It’s time to rehash my trip to Pasadena over New Year’s, which was pretty awesome with the exception of the playing of the actual Rose Bowl. The Illini simply still has a talent gap compared to a program at the caliber of USC and it showed. I really didn’t think Illinois necessarily played badly for the majority of plays, but the gravity of our mistakes was too much for any team to overcome. Two fumbles within the red zone on potential touchdown drives certainly will do that to a team. Plus, when USC can mess up a lateral that bounces on the ground and still turn it into a 65-yard gain, you know that the football gods aren’t with you.
As disappointing as it was to get seriously thumped (the hangover from this game was every bit as bad as the Bears loss in the Super Bowl last year), this season was obviously a whole lot more than any rational Illini fan could have ever hoped for. I was hoping for the Motor City Bowl berth back in August, but we ended up at the Grandaddy of Them All in an amazing turnaround story. The Rose Bowl venue itself is spectacular – stepping out of the front gate and seeing the field with the mountains in the background for a college football fan is akin to a baseball fan getting to step into Wrigley Field for the first time. Equally amazing was the Rose Parade. I’ve watched the event on television for years, but it’s difficult to understand the amount of work and detail that goes into each of the floats unless you see it in person. Finally, in the days leading up to the game, nothing was as heartwarming as seeing fellow Illini in orange all around Los Angeles, whether it was on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills (my Hollywood celebrity moment of the trip was my wife and I sitting next to Jon Voight fresh off of his reconciliation with Angelina Jolie at Spago), up in the mountains at the Getty Center, or taking in the rides at Universal Studios. If anyone ever questions why the Rose Bowl insists on inviting Big Ten teams, one only needs to take a look at how its members’ fans simply blanket L.A. every New Year’s. Say what you will about whether we have an answer to the urban legend of “Southern Speed”, but we definitely travel en masse.
Back to the field of play, what’s especially important is that, unlike the Illinois run to the Sugar Bowl in 2001 which was mostly led by players in the their senior seasons, this team will be bringing back much of its core (save for the broad shoulders of J Leman and Rashard Mendenhall) next year. Judging by the demise of the Bears, the lackluster play of the Bulls, the offensive offense of the Illini basketball team and the fact that the White Sox just traded away its entire farm system for, um, Nick Swisher(?), the start of the 2008 Illinois football season is pretty much the next thing that I’ve got to look forward to on the sports front. Looking ahead on the calendar and assuming Chase Daniel is still at the helm at Mizzou, the Illinois-Missouri opener in St. Louis on Labor Day weekend could very well be the most significant non-conference game that the Illini have played since the days of Dick Butkus.
In the end, I got the chance to see my favorite team play in the Rose Bowl, which was very close to one of my most foremost sports dreams coming true. We’ll just need to win the game the next time around to fulfill it.
(Image from Chicago Tribune)