Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The vast majority of people seem convinced that the USC Trojans will win the Rose Bowl today. At the risk of cementing their anticipated victory, I am going to disagree. I am not tremendously confident, however, that Illinois can get it done. God knows, as an ND fan, I have picked against USC enough over the last few years to embarrass dozens of people with more pride than even I have.

The real trouble with this pick I've made is that it hinges on how good Ohio State actually is. Yes, the Buckeyes have been to what seems like 23 BCS bowls in the Jim Tressel reign of terror. Yes, OSU is the only 1 loss team of any consequence still roaming the Bowl Subdivision landscape. And yes, they beat Michigan (on the road while the Illini lost to them at home). But the Buckeyes looked like a high school defense when Juice Williams went to work in the spread option on them.

I don't think the USC defense is quite as good as it has been in the past. And it is coached by Pete Carroll, so it is full of inferior character guys who may or may not have parents already living in condos provided by agents (Reggie Bush). The trouble is, the only accurate frame of reference for the speed and capacity of the USC defense is the game they played against a subpar Notre Dame team.

Based on the way OSU failed to defense Illinois in November, it seemed that the goal was to put the game in Juice Williams' hands. That was a laudable goal, since he's been supremely inconsistent since he hit the ground in Champaign two years ago. He has games where he looks like he could be the next Vince Young and he has games where he make the guy who sank the Vikings ship look like Joe Montana. Too bad for OSU, Williams had a career day in Columbus.

The best asset, and the best player, going for Illinois today is Rashard Mendenhall. He's a slightly shorter, perhaps more talented and infinitely more above reproach version of Darren McFadden. And this game could decide his future. He's a junior right now, and he has to choose between going to the NFL and trying to improve his draft position by sticking around one more year. I'm betting he goes pro, rather than take the chance of getting hurt for nothing. But God knows how often I'm wrong in this space.

As an aside, in case you might not have noticed, that kid from Boise State who electrified the nation last year against Oklahoma didn't exactly have a banner year. Yeah, he proposed to that cheerleader and that was so wonderful. And they didn't accept any wedding presents that might have compromised his amateur status. But perhaps they should have. Ian Johnson had a step back season and managed 11 yards rushing in a bowl loss to East Carolina this year. That just isn't going to get you drafted in the first round.

I think Illinois can do some damage to USC because the Trojans don't seem to be that much better than OSU as far as defending a running QB goes. If USC commits to stopping Mendenhall the way OSU did, Williams will kill them running out of the spread. Williams might even be able to beat them with his arm, provided that the long layoff and big stage don't overwhelm him. Yes, Williams isn't Vince Young. But this USC defense isn't as fast or talented as the one Young killed two years ago.

I also think that Illinois' defense is massively underrated. J Lehman, the Illini middle linebacker, should be a first round pick. But their best defensive player is defensive end Will Davis. Two years from now, he will be the second coming of Mario Williams (whose 14.5 sacks earned a trip to the Pro Bowl for several frauds and Richard Seymour). He will crush Jon David Booty to the point where I don't even feel comfortable making any sort of Pirates of the Caribbean reference here.

But the best part of Illinois sneaking up on USC isn't that people can make a half-assed ironic reference about the Trojans being victimized by a trojan horse. It's that you heard it here first.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Is this blog about the Red Sox?