Illinois Says It Doesn't Mind Underdog Status

Won't be overwhelmed by USC at the Rose Bowl

Dec. 8, 2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - When Illinois runs out onto the lush green of the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, it'll be facing a hostile road crowd and playing a game few expect the Illini to win.

For quarterback Juice Williams, that sounds a lot like the Illini's trip to Ohio State. That trip last month ended with the 28-21 win over the top-ranked Buckeyes that punched Illinois' ticket to Pasadena.

"It's gonna be a similar environment to what it was in Columbus," Williams said. At Ohio State, "it was almost like it was Illinois versus the entire state."

Take away the San Gabriel Mountains that give the Rose Bowl its made-for-TV backdrop, and there are strong similarities between the game at Columbus and the one they're about to make out west.

Ohio State has the top-ranked defense in the country, one spot better than Southern California. Illinois took on the Buckeyes at the Horseshoe, one of the biggest stadiums in the country, laden with football history.

The Illini will face USC, ranked 7th in the BCS, at the Rose Bowl, one of the biggest stadiums in the country. The 84-year-old stadium was the scene of some of Southern Cal's best memories. Nine of USC's 11 national titles have been sewn up with Rose Bowl wins.

Illinois coach Ron Zook said the Rose Bowl is practically USC's home stadium - they play their regular season home games not far away at Memorial Coliseum.

With almost all of the 25,000 tickets allotted to Illinois already spoken for, Zook expects more Illini fans in Pasadena than he saw in Columbus.

"I'll bet you're gonna see a lot of orange in that stadium," he said.

And he doesn't believe his 9-3 team, second in the Big Ten behind the Buckeyes and 13th in the BCS, will be overwhelmed.

"Our guys kind of thrive on that kind of thing," he said.

Or, as Williams put it, "Just like when we played Ohio State, we were on a national stage."

In that game, Illinois used a suffocating ground game and a handful of well-timed big pass plays from Williams to win.



Illinois ran for 260 yards against a defense that has allowed 225 total yards a game this season. Williams had 70 of those yards, plus four TD passes.

Most impressive was the Illini's last drive, a 15-play slog that moved the ball 48 yards, killed the final 8:09 and drained the life out of the Buckeye crowd.

What Illinois accomplished at Ohio State should help on New Year's Day, senior guard Martin O'Donnell said.

"When you play defenses that are at that next level," he said, "all those experiences I think help you."

The Trojan defense doesn't give up much, just 258 yards a game, and only 79 on the ground.

"Their defense is fast and they like to hit people," O'Donnell said. "We gotta come out and we gotta be aggressive."

O'Donnell, a fifth-year senior, remembers the last trip to the Rose Bowl. A freshman at the time, he didn't play in that 6-3 loss to UCLA.

"It's just incredible," O'Donnell said. "I was kind of in awe the first time I went there. ... I was kind of in awe of a lot of places that year."

Judging by its 1-11 record, so was the rest of the team.

For O'Donnell and the handful of current players who were part of that team, a trip back to the Rose Bowl feels right.

"What a way to come full circle," he said. "I mean, going 1-11 our first year here, going through a lot of bad seasons, no bowl games before this year and then finishing up with the Rose Bowl."