Commentary

Instant analysis: 2008 Rose Bowl -- Illinois vs. USC

Originally Published: January 1, 2008
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

PASADENA, Calif. -- Here's a look at what happened in the 2008 Rose Bowl game between Illinois and USC:

FINAL ANALYSIS

How the game was won: After Southern California took an early 21-0 lead, Illinois was on the verge of making the score very close midway through the third quarter. But Illini receiver Jacob Willis fumbled into the end zone after making a catch, and Trojans linebacker Brian Cushing recovered for a touchback. USC converted that miscue into a touchdown, then cornerback Cary Harris intercepted Illinois quarterback Juice Williams' pass on the first play of the ensuing possession. Five plays later, Trojans freshman Joe McKnight scored on a 6-yard run, making it 35-10.

Player of the game: McKnight, the freshman from River Ridge, La., showed why USC coaches are so excited about his future. He ran for 125 yards, averaging 12.5 yards on only 10 carries. McKnight also caught six passes for 45 yards. He made one of the biggest plays of the game with about six minutes left in the third quarter. On third-and-20 at the USC 23, John David Booty threw a pass into the left flat for McKnight. The pass was short and bounced toward McKnight. He grabbed the lateral and ran 65 yards for a first down at the Illinois 12.

Stat of the game: 3 -- Touchdown passes for Booty, giving him seven in two Rose Bowl appearances, the most in history. Booty had four touchdown passes in a 32-18 win over Michigan last season.

Questions answered:
• Was Illinois in over its head?: Uhhh, yeah. The Illini nearly cut the Trojans' lead to four points midway through the third quarter. But the Illini never recovered from Willis' fumble into the end zone, and the game became a rout.

• Is Rashard Mendenhall really that good? Yes. The Illinois tailback was the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year after running for more than 1,500 yards. He looked just as good against one of the country's best defenses, running for 155 yards on 17 carries with one touchdown. He also caught five passes for 59 yards and showed great explosion on several plays.

• Would USC figure out how to defend the spread offense? After struggling against mobile quarterbacks such as Oregon's Dennis Dixon and Washington's Jake Locker earlier this season, the Trojans didn't have many problems containing Williams. The Illini went to option runs often in the early parts of the game, but USC's defense sniffed them out while building a 21-0 lead.

What's next for each team:
Illinois: If Mendenhall comes back for his senior season, Illinois will go into 2008 as one of the Big Ten Conference's favorites instead of its doormat. Williams will be a junior and should become more polished in the passing game. Freshman receiver Arrelious Benn will be better after a full season in the strength and conditioning program, especially after he recovers from a dislocated shoulder. The Illini played several other talented freshmen, including Josh Brent, Martez Wilson and Marcus Thomas. With another top recruiting class in the fold, Illinois' future under coach Ron Zook looks a lot better than it has in quite a while.

USC: The Trojans probably will be a top-10 program in the 2008 preseason, but they will suffer heavy personnel losses from a team that didn't hit its stride until late in the 2007 campaign. For starters, Booty, left tackle Sam Baker, center Matt Spanos, right tackle Drew Radovich, tight end Fred Davis and tailback Chauncey Washington will be gone on offense. The losses are just as big on defense: end Lawrence Jackson, tackle Sedrick Ellis, linebacker Keith Rivers and cornerback Terrell Thomas. Linebackers Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing also could turn pro. The Trojans will have to decide on a starting quarterback: backup Mark Sanchez or Arkansas transfer Mitch Mustain. Pete Carroll has stocked up as much talent as any coach in the country, though, so expect USC to be the favorite to win a seventh consecutive Pac-10 championship in 2008.

FIRST-HALF ANALYSIS

Turning point: Early in the first quarter, Illinois appeared to recover a fumble after USC fullback Stanley Havili caught a pass over the middle. Illini safety Justin Harrison picked up the football and ran 57 yards down the right sideline for an apparent touchdown. But officials ruled Havili down and didn't even review the play to see whether it was a fumble. The Trojans retained possession at the Illinois 43 with 11:45 to play in the first quarter. Less than a minute later, quarterback John David Booty threw an 8-yard touchdown to tailback Chauncey Washington for a 7-0 lead.

Best call: After USC intercepted Juice Williams' pass with 8:39 to go in the first quarter, it took possession at the Illinois 44. On the first play, Booty threw a lateral pass in the right flat to sophomore Garrett Green. Green, a converted quarterback, stopped and threw a pass to Desmond Reed, who was wide open down the right sideline. Reed hauled in a 34-yard touchdown pass for a 14-0 lead with 8:39 to go in the first quarter.

Best player in the half: Trojans middle linebacker Rey Maualuga was the most dominant player of the half. He had the interception that set up Green's touchdown pass to Reed and had sacks on consecutive plays when Williams dropped back to pass in the second quarter. Maualuga picked up his third sack of the half when Illinois was driving late.

Three things Illinois needs to do:
1. Protect Williams: If the Illini are going to come back, they're going to have to throw the football down the field. Illinois couldn't protect Williams early in the game, as he was swarmed nearly every time he dropped back to pass. But on the Illini's final drive of the first half, Williams had good protection and made accurate throws.

2. Don't rely so much on Mendenhall: Tailback Rashard Mendenhall is a great player, but the Illini seemed to be relying on him too much early in the first half. Illinois seemed predictable with its option runs and really didn't start moving the football until it took some chances in the passing game.

3. Keep pressuring Booty: The Illinois defense kept the game close for most of the first half and managed to get some pressure on Booty. The Illini can't let him have time to throw.

Three things USC needs to do:
1. Shore up the pass defense: The Illini were able to hit some big throws in the passing game late in the first half. USC's cornerbacks looked a little bit vulnerable running with the Illinois receivers.

2. Run the football: The Trojans ran the ball pretty well with Washington and freshman Joe McKnight in the first half. With a 21-3 lead, USC needs to pound its backs between the tackles in the second half.

3. Avoid turnovers: Unless the Trojans turn the football over, the Illini don't have much chance of coming back. Only a couple of big miscues by USC, which would give Illinois a short field, would allow the Illini to climb back into the football game.

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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