John David Booty is healthy and that bodes well for USC in this year's Rose Bowl. Favored by about two TDs, the Trojans are out to prove they're the best against Ron Zook and the Fighting Illini.
This year’s Rose Bowl presents an interesting and familiar situation from a gambling perspective: A big double-digit favorite, USC, facing a surprising upstart, Illinois.
The Trojans were the preseason No. 1 ranked team and could easily have been playing for the national championship but for a few unlucky breaks. The Fighting Illini, just one year removed from bottom of the barrel seasons, outperformed the modest improvement they were hoping for this year, winding up with a handful of big wins over elite teams and a resultant spot in a big-time bowl game matchup with another elite team.
The big question is – where does the line value lie? Is the line not reflecting how much better USC really is, now that they are back at full strength? Or is it not giving enough credit to the ability of Illinois to hang with anyone in a prime-time marquee game?
The big story of USC’s season has been the health of star QB John David Booty. In the Trojans' middle four games – the low point of the year for them where they struggled and suffered their two losses – came with Booty either injured or sitting out. In their other eight games, however, with Booty playing and healthy, they were positively dominant, routinely beating quality teams, usually by double digits.
For the Rose Bowl, USC looks to be in top shape, and with their general history of success in the Rose Bowl and its attendant home field edge for them, they are looming as a true powerhouse.
Illinois, on the other hand, was a scrappy and successful team this year, employing a strong running game to keep games close, usually giving them a shot to win against anyone. They hung tight with eventual Top 10 Missouri in their opening game, and wound up getting many impressive road wins on the year, including one, of course, over #1 ranked Ohio State. None of their three losses was by more than 10 points, and the Illini proved themselves to be a legitimate Top 25 team week in and week out.
Of course, USC may well be the best team in the country when Booty is healthy. Booty’s numbers on the season, particularly in his last four games, were truly top-notch. Their running game, perhaps the least impressive aspect of their game, is still very deep and balanced, talented and effective. And their defense is ranked second in the county, giving up only 258.8 total yards and 16 points per game.
USC is particularly tough against the run, which is all Illinois really does well. The Illini are a two-horse show on the ground, featuring star running back and Big Ten offensive player of the year Rashard Mendenhall complemented by dynamic running QB Juice Williams. The tandem combined to give Illinois the fifth-best rushing attack in the nation, and they anchored an effective “spread-option” offense, a style of play that has given USC a bit of trouble in recent memory. USC’s defense, however, ended the year in outstanding form; they only allowed 79.2 rushing yards per game, and held tough UCLA in their final game to only 12 rushing yards.
This does not bode well for Juice Williams and Illinois, as he is not a top-level passer, and his only good passing games this year came against notably sub-par defenses, several full notches in quality below that of USC. Illinois might have had the fifth-best rushing attack, but they also had the sixth-worst passing game in the nation on the year.
All in all, this game will come down to two things: who wins the ground battle between Illinois’ rushing dynamic duo and USC’s defense, and exactly how dominant Booty will be over Illinois’ questionable pass defense. To my eyes, the two-TD spread looks to be about right, and the line in fact hasn’t moved much since opening at 13½. I would probably lean towards USC, because I do think USC will be able to do a decent job containing Mendenhall, and I don’t think Williams will be able to make up for it with his arm. I also think Booty is in for a big passing day, just as he had in last year’s Rose Bowl. I think this game will resemble that one in fact, when USC beat Michigan 32-18.
My pick here is USC -13½, but I will be watching it, not betting it.