Mendenhall to decide NFL fate after Bowl

 

 

By Mike Theodore

Junior tailback Rashard Mendenhall came through for the Illini with a big performance in what could be his last game in an Illinois uniform. After struggling in the first half Mendenhall broke through the Trojan flanks and tallied his longest run of the season.

The NFL prospect finished the game with 155 yards on the ground on 17 carries and added 59 yards on five receptions. He set an all-time Illinois record for all-purpose yards in a single season.

Mendenhall must now decide whether to return for his senior year at Illinois or make the leap to Sundays. He addressed questions regarding his future following the loss and said he is not leaning in any direction.

“Now that the season is over I can sit down and make a decision,” he said.

Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley shared his opinion on the speedy back.

“I think obviously he has NFL talent but whether or not maturity wise or whether or not he’s necessarily ready. That’s something he and his family will have to decide,” Locksley said.

“We recruit regardless of his decision,” he added. “We know what goals we need from a needs standpoint and personnel wise, his staying going is not going to really affect our decision of how and what we recruit.”

Turnovers key to Trojan point production

The Illini turned the ball over on three consecutive third quarter possessions and each time quarterback John David Booty was able to capitalize with seven Trojan points.

USC took advantage of the Illini’s miscues all night, scoring 28 of its 49 points off of Illinois turnovers.

Illinois trailed 21-3 at the midpoint and closed the gap to 21-10 before the wheels fell off the offensive attack. Running back Rashard Mendenhall stormed through the defense for a 55-yard gain to get the Illini into Trojan territory. Two plays later quarterback Juice Williams found an open Jacob Willis inside the Trojan ten-yard line, but the Trojans were able to strip the senior receiver. USC recovered the fumble in the endzone and then marched 80 yards for a score.

The next two Illini possessions ended in similar fashion with the Trojans tacking on two additional touchdowns to put the game out of reach. Senior middle linebacker J Leman said as a defensive player returning to the field after a turnover can be difficult mentally.

“That’s always tough, but we work on that,” Leman said. “(Turnovers) happen in the course of the game. You really have to be ready for it.”