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Fumble takes fight out of the Illini

Confident and poised to pull within four points, Illinois instead gets crushed after the pivotal turnover.

January 02, 2008|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Suddenly, the Illinois players were dancing on the sideline.

Suddenly, after trailing USC all afternoon, they had struck with a long touchdown run and were driving back downfield, threatening to pull within four points.

"Everything was in order," receiver Jacob Willis said. "We were showing that we could move the ball easily."

But just as suddenly, Willis and his teammates ran smack into calamity.

The final minutes of the third quarter -- a critical series of plays -- dashed any hopes of a close game, sending the Fighting Illini on their way to a 49-17 loss to USC in the Rose Bowl.

"One break can change everything," cornerback Vontae Davis said. "That's all it takes."

The sequence began shortly after halftime. The Illini had been struggling and trailed, 21-3, when running back Rashard Mendenhall made a 79-yard touchdown run.

Just that quickly, the score was 21-10 and the Illini had seized the momentum. After the defense forced a punt, Mendenhall caught a short play-action pass from quarterback Juice Williams and ran 55 yards into USC territory.

Illinois receiver Arrelious Benn said there was a sense in the huddle that, "if we could score a touchdown, it would be over. They would go down." When Williams threw to an open Willis over the middle, it looked as if the Illini might get that score.

But just as Willis turned toward the end zone, USC linebacker Kaluka Maiava reached from behind to punch the ball free and fellow linebacker Brian Cushing dived on the fumble.

"They made a good play," Willis said. "All my teammates on the sideline were telling me to keep my head up, that we would come back."

They were wrong.

On the ensuing drive, USC quarterback John David Booty turned to his right and threw to tailback Joe McKnight, the ball glancing off McKnight's hands.

For a moment, no one seemed sure if it was an incomplete pass or a fumbled lateral. No one except for McKnight, who collected the ball on the bounce and darted around right end.

By the time cornerback Davis caught up with him, the Trojans had a 65-yard gain to the Illinois 12-yard line.

"If we stopped playing because we thought it was incomplete, then that's on us," linebacker J Leman said. "I mean, you can't do that."

The Illini could only hope for a goal-line stand.

Three plays later, Booty threw to Vidal Hazelton in the end zone. Cornerback Marcus Thomas hit Hazelton and the ball popped into the air, grabbed by another Illinois defender for an interception.

But Thomas had arrived early -- pass interference.

"As a defensive back, they make it so hard on us," Thomas said. "I'm allowed to get to the ball too."

With first and goal on the two-yard line, Booty passed to tight end Fred Davis at the back of the end zone. The score was 28-10.

"I really thought the game kind of shifted from that point," USC Coach Pete Carroll said.

It was deja vu for the Illini, and not in a good way. Against nationally ranked Missouri in their season opener, they were driving for a score when reserve quarterback Eddie McGee fumbled inches from the goal line.

A Missouri defender grabbed the ball and ran 100 yards for a touchdown. Illinois went on to lose.

Several players said they got the same feeling after Willis' fumble and the subsequent USC touchdown.

On each of their next two possessions, the Illini suffered turnovers and, each time, USC scored. By the early minutes of the fourth quarter, the game had become a rout.

Not all the Illini blamed the loss on one or two plays. But they couldn't help wondering what might have transpired if Willis had held onto the ball.

As Leman said: "It just kind of went downhill from there."

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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