"We felt like we were ready to play, but we didn't," understated head coach Ron Zook. "We didn't play the way we're capable of playing against an awfully good football team. When you play a team like that, you have to play to the best of your ability, and we didn't do that."
Those who hoped the Trojans would take Illinois lightly failed to understand USC psychology. A team that expected to play for a national championship to begin the year had to settle for the Rose Bowl after key injures led to two season losses. Finally healthy, they were determined to show the nation how good they really are and to create a bridge to a great 2008 season.
In contrast, the Illini seemed overwhelmed by all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the "Granddaddy Of All Bowls." Unlike the Ohio State game, when youngsters walked into a great venue and played like veterans, the Illini came out tight. Quarterback Juice Williams appeared uncertain and unsmiling, like he was in the Missouri game to begin the season. And his teammates offered little assistance, especially early.
Four costly turnovers led to four Southern Cal touchdowns, and that will be the story of the game for most. But the Men Of Troy are loaded, plain and simple. They likely have the best college football program in the country, and it showed. They have All-Americans on their bench waiting their turn, and all are hungry to show their wares. Any opponent must play a perfect game to beat them, and the Illini couldn't give their best effort on this day.
"It took us a little while to catch up with the speed," explained offensive coordinator Mike Locksley. "This was a great venue and the first time for a lot of our guys, and it took us awhile to adjust to the speed and to settle ourselves down. Once we got into a decent flow, things started happening."
Actually, Illinois made a game of it for awhile. After USC sped to a quick 21-0 getaway, the Illini began to assert themselves. The defense began to show more poise and aggressiveness, and the offense moved the ball well enough to get a 28 yard field goal by Jason Reda before the half. The points gave Reda Illinois' career point record.
And the second half began with the Illini having some much needed momentum. After forcing a USC punt, Rashard Mendenhall broke free and outran the speedy Trojan defense for a brilliant 79 yard touchdown run, making the score 21-10. This run gave life to a moribund group, and the defense held again to give the ball back to the offense on their own 19 yard line.
On the second play from scrimmage, Mendenhall took a short flat pass from Williams and demonstrated pro moves as he maneuvered around and through the USC defense for 55 big yards. After Russ Weil lost one yard, Juice hit Jacob Willis over the middle for what would have been a big first down. However, linebacker Maluka Maiava stripped Willis of the ball, and linebacker Brian Cushing recovered in the end zone for a touchback.
To compound problems, the Illini were holding USC at bay on their next series until, on 1st down and 20, star quarterback John David Booty tossed a sideways lateral to freshman sensation Joe Mc Knight which bounced off his fingertips and fell to the ground. Rather than the Illini recovering a big fumble, the ball bounced back into McKnight's hands, who burned the relaxed defense with a 64 yard gain. Vontae Davis showed great speed in catching McKnight from behind, but Booty passed to great tight end Fred Davis in the endzone four plays later for the game changing touchdown.
The Illini fought valiantly, but each of their next two drives ended in turnovers. From then on, the momentum stayed strongly with the Trojans. Booty went on the break the Rose Bowl career touchdown pass record, and USC broke the all-time total offense record as Illinois' will was eventually broken. Booty ended 25/37 for 255 yards and three touchdowns. Locksley commented on the turnovers afterward.
"All year long, our mantra on offense was to not beat ourselves. We got a big play out of Rashard that got us back to 21-10. We come back and travel down to the red zone, and we get a turnover there. We come back in the next series and throw the pick where we made a bad decision with the football. And then we get a drive going again and turn it over.
"Anytime you have three consecutive turnovers against a team like USC...you've got to give a lot of credit to USC. Those guys really came to play, and our guys just didn't make the plays we needed to make. You don't beat a good team making a lot of mistakes."
Rashard Mendenhall ended his game, and possibly his Illini career, with 214 total yards, including 155 yards rushing. His rushing yardage was almost double USC's defensive average. Juice Williams was 21 for 35 passing for 245 yards and one interception. Freshman Arrelious Benn got untracked late in the game, scoring his third collegiate touchdown on a 56 yard scamper after catching a short slant pass from Eddie McGee.
Fighting Illini coaches were determined to use this Rose Bowl loss as a stepping stone to a brighter future while honoring the seniors who did such a remarkable job leading the turnaround.
"USC is a great team, but they're not that many points better than us," reminded Locksley. "It's a tribute to the seniors that they bought into everything we asked of them as a staff. They let us push them as a coaching staff. We told those young guys that they've got to remember how it feels to play in a venue like this. We need to come back and put the work in to put us in a position to come back here again next year.
"We're proud of our seniors, we're proud to represent the University of Illinois, and we're going to continue to work hard to build this thing up to where it's a solid foundation for the future."
Coach Zook set his jaw and looked doggedly to the future. He knows the Illini are better than this, and he is determined to use this loss as a motivational tool.
"I'm going to tell them to remember this. It is important that we learn from it, and when we get back here, we want to do a lot better than we did today."