The Fighting Illini got walloped pretty good by USC in yesterday’s Rose Bowl, 49-17, but for those Illini fans old enough to remember the 45-9 slaughter at the hands of UCLA in 1984 this one felt a lot better. For one thing, the Illini, while clearly outclassed by a perennial national-championship contender, laid some hits on the Trojans and never gave up. For another, things would have been different if not for a couple of questionable calls. The first was USC’s nonfumble in the first quarter, which kept an early scoring drive alive. The second came in the third on Marcus Thomas’s pass-interference call in the end zone — yes, he hit the receiver first, but he was breaking on the ball in a play that might otherwise be remembered for an acrobatic interception by linebacker J Lehman.
Still, who am I kidding: USC was obviously the better team. What’s different from ’84, though, is that this a team on the rise. Most of Illinois’ stars are freshmen or sophomores, and given coach Ron Zook’s skill at recruiting, they don’t have the feel of one-shot wonders. Expect quarterback Juice Williams and receivers Arrelious Benn and Jeff Cumberland to return to the Rose Bowl — and maybe actually win it. For a national championship? Hey, I’m not going that far just yet, but it isn’t out of the question, and that’s a huge step forward.