Big Ten tradition wins out in Rose Bowl

By Jason Grodsky

ster was even born the last time the Illini went to the Rose Bowl – and he’s a 24-year-old freshman.

Defensive back Bo Flowers was not even two months old when the Illini played in the 1984 Rose Bowl against UCLA. But now a whole new generation will have the opportunity to see the Illini play in the “Granddaddy of Them All.”

The season marks the fifth time in school history the Orange and Blue make their way across the country to play in the Rose Bowl game in Pasadena, Calif.

“Every kid dreams about playing in the Rose Bowl,” Illini senior linebacker J Leman said.

The dream became a reality for Leman and his teammates on the final day of the college football season. Almost everything that had to happen for the Illini to move into position to make a BCS bowl did, and when the Illini woke up on Monday, Dec. 3 they were smelling roses.

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    The Rose Bowl Committee went with tradition over glamour.

    “Illinois presented the tradition of the Big Ten-Pac-10, and wanting to stick with that tradition when we can was really the primary decision,” said CL Keedy, president of the Tournament of Roses Association.

    Instead of choosing a higher-ranked team, the committee selected Illinois to replace No. 1 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl after the Buckeyes were selected to play in the BCS National Championship Game against LSU.

    Since 1947 the Rose Bowl has brought the Big Ten and Pac-10 champion together to play in “The Granddaddy of Them All.” The only exceptions to the traditional Big Ten-Pac-10 matchup have come in the past six years, when in 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2006, teams from the Big Ten and Pac-10 were not matched up against each other.

    In 2002 and 2006 it was because the Rose Bowl hosted the BCS National Championship Game.

    But even with the exceptions to the traditional Big Ten versus Pac-10 game, Rose Bowl organizers have been fiercely protective of their history and traditions and were the last holdout for the Bowl Championship Series in attempts to keep the Big Ten-Pac-10 matchup whenever possible.

    “I like, frankly, that it’s Pac-10-Big Ten,” USC head coach Pete Carroll said during a teleconference following the announcement of the bowl pairings. “I think that’s cool that that’s the way it came off. We’re fired up about it and we’re going to have fun with it and have a great time in preparation.”

    The choice of Illinois over another BCS-eligible team may not be as absurd as many experts have made it out to be.

    Besides keeping the Rose Bowl tradition intact, the committee took note that Illinois is the only Big Ten team to go unbeaten in its final month of play, and its four-game winning streak is the longest in the conference.

    The Illini also have a good track record in Pasadena. Illinois is 3-1 in the Rose Bowl, with victories in 1947, 1952 and 1964.

    This would have almost certainly been Illinois’ sixth Rose Bowl appearance had the Rose Bowl not been the host of the 2002 BCS National Championship. The Illini would have likely been given a Rose Bowl berth following their 2001 Big Ten championship season, but because the 2002 game was the national title game, Illinois was forced to play in the Sugar Bowl.

    “The Rose Bowl is hard to get to,” Illinois head coach Ron Zook said. “There’s a reason why they call it ‘The Granddaddy of Them All.'”

    Along with the game itself, the Illini will participate in a number of events and promotions that surround the bowl, including the annual Rose Parade that will feature the Marching Illini.

    But despite the many distractions that can come with a big-time bowl berth – including a trip to Disneyland for a welcome press conference – Zook wants to keep things as the team normally would during a game week.

    “The plan is to leave Christmas night,” Zook said. “We’ll get out there and get a practice in and then I think we’ll go to Disneyland. It’s amazing what’s involved and goes into making things work down there as far as finding the best time to travel and practice and doing that around all the bowl events.”

    Even with a long layoff since the Illini’s last game on Nov. 17 against Northwestern, the players and coaches don’t mind cutting their winter break short to play in the biggest – and first – bowl game in six years.

    “We’re getting back into the swing of things now and we’re excited,” senior defensive back Kevin Mitchell said. “We know what we’re playing for. This is a big accomplishment for us and our goal is to win. We just have to come out and play like we have every game.”

    History of the matchup

    The 2008 Rose Bowl will be the 13th meeting between the Illini and the Trojans. USC leads the series 10-2. The Illini won the first meeting between the teams in 1935 but dropped the next nine games in the series before topping the Trojans 14-13 in 1989. In the schools’ last meeting, USC won a 55-3 blowout at Memorial Stadium in 1996.