Turnovers catch up to Illini, ending hopes in second half


John Zich

Illinois quarterback Juice Williams fumbles the ball while trying to escape USC defenders during the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 1. Illinois lost 49-17. Erica Magda

By Mike Theodore

Just when the orange-clad fans thought the Illini had a comeback brewing, the more experienced Trojans took back the ball, and with it, the momentum.

USC used consecutive Illinois turnovers to rattle off three scoring drives, effectively snuffing out any chance the Illini had at their first Rose Bowl victory since 1963.

Illinois cut the Trojans’ lead to 21-10 early in the second half on a Rashard Mendenhall run.

Quarterback Juice Williams then led the Illini deep into Trojan territory before senior receiver Jacob Willis was stripped near the 5-yard line.

USC linebacker Brian Cushing recovered the ball in the end zone which led to the Trojans marching 80 yards to extend its lead to 28-10.

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“You can’t turn the ball over,” head coach Ron Zook said. “Whether they were forced or we just weren’t playing with consistency, the intensity that you have to play with, I’m not sure. You can’t turn the ball over in any football game, much less this football game.”

The Illinois offense stumbled out of the gate, mustering just three points on 80 total yards in the first half, but two long Mendenhall runs in the second half gave Illinois hope of a comeback victory.

“It took us a while to get settled,” offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said. “Once we got into halftime we made some adjustments, and I think we kind of settled down a little bit.

“You’re not going to beat a good team turning over the ball.”

The Trojans scored 28 of their 49 points off of four Illinois turnovers.

“It just proves this whole season we had a lot of balls go our way,” linebacker Brit Miller said. “Football is about opportunities. I think life is about opportunities, and we missed one today.”

For the record

The Illini’s trip to the Rose Bowl ended much like their last appearance 24 years ago – in a rout. USC’s 49-17 romp was the largest margin of victory in the bowl since UCLA blew out the Illini 45-9 in 1984. The Trojans’ 49 points also equaled a Rose Bowl record set by Michigan against USC in 1948 and against Stanford in 1902.

Quarterback John David Booty led the USC offense to a bowl-record 633 yards, and his strike to the dangerous Fred Davis in the third quarter, Booty’s seventh career touchdown pass in the Rose Bowl, was also a bowl record.

Special day

Punter Anthony Santella saved his best game for last. The redshirt freshman averaged 44.7 yards on six punts. Unfortunately for Illini fans, Jason Reda failed on his first field goal attempt in his Illini finale. The place-kicker missed wide left from 29 yards in the first quarter with the team trailing 10-0. He later connected from 28 yards in the second quarter to cut the Trojans’ lead to 21-3 heading into halftime. The kick moved Reda into first place on the all-time Illinois career scoring list. He added two more extra points to finish his career with 267 points.

USC’s David Buehler tallied 574 total yards on eight kickoffs and forced the Illini into five touchbacks.