Led by Rey Maualuga, USC's defense dominates in Rose Bowl victory

The USC defense was simply too big, too strong, too athletic and too fast for Illinois

Jan. 1, 2008

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) -Linebacker Rey Maualuga had a vision that he was going to win the outstanding defensive player award in the Rose Bowl.

He proved to be quite the prognosticator.

"It was weird. I told myself, I can get this award - positive self-talk," Maualuga said Tuesday after Southern California's 49-17 rout of Illinois. "At the hotel, sitting here before the game. I was thinking about things I could do."

Maualuga, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound junior from Eureka, made his first interception of the season to set up a first-quarter touchdown, giving USC a 14-0 lead after just 6 1/2 minutes of play.

He sacked Juice Williams on back-to-back plays in the second period and got a third shortly before halftime, matching his regular-season sack total.

"Everyone was saying, `Keep it in the room,"' Maualuga said of the defensive player award. "Hopefully next year, another linebacker will get this."

Maualuga's roommate, Brian Cushing, won the award last year for his effort in USC's 32-18 victory over Michigan.

When asked if this was his best game, Maualuga smiled and replied: "Definitely. I've had nothing to compare to this. I've never had a more complete, special game than this. Hopefully there's more to come. I didn't win this award by myself."

That's certainly true. The USC defense was simply too big, too strong, too athletic and too fast for Illinois, making big plays all day.

Oh, Illinois had its offensive highlights in the second half, thanks mainly to Williams and running back Rashard Mendenhall. But the Trojans turned Maualuga's interception and three third-quarter turnovers into touchdowns in rolling to their decisive triumph.

"We're just trying to get the ball to the offense as many times as possible," Cushing said. "They took advantage of the opportunities. We shut down a very capable offense - only one big play. You give us a month to prepare for a spread team like that, we're going to figure them out."

 

 

Maualuga had a team-leading 75 tackles this season despite being slowed by a hip pointer. There had been speculation that he'd bypass his senior year to turn pro.

When told Cushing had said two days before the Rose Bowl that he was definitely returning next season, Maualuga said: "Double that. Yes, sir."

Cushing, also a junior, was hampered much of the season by a sprained ankle.

Defensive linemen Lawrence Jackson and Sedrick Ellis figure to be first-round picks in the NFL draft this spring, and Maualuga, Cushing, Keith Rivers, Thomas Williams and Kaluka Maiava make up one of the country's best linebacking corps.

"They played into our hands," Jackson said. "We forced them into a lot of uncomfortable situations and shut them down."

No. 6 USC (11-2) struggled at times defensively early in the season, mainly due to injuries. Once the Trojans got healthy, it was a different story. They allowed only 51 points in winning their last four regular-season games to earn at least a share of their sixth straight Pac-10 title, and just 17 more in their fourth Rose Bowl appearance in five years.

"This is a great defense,no doubt," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "This year, it's as good as any group we've had. These guys are so fast, so smart, so tuned in. It's an amazingly tight group."

Carroll said his only gripe with the defense had been a lack of forced turnovers, but that certainly wasn't an issue in this game.

"This is exactly the way we pictured we would play," he said. "This was a great one for us."

USC finished the regular season ranked second in the country in total defense, behind No. 1 Ohio State. Yep, the same Ohio State team that Illinois beat 28-21 on Nov. 10 for the Buckeyes' only loss of the season. Williams and the Illini held the ball the final 8:09 of that game.

Illinois allowed only 11 sacks during the regular season. The Trojans had five in this game, pressuring Williams throughout.

In building a 21-3 first-half lead, USC allowed only 79 yards of total offense. The 13th-ranked Illini (9-4) matched that total on the second play of the third quarter on Mendenhall's 79-yard touchdown run, but the Trojans wouldn't allow another point until the final 4 1/2 minutes, when Illinois scored a meaningless touchdown.

Maiava and Cushing combined for the game's biggest play midway through the third period with USC leading 21-10. Williams completed a pass to Jacob Willis, but Maiava jarred the ball loose inside the Trojans' 5-yard line, and Cushing recovered in the end zone for a touchback.

A USC touchdown followed, and so did two more after Cary Harris came up with an interception and a fumble recovery later in the period, assuring the Trojans of their 23rd victory in a record 32 Rose Bowl appearances.

"The key to the game was turnovers," Harris said. "We live off that stuff."

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