Commentary

Illinois' offensive approach as easy as 1-2-3

Updated: December 31, 2007, 9:47 PM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- The Las Vegas spread says No. 13 Illinois is a two-touchdown underdog against No. 7 Southern California in Tuesday's Rose Bowl (ABC, 4:30 p.m. ET).

[+] EnlargeRashard Mendenhall
Jerry Lai/US PresswireRashard Mendenhall broke the Illinois single-season rushing record with 1,526 yards.

But the triple threat in Illini's spread offense suggests the game might be much closer than the oddsmakers predict it will be.

Illinois' combination of quarterback Juice Williams and tailback Rashard Mendenhall looks a lot like the one-two punch Oregon used in beating the Trojans 24-17 on Oct. 27. In that game, Ducks quarterback Dennis Dixon ran for 76 yards and one touchdown and passed for 157 yards. Oregon tailback Jonathan Stewart ran for 103 yards and two scores against USC.

"It's very similar," USC defensive coordinator Nick Holt said. "Oregon had a great quarterback and a great running back. It's a very similar offense, and a lot of the plays are the same. We've seen the stuff before. We just haven't always played great against it."

Mendenhall, a junior from Skokie, Ill., figures to carry the biggest load for Illinois. The Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year ran for a career-high 1,526 yards and 16 touchdowns in helping the Illini reach the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1983 season. Mendenhall ran for 100 or more yards in seven of 12 games and had two 200-yard performances.

"He's strong and runs physically and with an attitude," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "He makes people miss and gets out of trouble. He's a really good catcher and a good blocker. You can tell he's a guy they really trust."

Coming into the season, Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley wasn't sure how much he could trust Mendenhall. He was rated the No. 1 prospect in Illinois coming out of Niles West High School in 2005, but had run fewer than 100 times in each of his first two college seasons.

"We knew coming into the year that it was Rashard's turn and if we were going to meet expectations, his results would have to meet his potential," Locksley said. "There's always a concern with guys who haven't done it. Rashard understood for us to be the team we need to be, he'd have to be the player we thought he could be."

[+] EnlargeJuice Williams
Tom Dahlin/Getty ImagesJuice Williams is a dual-threat QB who has combined for 20 TDs (13 passing, 7 rushing) this season.

The Illini knew what kind of player Williams could be. The sophomore from Chicago started the final nine games of the 2006 season as a freshman, throwing for nearly 1,500 yards with nine touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also ran for 576 yards and two scores last season.

Williams was a much more polished passer this season, completing 56.9 percent of his passes (his accuracy rate was only 39.5 percent last year) with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Although Williams is as much of a running threat as Dixon, Carroll said the Illinois quarterback is more like Washington's Jake Locker, who ran for 50 yards and two touchdowns in USC's 27-24 win over the Huskies on Sept. 29.

"I think he's much more like Jake Locker," Carroll said. "Locker is a 225-pound kid with great speed. I think they're about the same. Dennis Dixon is a skinny kid with great bursts who makes you miss with his escapability. Juice is a football player who is going to try to run through you and fight for yards."

Although the Trojans are familiar with defending the spread offense, Holt said the Illini attack is more versatile. Illinois runs much of its offense out of a shotgun formation, with Williams carrying much of the burden on read-option plays. But the Illini also are adept at throwing out of multiple-receiver sets, or just handing the football to Mendenhall and letting him run between the tackles.

"They have a lot of different runs, not just the option runs," Holt said. "They have the traps, and then they'll get in the two-back [formations]. They have a lot more offense than the traditional spread offenses do. They have it all."

[+] EnlargeArrelious Benn
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesArrelious Benn set Illinois freshman records for receptions (49) and receiving yards (596) in 2007.

Even if the Trojans can slow down Mendenhall and Williams, wide receiver Arrelious Benn is another dangerous option for the Illini. The freshman from Washington, D.C., was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year after catching 49 passes for 596 yards with one touchdown. He also ran 32 times, and he returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown in a 27-20 win over Penn State on Sept. 29. Benn, who has been hampered by a dislocated shoulder, was even returning punts in practice this week.

Benn was ranked the country's No. 17 prospect by Scouts Inc. after his senior season at Dunbar High School, and chose the Illini over more-established programs such as Notre Dame and USC. When the Trojans targeted Benn, Carroll said they projected him as a future NFL first-round draft choice.

Benn surprised a lot of people when he chose to attend Illinois, which hadn't had a winning record since 2001 and won only two games in each of Zook's first two seasons.

During the recruiting process, Benn became friends with quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who signed with Notre Dame. Fighting Irish fans hoped Benn would join Clausen in South Bend. After Benn chose the Illini, he said Notre Dame fans questioned his decision, even calling his home to tell him as much.

"It was a slap in the face to me," Benn said. "I don't want to say I told you so, but it is what it is."

Thanks to their high-powered trio on offense, the Illini are no longer what they used to be.

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

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