Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Slayed by the Trojans!

I'm not sure there's a better image in all of sport than the SC cheerleaders jumping up and down on the sidelines at the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. Pause, reflect, and move on..... you might be able to save a bundle on ILLINI ROSE-BOWL gear if you act fast.

Up until this game, I thought the biggest bowl 'no-show' was USF in the SUN BOWL against Oregon. Those guys really mailed it in. And while SC under Booty is a bit better than the Ducks under Roper, there is no doubt in my mind that we clearly possess that dubious honor by ourselves. Tonight's Rose Bowl will go down as one of our worst performances in recent history (and that includes some pretty nasty football showings). USC 49 - ILLINOIS 17, and it could have been much worse. Thanks for the mercy Pete! What a lousy ending to an otherwise spectacular season.

Where to start and what to say? I'll keep the negative to a minimum (hopefully 500 words or less, but I won't be counting). Sure, 4 turnovers and 28 points off turnovers isn't the recommended way to hang with the Trojans. Have you ever seen so many fortunate bounces go in favor of one team? Seemed like everything tumbled their way - they could do no wrong. That being said, I'm not sure they were just more than contributing factors in the outcome. This game was decided in early December right after the bowl pairings were announced.

Honestly, we never really got into any kind of rhythem today - especially on offense. That usually happens when teams play not to lose. We script the first 15 offensive plays of every game. Needless to say they were the wrong ones, and way too conservative even by Pat Buchanan standards. Zook confirmed this during the post-game by saying we didn't play 'our best football tonight'. Ya think? I just didn't see any positive energy, effort, or execution most of the night, especially on offense in the passing game. When the game was still relatively close, our play calls, set execution, and assignment blocking were completely MIA (missing in action). Clearly we were tight, as expected. You don't trot out in front of a hundred-thousand people at the Rose Bowl without a few butterflies. Problem was they really never left. We had the 'deer in the headlights' look most of the game. That was somewhat surprising, even for a young ILLINI team. It was as if we were convinced by the media hype that we didn't belong there. The atmosphere clearly owned us. For a team that had forty something days to prepare, a team that arrived in La La land on Christmas night, a team that visited Lawry's, the Improv, and Disneyland - there's really no excuse to be star-struck.

Not to take anything away from what I think is the best team in the country right now in USC, we made it way too easy for the Trojans to get this victory. They really didn't break a sweat in this one. And the real shame of it to me is that the Rose Bowl deserves better. It's the grand-daddy, the best bowl game going - always will be. And while college football has never had a true national champion (although in some years there's more alignment than in others), there's always been just one true RBC (Rose Bowl Champion).

Give most of the credit to the Trojans; they deserve it. I've been saying since November (right around the time Dixon went down with his knee injury) that USC is back to being the well-oiled football machine we've come to know and love over the past five seasons. Under Carroll, I think they have something like an 85% winning percentages, two national titles, and six straight PAC-10 championships. The dynasty is alive and very well - when will it end? Will it ever end? Note likely as long as Pete is in town. Not even goldeny -boy Rick will be able to do much about that. Watching the Trojans play football (rock stars who wear cleats) makes me think how good they would be in the NFL. I've been saying for weeks that the new pecking order is as follows: AFC, USC, SEC, and the NFC. What transpired tonight only further cements that belief. Note to others, stay the hell out of their way. They should be favored to win it all again next season.

USC is so loaded with so much football talent it's not even funny. No team in the country has more than they do. I think half of their defense are projected first-round picks in next season's NFL draft. One of my lasting quotes from this game was by Brent Musberger, "Oh baby, what a future on Sunday." It's as if they have 5-star talent at every position, including kicker, water boys, and mascots. Yep, there is nothing ordinary about Trojan football. They've clearly made a committment to winning championships, much like Tiger Woods and his quest for majors. No doubt in my mind that they should be playing in New Orleans next Monday against either Oklahoma or LSU. No doubt in my mind that they win convincingly against either. Yes indeed, it's good to be a Trojan right now. They're world; and the rest of us are just living under their rule.

