First Look: Illinois

Illinois is headed to their first Rose Bowl since 1984 because of the sensational play of Rashard Mendenhall, Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn. Kevin Carden takes a look at USC's Rose Bowl opponent and examines how the two teams match up.

Offensive Overview

The Illinois offense is lead by a trio of big time playmakers in tailback Rashard Mendenhall, quarterback Juice Williams and wide receiver Arrelious Benn. Illinois runs the spread option offense and when quarterback Juice Williams gets hot they are nearly impossible to stop.

Illinois' run-oriented offense ranks fifth nationally in rushing offense (266.2) and is tops in the Big Ten. Illinois' top offensive weapon is the Big Ten Player of the Year Rashard Mendenhall. The junior tailback rushed for a school-record 1,526 yards and scored 18 touchdowns in 2007. Mendenhall has also been used in the passing game catching 29 passes for 259 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Sophomore quarterback Juice Williams is able to beat teams with both his arm and his feet. The dual-threat quarterback has passed for 1,498 yards with 13 TD's and run for another 774 yards and 7 touchdowns.

Williams struggled in the passing game early in the year but really came into his own down the stretch. Williams passed for a career-high 4 TD passes in a 28-21 victory over the then top ranked Ohio State Buckeyes.

Highly-touted freshman wide receiver Arrelious Benn has lived up to the hype and then some. Benn was the crown jewel of Ron Zook's 2007 recruiting class and has had an immediate impact in the passing game.

Benn is clearly Illinois' top receiver and Juice Williams favorite target. Benn was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, after racking up 49 receptions for 596 yards and a touchdown. Benn also rushed for 158 yards and returned a kickoff for a touchdown.

Williams, Mendenhall and Benn have had so much success this largely because they play behind one of the best offensive lines in the Big Ten. The line is led by senior All-American left guard Martin O'Donnell. Behind O'Donnell and a veteran group of offensive linemen this year's Illinois' team became the first in school history to rush for 3,000 yards in a season.

The offensive line also gave Juice Williams plenty of time to pass, allowing just 11 sacks on the season.

With the offensive explosion the Illini improved from 2-10 in 2006 to 9-3 in 2007 and are headed to their first Rose Bowl since 1984.

Defensive Overview

Illinois has an attacking 4-3 defense that is led by All-American linebacker J. Leman. The Illini defense ranks 19th nationally in scoring defense (19.5) and 23rd in rushing defense allowing just 114.5 yards a game.

Senior linebacker J Leman, a Lott Trophy finalist, is the clear leader of the Illinois defense. Leman is an All-American, who led the Illini with 124 tackles, including 9.5 tackles for loss. Leman recorded double digit tackles in 9 games in 2007.

Fellow senior linebacker Antonio Steele is second on the team with 83 tackles.

Junior defensive end Will Davis is the top defensive lineman on the team and one of the best in the Big Ten conference. Davis has recorded 9.5 sacks for the Illini in 2007. The USC offensive line will have their hands full trying to slow down Davis. On the year Illinois has recorded 37 sacks.

Illinois has a very talented secondary that features sophomore cornerback Vontae Davis and two hard-hitting senior safeties, Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison.

Vontae Davis, a 6-foot 205-pound cornerback, is the most talented player in the Illinois secondary and matches up well against USC's inconsistent wide receivers. Davis, who recorded 63 tackles, 4 interceptions and 8 pass deflections, was an All-Big Ten performer in 2007.

Senior safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison are active playmakers that have made plays all over the field for Illinois this season. Kevin Mitchell had 65 tackles, 5 interceptions and 11 pass deflections and Justin Harrison is third on the team with 76 tackles and added 6 pass deflections.

Key Players

Junior RB Rashard Mendenhall
Junior running back Rashard Mendenhall is eighth in the nation in rushing averaging 127.7 yards per game. Mendenhall averaged an amazing 6.2 yards a carry in 2007 and was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. The junior running back is the key to the Illinois vaunted rushing attack that averaged 266.2 yards a game.

Behind the play of Mendenhall, Illinois had the biggest turnaround in the nation improving from 2-10 in 2006 to 9-3. With the turnaround the Illini finished the regular season ranked 13th in the BCS and will make their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1984.

Sophomore QB Juice Williams
Juice Williams was one of the first big time recruits that Ron Zook secured when he became the head coach at Illinois. Williams has developed into a major offensive threat in his sophomore season.

In 2007, Williams passed for 1,498 yards with 13 TD's and ran for another 774 yards and 7 touchdowns. The sophomore quarterback really shined in his last three game of the year and passed for a career-high 4 TD's while leading the Illini to a 28-21 upset of the no.1 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes.

In year's past the USC defense has struggled against dual threat quarterbacks like Vince Young and Dennis Dixon. While Williams isn't the same caliber of player as Young or Dixon at this point, he presents a major challenge for the USC defense.

Freshman WR Arrelious Benn
Freshman wide receiver Arrelious Benn was one of the most highly recruited players in the 2007 class. Benn was rated the second best receiver in the 2007 class by Scout.com and shocked many when he chose Illinois over traditional powers like Florida State and Notre Dame.

USC Head Coach Pete Carroll also recruited Benn and is very familiar with his abilities as a wide receiver.

As a freshman this season Benn has come in and immediately became the Illini's best wide receiver. On the year Benn has 49 receptions for 596 yards and has scored 2 touchdowns.

Senior OG Martin O'Donnell
Illinois has a very talented veteran group of offensive linemen led by All-American guard Martin O'Donnell. O'Donnell is the leader of a unit that has opened up big holes for Juice Williams and Rashard Mendenhall all year long.

Behind the blocking of O'Donnell and the Illinois offensive line the Illini rushed for 266.2 yards a game, which was fifth best in all of college football.

Not only was the Illinois offensive line impressive in the running game, they also kept sophomore quarterback Juice Williams comfortable in the pocket allowing just 11 sacks the entire 2007 season.

Senior LB J Leman
All-American linebacker J Leman is the centerpiece of the Illinois defense. Leman is a run stopper that had a team-high 124 tackles and added 9.5 tackles for loss.

The Illinois defense surrender just 19.5 points a game thanks in large part because of the playmaking ability of Leman.

Earlier this week USC Head Coach said Leman is one of the best defensive players in the Big Ten conference and possibly the best linebacker in the nation.

Illinois 2007 Schedule


09/01 Missouri L 40-34
09/08 W Illinois W 21-0
09/15 at Syracuse W 41-20
09/22 at Indiana W 27-14
09/29 Penn State W 27-20
10/06 Wisconsin W 31-26
10/13 at Iowa L 10-6
10/20 Michigan L 27-17
10/27 Ball St W 28-17
11/03 at Minnesota W 44-17
11/10 at Ohio St W 28-21
11/17 N'western W 41-22
01/01 vs USC 4:30 PM


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