The University of Southern California Trojans football team has everything one's heart could desire: national championships; international prestige; a host of Heisman Trophy winners; a handsome and charming head coach; All-Americans throughout their lineup; great weather and scenery; and cheerleaders who could pass for Hollywood starlets. If the Illini like challenges, there is none better USC in the Rose Bowl.
The Trojans have been the best team in college football the last six years under head coach Pete Carroll. A victory in the Rose Bowl would give them six straight years of 11 or more wins and six consecutive AP top 4 finishes. They won national championships in 2003 and 2004, losing a chance for an unprecented third straight when Texas' Vince Young ran wild on them.
Carroll now has 75 victories in his seven years on campus, best in the nation. USC has been in the nation's top 25 for the last 78 consecutive games. If there is such a thing as a Goliath in college football, it is the Men From Troy.
For Illinois to play the David role successfully, it must forget the glowing statistics. But how can one ignore all those great athletes who dot the Southern Cal lineup? Their deep reserves would start on many teams. Their roster looks like a Who's Who from high school All-America lists. Only some untimely injuries during the season and a letdown against an outmanned Stanford team prevented a return to the National Championship game this year.
Senior quarterback John David Booty (6'-3", 215) leads a potent offense. He is in the top six all-time of his school's passing and total offense records. Booty completed 62.7 percent of his 303 passes for 2106 yards and 20 touchdowns with only 9 interceptions despite missing three games with injury. One of those missed games was the Oregon loss. Sophomore Mark Sanchez (6'4", 220), also a high school All-American, performed admirably in Booty's midyear absence.
All-American tight end Fred Brown (6'-4", 245), the 2007 Mackey Award winner, has the pros drooling. He holds USC career and season records for receptions by a tight end. And he was this year's leading receiver with 55 catches for 794 yards and 7 touchdowns. Illinois has had occasional problems covering tight ends, so expect to see Davis receive a lot of action.
The USC wide receivers are tall and athletic. Patrick Turner (6'-5", 230) has 48 receptions for 569 yards and 3 touchdowns this season, allowing him to climb into USC's top 25 in career receiving. His bookend on the opposite side is Vidal Hazelton (6'-3", 200). Vidal has 49 receptions for 535 yards and four touchdowns. There is a whole stable of top talent waiting in the wings, including freshman David Ausberry (6'-4", 215), who has 24 catches on the year.
The Trojans have long been known for a powerful running game, and this year is no exception. Chauncey Washington (6'-1", 220) leads the rushing attack with 894 yards and 9 touchdowns. He has a long list of competitors for his job. The exciting Joe McKnight, ranked as the nation's top prep player last year, has 415 yards and two touchdowns in part-time work. And Stafon Johnson (5'-11", 200) has 569 yards and 5 touchdowns. Fullback Stanley Halivi (6'-1", 220) has been heavily involved in the offense as well, catching five touchdowns and running for 2 more.
If there is a weakness on this team, and this is stretching the point, it might be the offensive line. There are plenty of great players on the roster, but injuries have interfered with their continuity.
However, no line is bad if it is anchored by three-time first team All-American tackle Sam Baker (6'-5", 315). Three freshmen played more than expected due to injury, including center Kristofer O'Dowd (6'-5", 315). O'Dowd became a first team Freshman All-American as a result of the increased playing time. Southern Cal has provided the National Football League with the most offensive linemen of any school, so expect a dominant, aggressive group.
The offense is outstanding, but the defense is even better. The Southern Cal defense ranks in the top seven nationally in all statistical categories, including #2 in total defense. Most if not all the starters will someday ply their trade in the NFL.
Nose tackle Sedrick Ellis (6'-1", 305) is a two-time All-American and 2007 Pac-10 Defensive Player Of The Year. He and fellow All-Pac 10 defensive end Lawrence Jackson (6'-5", 270) have combined for a whopping 77.5 tackles for a loss and 47 sacks in their stellar careers. They are joined on the line by tackle Fili Moala (6'-5", 300) and end Kyle Moore (6'-6", 260). Their depth is impressive also, with true freshman end Everson Griffen (6'-3", 265) being named a first team Freshman All-American.
What the linemen can't handle on their own, the linebackers take care of the rest. Considered by many the nation's best linebacker corps, the USC group is led by Keith Rivers (6'-3", 225) and Rey Maualuga (6'-3", 250), both All-Pac 10 first teamers.
Rivers, who was recruited heavily by Ron Zook when he coached Florida, may not be at full strength by Tuesday due to an ankle sprain. But there is little dropoff when he is replaced by Kaluka Maiava (5'-11", 220). Brian Cushing (6'-4", 240) is the other linebacker starter.
Taylor Mays (6'-4", 233) is an All-American safety and is bigger than many linebackers. Kevin Ellison (6'-2", 220) joins him at free safety. Terrell Thomas (6'-2", 195) leads the cornerbacks, and he is also outstanding. Cary Harris (6'-1", 180) is almost an afterthought at the other corner spot, but he is no weak link.
It is hard to imagine a college team with more talent and athleticism than the University Of Southern California. As good as they are, they have an additional advantage against teams who are awed by their specialness.
For Illinois to win, it will have to play with confidence and determination and not let Southern Cal reputation intimidate them. They did that all year long against quality opponents, so anything is possible. But USC will undoubtedly be their biggest challenge of the year.