Mendenhall ends season on high note, now faces draft decision

Updated: January 1, 2008, 11:07 PM ET
Associated Press

PASADENA, Calif. -- Hounded by a swarming defense, Rashard Mendenhall looked as if he was ready for another college season instead of a big paycheck from the NFL.

And then, he showed just why he might have a lucrative future.

If the Rose Bowl was his final game for Illinois, Mendenhall went out in style. He ran for all but 27 of his 155 yards in the second half, but Southern California (No. 7 BCS, No. 6 AP) overwhelmed the 13th-ranked Illini, 49-17 on Tuesday.

Now, Mendenhall has to decide whether to turn pro or return for his senior season.

"I'm still not sure," he said. "There are a lot of things I have to assess. I have to hear things back from the NFL. There's still a lot of thought going into it. It's nice to have the season over and still get some time to think about it."

His decision is the biggest issue facing the Illini (9-4), who orchestrated a stunning turnaround this season after winning just two games in each of coach Ron Zook's first two years. The Illini reached the Rose Bowl for the first time in 24 years, thanks in large part to Mendenhall, but they were no match for USC.

Mendenhall did his damage after being held in check through the first two quarters by the nation's fourth-ranked run defense, and set the school's single-season record for all-purpose yards along the way. He caught five passes for 59 yards and finished the season with 1,999 all-purpose yards. He also set the single-season scoring record with 114 points.

Mendenhall finally came alive on the Illini's first possession of the second half, when he broke up the left side for a 79-yard touchdown run. That cut the deficit to 21-10 and ignited the large Illinois contingent.

He also turned a screen pass into a 55-yard gain later in the quarter, but USC turned three Illini turnovers in the third quarter into touchdowns.

"My man had a heck of a year," safety Kevin Mitchell said. "[He's] a hard runner. I believe [the momentum] did shift. Coach always talks about momentum, and it's up-and-down, up-and-down in the college game. You've got to know when to take advantage of things, and unfortunately, we didn't get the job done."

The Illini's Russ Weil immediately fumbled after that big reception by Mendenhall put the ball on the Trojans 23. Illinois recovered, then gave it away on the next play.

Juice Williams hit Jacob Willis at the 1, but USC's Kaluka Maiava jarred the ball loose and Brian Cushing recovered in the end zone, setting up a touchdown drive that deflated Illinois.

"When you're in the red zone like that, you have to capitalize," Mendenhall said.

Mendenhall, who began the game with 1,526 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns this season, made it clear in the days leading up to this game he's thinking about skipping his senior year.

He acknowledged last week that he has little left to accomplish in school, that he's not interested in a run at the Heisman Trophy. A possible BCS championship might be a powerful reason to come back. Then again, the lure of NFL riches could be too strong to resist.

Zook believes Mendenhall has the talent to be picked in the first round. The million dollar -- or multimillion dollar -- question is whether he needs another season to go that early.

Mendenhall acknowledged his projected draft position will be a factor, after saying last week his decision did not hinge on it.

"That's part of it," he said. "There's a big difference in money between the first, second and third round. I just want to make the best decision for the rest of my life."

Does he have to a projected first-round pick to turn pro? A likely second-rounder?

"I don't really have a cut off," he said. "I have to weigh everything. As much as there's a risk going into the NFL, there's a risk coming back. You don't know who's behind you and who's going to bloom."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press