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 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 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 straight season.
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 could do.”
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 first half.
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 well.
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 the image.
“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 a chance.”
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.”