Tuesday, January 1

The Rose Bowl Presented by Shitty Selection Committees

It's the Granddaddy of Them All - and like most people's granddaddy, it's also the cantankerous old guy who isn't aware that the family reunion is now held in California instead of Minnesota and whines about it for three months straight when he's reminded of it. Every year. Now imagine if this granddaddy started yelling at one of your cousins because he/she had the audacity to marry someone of a different heritage than you and loudly berated you about it between October and December.

That's kind of like the Rose Bowl leadership. Only things we're not including is 1) granddaddy has a $13-million-a-year payout and 2) granddaddy gets to invite the family members to the reunion, too. So while nobody was surprised that Illinois got invited over more (Arizona State) deserving (Missouri) teams (Texas), we were all just kind of disappointed. It's like when granddaddy got together with Uncle Bob and started bitching about your significant other's side of the family, and why can't they be more like your family, only they actually are like your family and granddaddy can't figure out that what he thinks is your significant other's family is actually ...MTV. Why's granddaddy have that much power, anyway?

At least USC gets to come back to the Rose Bowl. Considering they play so far away, it's good to know they can make the trek all the way down the street for this game. But it doesn't count as a home game for them, so don't make the mistake of thinking that. They had a good season, especially given the number of injuries they struggled through ... provided you ignore the loss to Stanford. At home. Other than that, they played great - and they have to get bonus points for ABC openly stumping for USC to make the national title game the last Saturday of the season. Stay classy, ABC.

Still, it's not really Illinois' fault they play in the Big 10. They do own the only win over Ohio State all year, and even though the rest of their resume is pretty much the Who's Who of Who Cares, they do have that. They also have a loss to Missouri, who made out pretty well for themselves getting an BCS Bowl invi...wait, what's that? Oh, Orange Bowl committee. For shame.

Illinois (by Coach Lawrence)

Not only had Illinois averaged a lowly two wins per season from 2003-06, but they had won a mere one conference game in those four seasons. So while Illinois was absolutely the wrong choice for the Rose Bowl, you can't fault the kids for having one of the best surprise seasons of the year.

2007 started off on a low note with a loss to Missouri, cutting the deficit from 24 to 3 but eventually falling short. At the time Mizzou hadn't earned much national respect, so it was considered a mediocre team's win over a weak team. Illinois won their next three games against fairly poor opposition, then shocked the nation with consecutive wins over Penn State and Wisconsin. Perhaps equally shocking was their 10-6 loss to Iowa the following week. After predictably losing to Michigan then beating Ball State and Minnesota, the 7-3 Illini went into Columbus to face the 10-0 Buckeyes, #1 in the nation. Illinois played perfectly behind an opportune defense and great decision-making by QB Juice Williams to steal a 28-21 victory - the only loss of the season for Ohio State. Finishing the season with a big win over Northwestern, Illinois was 9-3 and second in the Big Ten. Had they only eeked out one late score against Iowa, they would have been the Big Ten champions! Nonetheless, the Illini had actually won more games in 2007 than that did in the previous four seasons put together. Though not historic, it was certainly one of the most memorable seasons in the recent history of the program.

Illinois has been slowly stockpiling top national talent with an emphasis on speed since Ron Zook took over as coach. The offense is led by the crown prizes of their last three recruiting classes - QB Juice Williams (soph), RB Rashard Mendenhall (jr), and WR Arrelious Benn (fr). The spread option ground game is where it begins, and Mendenhall averages 127 ypg and 6.2 ypc to go along with the 64.5 ypg (5.2 ypc) contributed by the legs of Williams. Overall Illinois racks up 226 yards a game on the ground, fifth in the nation. Benn contributes 50 ypg receiving as this side of the offense averages just 157 ypg total, but he is also the only player on the team to score a touchdown on a kickoff return - one lone score to give the Illini an early lead over Penn State.

Defensively, Illinois is strong against the run giving up 114 ypc and 3.3 ypc but average against the pass (241 ypc, 119 rating). They rely on their ballhawking duo Kevin Mitchell and Vontae Davis, leading the team to a total of 16 interceptions, to neutralize the passing yardage.

Keys to Victory:

Let's face it - USC is a tough team for anyone to match up against. They have four solid runningbacks, led by Chauncey Washington and Stafon Johnson. They have a highly recruited QB who puts up decent numbers and a trio of pretty good wide receivers, but it's tight end Fred Davis who is the biggest receiving threat. The offensive line is good in both aspects of blocking. The defense is excellent against both the pass and the run - especially against the run, where they're 4th in the nation.

In so many ways, USC is like Ohio State. The OSU run defense is one of just three better than the Trojans, and OSU tops the nation in points allowed, yards allowed, and pass yards allowed. Ohio State has the best runningback on either team, but doesn't go 4-deep like USC. Their passing game has underachieved and cost them a game, but it's not something you can ignore by any means. Therefore, I would design a gameplan for beating USC based on how Illinois was able to beat Ohio State.

