Southern California is playing in the Rose Bowl for the third straight season, the fourth time in the last five years, and the 32nd time over-all in its 46 bowl appearances. They are 2-1 in their last three Rose Bowls with the lone loss coming against Texas in the 2005 BCS title game.
Last season, the Trojans finished the year with back-to-back games in Pasadena. FIrst, they were upset by UCLA in the regular season finale which knocked them out of a BCS title shot. Then, they rolled Michigan in the Rose Bowl.
USC was expected to be in New Orleans this year. Practically every preseason forecast pitted the Trojans against LSU for the national title. But the offense struggled at times and an injury to QB John David Booty slowed down the development of the teams' offensive chemistry. Even at the end of the year, USC wasn't really looking like the dominant team everyone expected they would be. They won those last four games by a combined score of 116-51, but only got past Cal by 7.
It is an absolute shock to find Illinois in this game as it returns to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1983 season and only the fifth time in history. No major publication or reputable prognosticator picked Illinois higher than 5th in the Big 10, and nearly half had them finishing in the bottom three of the conference. The Fighting Illini were picked by the computer (Congrove Computer Rankings) to finish 4-8 for a modest two-win improvement over last season's 2-10 finish. Instead, Ron Zook's second season as head coach saw Illinois improve its record by 7 wins as the Illini return to a bowl game for the first time since a 2001 loss to LSU in the Sugar Bowl.
USC is a two-touchdown favorite by the oddsmakers, and an even bigger favorite by the computer (-18.51). As Lee Corso would say - not so fast, my friends.
After all, Illinois is responsible for the only loss dealt to Ohio State this season as the Illini derailed the Buckeyes 28-21 in Columbus. No one can deny Illinois received the good fortune of a blown fumble call, but we can only guess whether that would have ultimately changed the game's final result. The bottom line is that the Illini are one of only two teams that even stayed within a touchdown of Ohio State (Michigan State was the other in a 24-17 loss in Columbus).
USC out scored its opponents this season by an average of 15.35. Illinois won its games by an average of 9.25. Illinois out-ranks USC in total offense (35th to 41st)., but is well out-ranked in defense (2nd to 41st). Keep in mind, however, that Ohio State was the No. 1-ranked defense throughout the season.
Illinois' offensive spark is provided by QB Isiah "Juice" Williams and RB Rashard Mendenhall provides the flame.
Williams is a dual-threat QB who ran for 774 yards and 7 TDS. He also threw for 1,429 yards and 13 TD's.
\Mendenhall led the Big 10 in rushing yardage with 1,526, and his 16 TD's was the second-best mark among Big 10 running backs. His 259 receiving yards was second-best on the team as he hauled in 29 catches for two more scores.
Arrelious Benn caught over 30% of the Illini's 160 completed passes, and no Illinois receiver even hit the 600-yard mark.
As noted earlier, USC relied more on the defense this year but lacks a single stand-out player. The Trojans' top tackler is LB Keith Rivers who has 40 solo tackles and 33 assists. LB Ray Maualuga posted 38 and 37. DB Taylor Mays had 34 solos and 28 assists, but had just one pick. Terrell Thomas led the secondary for interceptions with 4. As a unit, though, USC ranks 6th nationally in pass efficiency defense.
USC is 22-9 in Rose Bowl games while is Illinois 3-1. Illinois' last Rose Bowl win came at the end of the 1963 season.