Motivation, or lack of same, was the main topic of discussion about USC going into the Rose Bowl game against Illinois.
The sixth-ranked Trojans had no shot at the national championship, no cause for redemption and faced an opponent that had lost three games.
But USC played as if it had something to prove on Tuesday.
The Trojans finally added a ball-hawking element to their already stout defense, freshman tailback Joe McKnight put on a show and quarterback John David Booty showed last year's postseason performance was no fluke as USC routed the Fighting Illini, 49-17, before 93,293 in the 94th Rose Bowl game.
The Trojans finished 11-2 for the second consecutive season and won a Bowl Championship Series bowl game for the fifth time in six tries.
"I'm not surprised because you could see this coming," Coach Pete Carroll said. "We've done this before."
The Trojans did it Tuesday by following a formula that served them so well during their run to national titles in 2003 and 2004: With a suffocating defense that set up scoring opportunities.
Linebacker Rey Maualuga and cornerback Cary Harris intercepted passes and the Trojans recovered two of six Illinois fumbles. All four turnovers led to USC touchdowns, including three in the second half after Illinois had pulled to within 21-10.
"We dominated, flat out," said senior defensive end Lawrence Jackson, who had a sack and forced a fumble. "They had their plays but in the grand scheme of things they didn't do anything to scare us. A game like this reminds everybody who we are."
Illinois' hopes rode on the legs and arm of quarterback Juice Williams, a dual threat who was thought capable of causing the kind of problems Oregon's Dennis Dixon and Washington's Jake Locker gave USC this season, and, most famously, Texas' Vince Young did in the 2006 Rose Bowl.
But the Trojans were not about to let it happen again. The 6-foot-2, 223-pound Williams passed for 245 yards but had no touchdowns. The sacks left him with minus-19 rushing yards.
"Coach told us, 'He ain't no Vince Young. He ain't no Dennis Dixon. He's no Locker. He just doesn't have the speed,' " said Maualuga, who had three sacks and was selected defensive player of the game. "Just watching film, we thought our speed on defense . . . would be enough."
The Trojans also got a boost from McKnight, the speedy freshman from Louisiana who had shown flashes but little consistency this season.
McKnight had 125 of the Trojans' season-high 344 yards rushing. He also caught six passes as USC rolled up a season-best 633 yards of total offense.
"Everything was working for me tonight," said McKnight, who returned three punts and finished with 206 all-purpose yards.
Booty, who passed for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns in last year's Rose Bowl victory over Michigan, added three more touchdowns against Illinois.
The fifth-year senior from Louisiana connected with running back Chauncey Washington, tight end Fred Davis and wide receiver David Ausberry on scoring plays and was selected offensive player of the game.
"Last year was incredible . . . but tonight almost meant a little more," said Booty, who completed 25 of 37 passes Tuesday and finished with 5,962 yards passing and 55 touchdown passes in his USC career. "Probably because it was my senior year, knowing there is no more."
Booty's eight-yard touchdown pass to Washington, receiver Garrett Green's 34-yard touchdown pass to Desmond Reed on a trick play and Washington's three-yard touchdown run gave the Trojans a 21-0 lead before Jason Reda kicked a 28-yard field goal for the Fighting Illini just before halftime.
Illinois looked as if it would make a game of it on its first possession of the third quarter when running back Rashard Mendenhall broke loose for a 79-yard touchdown run.
After USC's ensuing drive stalled, Illinois quickly drove back into scoring position, giving itself a chance to pull off an upset similar to its Nov. 10 victory over top-ranked Ohio State.
But the Illini lost a golden opportunity when USC linebacker Kaluka Maiava punched the ball out of receiver Jacob Willis' hands as he neared the goal line after a 24-yard catch. Brian Cushing recovered the ball in the end zone and the Trojans converted the miscue into an 80-yard scoring drive.
McKnight supplied the key play when a lateral from Booty that was behind him glanced off his hand. McKnight did not break stride as the ball bounced off the ground and into his grip.
"I was telling myself it's going to bounce up sooner or later," said McKnight, who turned the corner in front of the Illinois bench and then cut back at midfield on his way to a 65-yard run.
Booty's two-yard touchdown pass to Davis in the back of the end zone gave USC a 28-10 lead with 5:18 left in the third quarter.
On Illinois' next play, Harris intercepted a pass intended for receiver Jeff Cumberland. Three Booty completions totaling 62 yards set up McKnight's six-yard scoring run for a 35-10 lead.