Keys to Victory:
1) Williams must control the game.. and the clock. Against a vastly more talented team, the proven gameplan has been effective use of possessions and shortening the game. Against OSU, Williams threw for 4 TDs and ran for 70 big yards to convert late 3rd downs. It'll take an effort like that, particularly since USC is so balanced defensively. Over the last four seasons, the dual threat QB has been one of the only things to give this team troubles defensively, so Williams will have to exploit that.

2) Big calls for big plays. Illinois used an 80 yard run, a pair for 30+ yard passes, and a 25 yard run to get yardage in chunks against Ohio State while otherwise grinding the ball methodically. Mendenhall and Williams will have to make something happen on their own a few times, but the staff can help by setting up a misdirection or trick play to get a few cheap ones.

3) Big turnover differential. USC's offense has only gotten better from October through December, particularly in terms of Booty's consistency and obviously with recovery from their injury epidemic playing a big role. Outscoring them on equal possessions seems tough, so let's try to get an effective possession advantage of 3 (what it was against OSU). Unfortunately, this may mean a bit of hoping that Booty makes some mental mistakes. If and when he does, Illinois needs to come up with the ball to take it away from this powerful Trojan attack.

USC (by Coach Pendley)

When healthy, USC is among the best teams in the country. Of course, had they stayed healthy and not lost to Stanford, they’d probably be playing in the national title game. Losing to Oregon with Dixon in the lineup is no reason to be ashamed. Of course, aside from the win over Arizona State there’s no real quality wins there, either. Oregon State is a good, but not great, win, and beating Cal and Nebraska looked a lot more impressive before they started playing the games. Still, going to a game where USC has been 22-8 in (I think I counted that right) isn’t terrible when you’re hoping to end the season with a win.

When healthy, QB John David Booty played well – not the Heisman-caliber level the position traditionally gets, but well anyway. Obviously, the counting stats aren’t going to be there if he missed three games with an injury, but the 232.9 ypg passing and 20/9 ratio are still solid, if unflashy. TE Fred Davis was a weapon all season, with nearly 800 yards receiving on the year and 7 TDs. WR Patrick Turner was supposed to be better than he was on the season – he was supposed to score a lot more than 3 TDs and average 51 yards a game, but the talent is certainly there.

On the ground, USC has a potent multi-back offense that runs for around 185 yards a game. It’s led by Chauncey Washington (81 yards a game, 9 TDs), Stafon Johnson (57 yards a game, 5 TDs), and Joe McKnight (34.5 yards a game, 2 TDs). Of course, all those guys are also excellent talents, which help matters a bit. Each of those backs has gone for at least 80 yards in a game, and both Johnson and Washington have run for over 100. They’re all capable of assuming the primary back role, which is …kind of unfair, really.

On defense, USC finished 4th in the nation against the run – and unlike other teams that had a “good” pass D because they had no secondary, USC finished 7th in the nation against the pass, too. And yes, that includes a 10/8 ratio and a passer rating of 100 – which is the equivalent of saying that USC transformed QBs into someone just slightly worse than Taylor Bennett. Surprisingly, USC has only a -1 TO margin on the year – but that’s mainly thanks to – no surprise – the Stanford game.

Keys to Victory:
1: Marginalize Juice’s rushing. This is ten kinds of irony for USC, but the key to shutting down Illinois starts with preventing Juice from becoming a second rushing threat along with Rashard Mendenhall. That means USC will need to go over the game plan from the Oregon game, as Illinois runs a similar offense; unfortunately for USC, Dixon ran for 76 yards in that game, so they’ll need to improve their plan for stopping him. This is doubly critical because Williams isn’t that great a passer (13/10 ratio, 121 QB rating), so USC might even want to bring eight into the box until Illinois proves itself through the air.

2: Three-back usage. I hinted at this up there, but USC will likely still enjoy an advantage on both sides of the line of scrimmage; in this case, that’ll be needed to plow open holes. Between Washington, Johnson, and McKnight, USC has plenty of backs to wear down the Illinois linebackers. Leman is the most active of the LB corps, but they could all be hurting after 3 quarters of strong rushing.

3: Exploit the matchups. Illinois doesn’t have the best pass defense, and the Big 10 doesn’t have any TEs like Fred Lewis – Beckum comes closest – but Booty will need to make accurate passes to really be successful. He should have a big game, but either Turner or Vidal Hazelton will need to come through on the side to take some pressure off of Lewis.

4: Killer instinct. USC is a decent time-of-possession team, averaging 32 minutes a game, but getting about 35 – preferably by running the ball at Illinois and daring them to stop you – would be golden. Don’t forget that nobody expected anything from these guys for a reason.