Arash Markazi: USC rolls as tradition backfires on Rose Bowl - Sports Illustrated

Plague of allegiance

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The Rose Bowl came and went with all the intrigue and excitement it arrived with. Like a bad New Year's hangover it was predictable and painful but mercifully over by sunset.

The final score -- USC 49, Illinois 17 -- was simply the latest example of the Rose Bowl's inability to move past its outdated tradition of picking matchups.

"Pac-10 versus Big Ten," said USC coach Pete Carroll before the game. "The way it should be."

In a college football season as unpredictable as this one, the Rose Bowl's "traditional" matchup and the ensuing blowout were the rare locks.

The Rose Bowl turned into a glorified scrimmage for USC, arguably the hottest team in the country, facing a three-loss Illinois team that was unranked a week before its season finale. But, hey, the Illini play in the Big Ten, so they've got that going for them, right?

The Trojans began the season with expectations of playing in New Orleans next week for the national championship but had to settle for watching their two Louisiana-born players put on an offensive clinic against the Illini.

John David Booty, who left his high school in Shreveport, La., a year early to come to USC five years ago, threw for 255 yards and three touchdowns in his final game as a Trojan, while Joe McKnight, who came to Los Angeles from River Ridge, La., last year, ran for 125 yards and one touchdown.

While Booty closed the chapter on his roller-coaster career at USC, McKnight gave the country a glimpse of what it can expect to see the next two years. If his eye black is any indication, he probably won't be around after that.

"I'm trying to get money," said McKnight, pointing at his eye black, which had "I need" under the left eye and "$" under the right one. "I'm trying to get to the league. I'm just a poor college student from New Orleans right now."

He showed flashes of the talent that made him Carroll's most prized recruit last year when, in the third quarter, he scooped up a bobbled lateral and raced down the field for 65 yards before being caught from behind by Illinois defensive back Vontae Davis.

"I thought he was one of my players when I heard him behind me," said McKnight. "I thought I was gone but when he tackled me, I knew he wasn't on my team."

The game served as retribution for both Booty and McKnight, who were maligned for much of the season -- McKnight for his penchant for fumbling and an inability to grasp the offense for much of the season, and Booty for his broken middle finger and four-interception performance in an upset loss to Stanford.

"I had to make up for all the mistakes I did during the year," said McKnight. "All the fumbles I had. I had to prove that I could do this."

After being booed by Trojans fans at times this season, Booty concluded his five-year run at the school standing atop the conductor's ladder in front of the marching band, raising a sword as they played the school's fight song and fans chanted his name.

"It was incredible," said Booty. "The last five years have been the best of my life. That's the only way I know how to put it. I always dreamed about being in this situation. Even being patient, sitting out, waiting a couple years, it was all worthwhile."

Before the game, former USC quarterback Matt Leinart gave Booty a hug and told him to soak in every moment of his final game. "I'll tell you what," he said. "I do miss this."

As Booty walked off the field, he handed his MVP trophy to his father and looked around the Rose Bowl one last time, soaking in the final seconds of his college career.

"I wish it wasn't over," said Booty. "I wish we could keep playing."

It was a sentiment echoed by Carroll and the rest of the USC locker room, still bothered that they won't get a chance to prove they're the best team in the country next week in New Orleans.

"We would love to be playing football and we would go anywhere, anytime and see what we could do," said Carroll. "If we had a chance to keep playing we would have a shot. I just wish we could keep playing and I know these guys would. We would play long into springtime if they would let us."

Unfortunately, the chances of that happening are about as slim as USC playing a team outside of the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl.