HOLY ROSES!

Illini players celebrate the announcement that the team will appear in the 2008 Rose Bowl. Photo courtesy of University of Illinois Sports Information

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Illini players celebrate the announcement that the team will appear in the 2008 Rose Bowl. Photo courtesy of University of Illinois Sports Information

By Mike Theodore

Ron Zook didn’t turn water into wine but transforming Illinois from conference doormats to Rose Bowl participants in three seasons may be just as impressive.

No. 13 Illinois will face the Pac 10 champion USC Trojans in the Illini’s first Rose Bowl appearance in 24 years.

“What a difference three years makes,” Coach Zook said. “Three years ago no one would have ever thought. This is a great day for the Illini Nation.”

Only one player on the Illinois roster – 24-year-old freshman defensive back Bo Flowers – was born before the Illini’s last Rose Bowl appearance in 1984 against UCLA.

“I’m so proud of our players,” Zook said. “The seniors, these guys have never been to a bowl game and here they get to go ‘The Granddaddy of Them All.'”

Shortly after the BCS announcement, senior lineman Martin O’Donnell, quarterback Juice Williams and senior linebacker J Leman met with media while each holding a red rose.

“Every kid dreams about playing in the Rose Bowl,” Leman said. “It’s really special. We’re looking forward to representing this university well.”

Williams fought early season criticism but was able to lead the Illini offense to four consecutive victories to end the season.

“Honestly, I don’t think anyone would ever imagine this, coming from four and five years ago and even this year,” Williams said. “I believe this is a great opportunity for this team. I’m proud of these two seniors I’m standing next to. I’m happy to be a part of it.”

The Illini will take on a USC team with only two victories against teams with winning records. The No. 7 Trojans have won six straight Pac 10 championships and played in the three of the past four Rose Bowls.

“It’s going to be a great challenge for us,” Zook said. “If you’re a competitor, you want to play the best and obviously this is one of the best teams in the nation. We’ll have our hands full obviously.”

Pete Carroll’s team finished the season 10-2 and has also won four straight games, including an impressive 44-24 win against No. 11 Arizona State on Thanksgiving Day. A one-point home loss to Stanford and a road defeat against then-No. 5 Oregon are USC’s only blemishes this season.

Illinois will make its first postseason appearance since its 2001 Big Ten championship season when it lost to LSU in the Nokia Sugar Bowl.

“There’s no reason for making the trip and then not finishing it off,” Leman said. “It’s like driving to the basket and getting a layup and missing it. Not to say this game is a layup. It’s going to be a tough, hard-fought game.

“You don’t go to a bowl for the vacation. It’s going to be a business trip and a good football game,” he added.

Big Ten champion Ohio State will play Jan. 7 against LSU for the national championship. Idle since mid-November, the Buckeyes looked destined for the Rose Bowl but were able to leap frog to the top of the BCS standings and earn a berth in the championship game against LSU, after both Missouri and West Virginia dropped their games Saturday night.

Illini Rose Bowl history

It’s been nearly 24 years since the Illini have reached the Rose Bowl. Not since 1984 have the Illini found their way into college football’s most historic postseason event. This year’s trip will be the team’s fifth Rose Bowl appearance in school history.

Here are some highlights from Rose Bowls past:

1947: Illinois 45, UCLA 14

In the first Rose Bowl under the Big Ten-Pac 10 agreement and Illinois’ first ever bowl appearance, the Illini ran all over the Bruins en route to a 45-14 blowout. Illinois outrushed UCLA 320 yards to 62 yards, with both Julius Rykovich and Hall of Famer Buddy Young running for 103 yards and splitting MVP honors. The Bruins led the Illini 7-6 early, but Illinois went on to outscore UCLA 39-7. Six different Illini scored in the game, including two fourth-quarter interceptions returned for scores by Ruck Steger and Stan Green.

1952: Illinois 40, Stanford 7

In head coach Ray Eliot’s second Rose Bowl appearance, Illinois came away with another decisive victory. Although the lllini struggled with Stanford through the first half, trailing 7-6, by the end of the game they had put up 34 unanswered points. Illinois nearly doubled Stanford’s offensive production, outgaining Stanford 434 yards to 233 yards. MVP Bill Tate scored twice and added 150 yards on 20 carries, while All-American Johnny Karas tallied 58 yards and a score.

1964: Illinois 17, Washington 7

Illinois greats Dick Butkus and Jim Grabowski took Illinois to its first Rose Bowl berth in 12 years following the 1963 season. Though down 7-0 through almost the entire first half, the Illini got on the board with a Jim Plankerton field goal in the closing seconds. After the break, it was all Illinois, scoring 14 points to clinch a third Rose Bowl victory. Jim Warren scored the game-winning TD on a two-yard run in the third quarter and Grabowski solidified his MVP status with a fourth-quarter score.

1984: Illinois 9, UCLA 45

With 20 years between Rose Bowl appearances, the Illini finally earned a trip to Pasadena following a perfect conference record. But it was UCLA’s turn to rout the Illini. Illinois scored only three points in the first three quarters as the Bruins jumped out to a 38-3 lead. The Illini finally found the end zone in the fourth quarter on a pass from Jack Trudeau, but the quarterback’s three interceptions coupled with Bruin quarterback Rick Neuheisel’s three-TD, 298-yard performance sealed Illinois’ fate.