Windy City, Illini landed quarterback Juice Williams and linebacker Martez Wilson.

With those young players meshing with a solid group of returning players, the Illini slowly learned how to win. Illinois opened the season with a 40-34 loss to Missouri, a game in which the Illini lost their starting quarterback to a concussion. But even with Williams sidelined, Illinois nearly rallied from a 37-13 deficit in the second half. Easy victories over Division I-AA Western Illinois, Syracuse and Indiana followed.

By late September, the Illini were playing with booming confidence. They upset No. 21 Penn State and No. 5 Wisconsin in consecutive home games, ending the Badgers' 14-game winning streak and beating a ranked opponent for the first time since 2001.

Then Illinois traveled to struggling Iowa and lost 10-6. When Michigan beat the Illini 27-17 at Memorial Stadium the following week, it seemed the wheels were about to fall off. Despite all the improvements, Illinois was 5-3 and not yet eligible to play in a bowl game.

But Illinois rallied to win its last four games, including a 28-21 upset of No. 1 Ohio State on the road on Nov. 10. It was Illinois' first victory over a top-ranked team since 1956, and it ended the Buckeyes' streak of 20 consecutive wins in Big Ten games.

"The three games we did lose were games we should have won," Benn said. "We should be sitting here undefeated and playing for the national championship. But we took some lumps and recovered."

And getting to the Rose Bowl, even if some believe they shouldn't be here, puts the Illini that much further ahead in Zook's remarkable rebuilding job.

"For us to be in the Rose Bowl, that's probably ahead of schedule," Locksley said. "Our goal in the third year was to become bowl eligible."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.