Coach Ron Zook has said all along that he wants the Illinois program to catch up with the likes of Southern California someday. Tuesday, the difference between a national power and a program that is still building was there for the nation to see.
Southern California took control of the Rose Bowl early, brushed aside a Rashard Mendenhall-inspired comeback and rolled to a 49-17 victory over the Illini.
"We didn't play the way we're capable, for whatever reason," Zook said. "It's one of those things you have to learn from. We'll learn and be back here and it'll be a different story."
The one-sided defeat ended a trip the Illini never were expected to make when they gathered for training camp in August. It also ended a season in which they were one of the nation's surprise teams, going from 2-10 a year ago in the nation's biggest turnaround to a 9-3 regular-season record.
In front of a crowd of 93,923, they fell victim to an overwhelming defense and some precision passing by offensive MVP John David Booty, who completed 24 of 37 tosses for 255 yards and three touchdowns.
The Trojans (11-2), who began the season as the nation's No. 1 team and were No. 6 in the final BCS standings, took out their frustrations on a young Illinois team.
Though Illinois had a surprising season, the enormity of this loss gives pause. The Trojans' 49 points matched a Rose Bowl record, and the 633 yards of total offense they piled up is the most the Illini have allowed in a bowl game.
"We're disappointed, we wanted to play a lot better, but that happens," senior linebacker J Leman said. "If you lose by one, if you lose by 50, it's really the same. We just got beat."
It was a long day for the defense, but the way the USC defense dominated the Illinois offense early set the tone for the game.
"We just didn't want it as much as they did in the first half," quarterback Juice Williams said. "They came out wanting to be successful, wanting to win and it was hard to match that intensity."
Southern California's offense grabbed control of the game early, driving 72 yards on a crisp nine plays on its first possession. Booty hit tailback Chauncey Washington on a 4-yard swing pass for the touchdown. The Trojans didn't have to run a third-down play on the crisp nine-play drive.
Then on Illinois' next possession, linebacker Brian Cushing tipped a Williams pass and linebacker Rey Maualuga intercepted it and returned it 18 yards for a first down on the Illinois 34.
Then the Trojans caught the Illini secondary asleep. Booty threw a lateral to receiver Garrett Green, who played quarterback in high school. Green launched a pass down the opposite sideline that Desmond Reed hauled in for an easy touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
"We didn't adjust to the speed of the game early," offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said.
"We were playing like our feet were in the sand," Zook said.
On the verge of getting blown out early, Illinois made a game comeback and struck on its second play of the third quarter when Mendenhall burst up the middle for a 79-yard touchdown run to pull the Illini within 21-10.
Then, things started to go wrong again.
Mendenhall turned a simple dump-off pass from Williams into a 55-yard up-the-sidelines gain to the Trojans' 23. But two plays later, Jacob Willis hauled in a Williams pass at the 12, only to allow linebacker Kaluka Maiava to punch it out. The Trojans recovered in the end zone for a touchback.
"Who knows what happens if the score is 21-17," Williams wondered. "The momentum is there, the crowd is into it, and guys are back believing we can be successful."
Illinois turned the ball over four times—two interceptions and two fumbles—and took it away only once.
"We turned the ball over in the red zone, and that's something we haven't been doing all year long," Locksley said. "And the mistakes we made. To have three consecutive turnovers in three series against a team like USC, that's the most disappointing thing."
On the ensuing possession, the Trojans caught a major break. Joe McKnight couldn't handle a high overhand lateral from Booty but picked it up on the bounce and ran 65 yards to the Illinois 12.
Three plays later, Leman made a diving interception of a tipped ball for a goal-line interception, but cornerback Marcus Thomas was called for pass interference against Vidal Hazelton. On the next play, Booty hit tight end Fred Davis for a 1-yard pass to make it 28-10 with 5:18 left in the third quarter.
The rest was largely for show. And for the Illini to learn lessons.
"I told the young guys we've brought you this far, now it's up to you to take the next step, to win Big Ten championships and national championships," Leman said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun