PASADENA, Calif. (AP) -- This would have been a perfect Rose Bowl
for the USC Trojans, except for the one part they couldn't control.
They couldn't pick their opponent.
The sixth-ranked Trojans (No. 7 BCS, No. 6 AP) routed Illinois 49-17 on Tuesday and
showed the rest of the country that, yes, maybe they are the best
team in college football right now.
Certainly, a better test could have come against Georgia or
Virginia Tech, or maybe next week against Ohio State in the
national title game.
But the Rose Bowl presented by Citi wanted a Pac-10-Big Ten matchup, and the
national title game didn't want Southern California. So, it wound
up being USC-Illinois in the Granddaddy of 'Em All, and the Trojans
made the Illini pay.
"I would love to play one more," defensive lineman Sedrick
Ellis said. "I don't think any team in the NCAA could beat us
right now. Not Ohio, not LSU."
Freshman tailback Joe McKnight finished with 170 of USC's Rose
Bowl-record 633 yards. The 49 points tied a record, too, and the
blowout gave the Trojans 11 wins for an unprecedented sixth
They have arguably been the country's best team over that span,
and might have been the best this season, too. Lacking the playoff
that coach Pete Carroll favors or the trip to the title game he
lobbied for, the Trojans (11-2) will have to take this overwhelming
display in Pasadena.
"Everything that was out there for us, we took," Carroll said.
"The rest of it is up for discussion. But would I love to still be
playing right now? Sure would. We'd go out there any time, any
place, any venue and throw our football out there and see what we
The game featured 1,078 total yards of offense. Despite the
margin, things were truly competitive for a brief moment. Illinois'
Rashard Mendenhall broke a 79-yard touchdown run early in the third
quarter to trim what had been a three-touchdown deficit to 21-10.
Minutes later, Mendenhall scooted 55 yards with a screen pass
from Juice Williams, and Ron Zook's 13th-ranked Illini (9-4) looked
as if they might really complete the impossible dream, from 2-19
over the last two years to Rose Bowl champions.
But two plays later, Kaluka Maiava popped the ball out of
receiver Jacob Willis' hands and USC's Brian Cushing won a scramble
in the end zone, one of four Illinois turnovers.
"You can't turn the ball over," Zook said. "Whether they were
forced or we weren't playing with consistency and the intensity you
have to have, I'm not sure."
Moments later, came the play of the game, when John David Booty
threw a sloppy lateral to McKnight, who didn't catch it, but was
able to scoop it up on the bounce and run 65 yards. McKnight was
chased down by defensive back Vontae Davis -- yes Zook is recruiting
some speed to Champaign -- but four plays later, Booty hit
Fred Davis with a 2-yard touchdown pass.
That made it 28-10 and the rout was on.
"You can't imagine how much work it takes for John to throw it
like that so it bounces just right," Carroll joked. "But Joe made
something out of it. It was exhilarating, the speed he came out
with and the play he made."
Booty threw for 255 yards and three scores to set a Rose Bowl
record with seven career TDs.
USC linebacker Rey Maualuga had three sacks, an interception and
a forced fumble for a defense that allowed only 79 yards in the
McKnight, hyped as USC's next Reggie Bush, finished with 125
yards rushing and 45 yards receiving, and his broken play in the
third quarter wasn't the only time the Trojans made something crazy
and unexpected happen.
It started in the first quarter, when Booty lateraled to Garrett Green, who is listed as a receiver-quarterback, and Green threw
crossfield to Desmond Reed for a 34-yard touchdown strike and a
14-0 lead. Reed was so open, he could've walked into the end zone,
but instead did a leaping front tuck. Stuck the landing, too, but
got six points instead of a perfect 10.0, and also was docked a
15-yard unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty.
That made no difference, and in the end, Illinois' nice little
stretch of competitiveness in the third quarter was only a blip, as
Mendenhall finished with 214 total yards in what could be the
last college game for the junior. Williams had 245 yards passing
for the Illini, whose last Rose Bowl trip came 24 years ago and
ended in a 45-9 loss to quarterback Rick Neuheisel and UCLA.
The score this time was similar, and not totally unexpected.
The Illini were 13 1/2-point underdogs -- biggest of any of this
season's 32 bowl games -- and the final score only added fuel to the
fire of those who criticized the Rose Bowl for insisting on its
traditional conference pairing.
Many said the Big Ten was weak this season, and while the title
game will be the ultimate test of that, this certainly didn't help
"Not good. This hurts," said Zook, whose team beat Ohio State
28-21 in November. "I told our guys we were representing the
conference and we let the Big Ten down. I think we can compete, but
we have to do it."
Meanwhile, USC was said to be playing the best football of
anyone when the regular season ended, and didn't do anything to
debunk that theory.
Carroll, a proponent of a playoff, lobbied for the Trojans to
have LSU's spot in next week's national title game, the first to
include a team with two losses. But a 24-23 loss to 41-point
underdog Stanford in October was USC's undoing.
On this day at the sunsplashed Rose Bowl, it was hard to imagine
the Trojans losing to Stanford.
Not that they were perfect.
Early in the game, a snap sailed over punter Greg Woidneck's
head and he had to scramble to get off a 20-yard punt. Later,
Justin Harrison picked off Booty's pass and returned it to the USC
20, but Illinois couldn't score off that. Also in the first half,
Harrison pulverized receiver Vidal Hazelton and sent the ball
flying out, only to redirect into the waiting hands of McKnight.
The common denominator in all was that was that Illinois gave
itself chances to make big plays but couldn't cash in on any.
"In college football, it's all about momentum and momentum
swings," Mendenhall said. "You've got to capitalize when you get
The Trojans did, and earned a chance to celebrate -- or maybe
wonder about what might have been.
"Let the argument go out there for the people battling with the
BCS process to figure this thing out," Carroll said. "I have no
answer for them. I just wish we could keep going."