Cory Mccartney
Monday December 31st, 2007

Back in September, Pasadena was the last place USC thought it would be spending New Year's Day -- and it's most certainly not where Illinois thought its season would come to a close.

The Trojans, ranked No. 1 in the preseason, were supposed to be back in the BCS National Championship Game behind a wealth of talent. But this Hollywood script didn't go as planned -- and not because of the ongoing writer's strike. Stanford, a 42-point underdog, put a dent in those national title hopes and Oregon delivered the knockout blow two weeks later. But the Trojans regained their swagger -- and health -- to win their sixth straight Pac-10 crown.

Illinois was just looking to make a bowl game, period. The Illini hadn't reached the postseason since the 2001 Sugar Bowl, and coming into '07, had won four games in their first two seasons under Ron Zook. While Zook has assembled a stable of impressive young talent in Champaign, the Illini still seemed a year away from reaching this level. But then they went and beat two top-five teams, including top-ranked Ohio State in Columbus. Big wins aside, the three-loss Illini are two touchdown underdogs.

But at least all the purists get that traditional Pac-10-vs.-Big Ten clash.

1) The Trojans ended the season as arguably the best team in the nation. USC was hit hard with midseason injuries, most notably to left tackle Sam Baker, center Matt Spanos and quarterback John David Booty, who fractured the tip of his middle finger against Stanford but played on in the loss.

The team didn't exactly fall apart under backup QB Mark Sanchez, as he led the Trojans to wins over Arizona and hapless Notre Dame. But USC did suffer a loss at Oregon that ultimately cost them a shot at the BCS title.

Then Booty returned after a two-game layoff -- and so did the Trojans' offense. The senior led USC to four straight wins, including a 375-yarr, four-touchdown performance against then-No. 6 Arizona State, a game in which USC racked up 508 yards of offense. During that season-ending stretch, Booty threw eight touchdown passes and just one interception as the Trojans outscored opponents 116-51 and racked up 945 yards of offense in their last two games.

While the offense had to regain its mojo, the Trojans' defense never lost their way. Led by first-team All-America nose tackle Sedrick Ellis (12.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks), the nation's second-ranked D gave up 258.8 yards per game. USC finished fourth nationally in points per game (15.9) and run defense (79.1 yards per game).

2) Illinois' long bowl drought could play a factor. An unexpected berth in a marquee game has put the Illini on the map again, but playing in a game of this magnitude -- this soon -- could spell trouble.

Had Illinois made, say, the Capital One or Outback bowls, it would have been a good opportunity to cap a breakthrough season against a reasonably strong opponent. But instead, Zook is faced with an unenviable task. He not only has to stop his team from being carried away by the hoopla of simply appearing in its first bowl in seven seasons but also keep that focus in a place that is the very definition of "college football pageantry" (i.e. the Rose Bowl parade, Lawry's Beef Bowl) -- and then there's the fact that the game will be played in the opponent's backyard, no less.

"There can be a lot of distractions, but this is a business trip," Zook said during Illinois' Rose Bowl media day. "I've always said that bowl trips are great for fans and coaches' wives. For the rest of us, it's about business."

If history's any indicator, the business venture could be Enron-esque. Only one other team has had a longer bowl-less drought than Illinois' end with a BCS berth: Maryland. The Terps made their first postseason appearance in 11 years in the 2001 Orange Bowl, but suffered a 56-23 loss to Florida.

3) The Illini have that one component that has consistently caused USC fits -- a mobile quarterback in Juice Williams. Oregon's Dennis Dixon beat the Trojans by running for 76 yards and a touchdown and throwing for 157 yards, while Washington's Jake Locker ran for 50 yards and two scores in a three-point USC win. And we all remember what Vince Young did to the Trojans a couple years ago.

Williams, a sophomore, made strides in his second year as a starter, throwing for 1,498 yards, 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, while rushing for 774 yards and seven scores. But it was Williams' performance in the second half of the season that showed he has arrived. Williams tossed nine touchdown passes in the last seven games to five picks, had two 100-yard rushing games in the last three weeks and ran for five scores in the last four games. Williams may not have the slight-of-hand skills of Dixon, but he's running the spread-option as well as anyone behind an offensive line that allowed just 11 sacks all season. And Williams has a dangerous backfieldmate in Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Rashard Mendenhall (1,526 yards and 16 TDs).

How do you disrupt USC's multi-faceted offense? I asked a defensive coordinator from one of the Trojans' opponents to give me an anonymous scouting report. Here's what he had to say:

"I really thought [Booty] was a good football player and he had some inexperienced wideouts. We did some things where we tried to make it look like we were in one coverage and rotate to another coverage maybe to confuse the wideouts more than the quarterback.

"The easiest way to rattle a quarterback is to rattle him with pressure and by getting to him a lot of times. I think against Booty you're not going to get a bunch of sacks, but I do think you can get a bunch of hits.

"The one thing that I saw SC do during the year was get stronger and stronger in the passing game. Their wideouts are very, very talented but they are also very young. Now this is for them Game 13 and they've obviously gotten better and that's going to cause problems for Illinois.

"You have to play defense to the scheme of their run game, that's all. I'm sure that maybe Illinois has [picked up on] certain tendencies, if a certain player is in at tailback then maybe they're running more outside, then if there's a bigger guy then he's more of the inside run game. All we did was try to prepare ourselves and try and stop their run game in general. Who cares who's in the backfield? Just make sure we make sure to stop it."

Zook has the Illini headed in the right direction, but USC is too talented and the Rose Bowl came too soon for a program that's rebuilding. Pete Carroll has said he'd "love to finish up this season with people wondering who the best team in the nation is." His Trojans will make their case by playing at the level we expected from them all along. USC 31, Illinois 20.

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