Every bowl has its thorns



By Jason Grodsky

PASADENA, Calif. – Even in Hollywood, sometimes the storybook ending is not meant to be.

That was the case for the Illinois football team, which was unable to close one of the more remarkable chapters of Illini football with a victory.

In their first Rose Bowl appearance in 24 years and fifth in school history, the No. 13-ranked Illini failed to overcome the No. 6 USC Trojans in the 94th Rose Bowl, falling 49-17.

The Illini and Trojans combined for 1,078 yards of total offense and Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 155 yards and one touchdown on 17 carries. The junior running back for Illinois also caught five passes for 59 yards to give him 214 total yards in the game, but Mendenhall’s efforts were not enough to overcome costly Illini turnovers and USC quarterback John David Booty.


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Thorny Rose Bowl remains bittersweet

Click to view an audio slideshow about the game.

Illinois turned the ball over four times and saw Booty, the Offensive Player of the Game, throw for 255 yards and three scores to set a Rose Bowl career record with seven touchdown passes. The victory marked the Trojans’ second consecutive Rose Bowl victory and third in the last five years.

“We knew coming in that (USC) was a great football team and knew for us to be able to play with them we were going to have to play our best game and we obviously didn’t do that,” Illini head coach Ron Zook said. “It’s one of those things you have to learn from and we’ll learn from it and we’ll get back here and it will be a different story.”

The Trojans tied a Rose Bowl record with 49 points and their 633 yards of offense set a Rose Bowl record. Freshman tailback Joe McKnight finished with 125 of USC’s 344 rushing yards.

“To come out here and have this happen, it hurts,” junior center Ryan McDonald said. “They have great athletes. I don’t want to say we don’t have the athletes to compete with them, but we did things that hurt ourselves and it got a lot uglier than it should have.”

With Illinois trailing 21-3 early in the second half, Mendenhall ran for a 79-yard touchdown that brought the Illini offense back to life.

The run was Mendenhall’s longest of the season and matched the Illini’s entire offensive production for the first half.

“Our offense takes a lot of pride in our running game and the things we do,” Mendenhall said. “We expect to come in and make big plays and we did that in the second half and started to believe we could play with USC.”

On Illinois’ next possession, Mendenhall broke off a big play again, this time on the receiving end of a pass from quarterback Juice Williams. The Skokie, Ill., native took the screen pass 55 yards and into Trojans territory, but the big catch and run were for naught because of a Jacob Willis fumble near the 5-yard line that was recovered by the Trojans in the end zone.

The fumble swung the momentum of the game back in favor of the Trojans, as USC drove 80 yards for a touchdown on the ensuing possession and outscored the Illini 28-7 for the remainder of the game.

“They took advantage of those turnovers and we didn’t take advantage of our opportunities,” senior safety Justin Harrison said.

“It wasn’t necessarily their experience they had, but it was their composure that played a factor. We had the momentum and they changed it and they matched our big plays.”

Junior linebacker Rey Maualuga led the Trojans defense, earning Defensive Player of the Game, collecting three of the team’s five sacks and intercepting Williams in the first quarter to set up a Trojans score.

The only blemish in the first half for the Trojans defense was a 28-yard field goal by senior Jason Reda with 38 seconds left. Reda had missed his first attempt from 29 yards following an interception by Harrison earlier in the half.

“We came out and executed on defense,” Maualuga said.

“Everyone had their assignments and no one went too far and beyond where they were supposed to. I think that’s why we were able to shut them down.”