It wasn't all bad news for ILLINI fans. I was able to take our Christmas tree down today in between turnovers, Trojan scoring drives, and references to Red Grange (the galloping ghost himself). Where was he today when we needed him? We missed his explosive onslaught of 4 TD's and 270 total yards in just twelve minutes of play against Michigan back in the 1920's by the Wheaton Iceman. Seriously, I think of it as a scouting trip for next year's return (hopefully not against the Trojans BTW). We now know where to eat and drink around town. I'm sure the locals will love to have us back for a repeat visit. The trible travels well and was well represented in SoCal this week. We spend money like a liberal congress with a budget surplus.

We did find a way to rack up over 400 yards of total offense against the mighty Trojan 'D', much of that coming late in the game I suppose. Problem was we gave up over 600 yards ouselves. Ouch! Rashard was our one bright spot most of the game (155 yards on just 17 carries for 9.1 yards / attempt). Of course, he had the big 79 yard TD romp to start the 3rd quarter. I've been singing his praises most of the year as one of the greatest backs in the land. I'm hoping he comes back for his senior season next year. But where do we go from here? Pete Fiutak does a good job of asking the same questions I have after this one in his five questions. I'm hoping we use tonight's hammering as the ultimate motivational tool for years to come. And will somebody please turn-off that damn trojan fight-song? I dont' think I'll ever get that dreadful crap out of my mind for the rest of my days.

No, this wasn't an unexpected outcome and we probably didn't belong there this year based on merit. But hey, we didn't make the BCS rules, and by them we were worthy of the opportunity. I wish we did more with it. Hopefully we'll learn from this one. There are many lessons embedded in the game footage. We are still one of the youngest teams in the nation in terms of first and second-year starters. And, with Zook firmly in place for a while after signing a lengthy and lucrative contract extension, we need to ask ourselves just how good do we want to be? Where do we go next? Are we satisfied with bowl trips or bowl wins? These are just some of the questions that will linger in the off-season, at least in my mind. Zook definitely needs to prove to his skeptics, the faithful, and the rest of the nation that he can coach and win the big games - consistently.

"Obviously, it's not good for us," Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "It hurts the Big Ten. I told our football team all along that we're representing the University of Illinois, but also representing the Big Ten Conference. That's why it's important that we play the way we're capable of playing. We didn't do that. So we let the Big Ten down as well. There's no doubt in my mind the Big Ten Conference can compete with anybody. I can say that, but we have to do it."

Fighting Illini coaches were determined to use this Rose Bowl loss as a stepping stone to a brighter future while honoring the seniors who did such a remarkable job leading the turnaround. "USC is a great team, but they're not that many points better than us," reminded Locksley. "It's a tribute to the seniors that they bought into everything we asked of them as a staff. They let us push them as a coaching staff.

"We're proud of our seniors, we're proud to represent the University of Illinois, and we're going to continue to work hard to build this thing up to where it's a solid foundation for the future."
Coach Zook set his jaw and looked doggedly to the future. He knows the Illini are better than this, and he is determined to use this loss as a motivational tool. "I'm going to tell them to remember this. It is important that we learn from it, and when we get back here we want to do a lot better than we did today."

It won't get any easier next season with high expectations for the conference and the national scene. The schedule isn't kind in 2008 with road games at Missouri, Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Northwestern to end the season. Although, the non-conference portion of the agenda looks fairly benign once we get by the Tigers (EIU and Louisiana Lafayette). How do you follow a 9-3 Rose Bowl season? When you play in the BIG-10, it just doesn't get any bigger than this game, title game included (my opinion). There's only one Grand-Daddy! The media-inspired BCS (FOXSPORTS creation) is not much more than a joke these days -> failing to give us the best match-ups and a clear champion year after year. Kudos to the Rose Bowl for bucking that system, kind of I guess. Tradition does matter. I expect the rest of this year's bowl season to be another huge disappointment. I've had enough of that. So, let me be the first to challenge the club with a return visit to Pasadena in January 2009. Let's make it two SoCal trips in a row, with one obvious exception in the outcome.

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