PASADENA, Calif. - For the USC Trojans, this Rose Bowl wasn't just about winning.
It was about attracting attention – with prolific offense, dominating defense and ridiculous celebrations – actions that would send a message to the college football world.
The best-laid plans of the Bowl Championship Series and decorum be damned, the Trojans screamed. Showtime was back in L.A., and any talk about the national championship shouldn't be centered solely on Ohio State and LSU.
"I would love to play one more," defensive lineman Sedrick Ellis said. "I don't think any team in the NCAA could beat us right now."
Four minutes and three seconds into what would become a 49-17 rout of Illinois on Tuesday, notice was served. The swagger that Stanford had stolen from USC was back. Afterward, you had to wonder: could Pete Carroll's brash team bust up the BCS and earn an Associated Press national title?
Chauncey Washington offered an answer when he hauled in an 8-yard touchdown pass from John David Booty on USC's opening possession. The nine-play, 72-yard drive turned the SC sideline into a chorus line.
Two minutes later, Desmond Reed shouted a response. He somersaulted into the end zone, spiked the ball and incited the crowd after hauling in a 34-yard option pass for USC's second touchdown.
Freshman Joe McKnight weighed in with 125 yards rushing on 10 carries, 45 yards receiving and a touchdown.
Linebacker Rey Maualuga had something to say with three sacks and an interception.
USC racked up 633 yards of total offense, scored seven touchdowns and had one fired-up coach.
In his postgame news conference, Carroll indicated he wouldn't campaign for a split championship or beat the drum for a playoff system as an alternative to the BCS.
But he couldn't hide his true feelings.
"Would we love to still be playing right now? Sure would," Carroll said. "We'd go out there any time, any place, any venue and throw our football out there and see what we could do.
USC 49, Illinois 17
Offensive player of the game
USC freshman running back Joe McKnight showed stunning speed and pass-catching skills. He carried 10 times for 125 yards and a touchdown, including a 65-yard burst. He added six catches for 45 yards.
Defensive player of the game
USC linebacker Rey Maualuga was all over the field, collecting three sacks and intercepting a pass.
Illinois junior running back Rashard Mendenhall showed why he was the Big Ten offensive player of the year. He had 17 carries for 155 yards and a TD and caught five passes for 59 yards. He will make some NFL team very happy if he leaves Champaign early.
What this means for USC
The Trojans might be playing as well as anyone in the country and are absolutely loaded with talent. They finished with 11 victories for the sixth consecutive season, an NCAA record. John David Booty will move on to the NFL, but Mark Sanchez is ready to step in at quarterback. They'll be right back in the title hunt next season.
What this means for Illinois
The Illini were the nation's most improved team under Liberty Mutual coach of the year Ron Zook. They proved to have the speed and talent to compete and should be even better next year with most of their key personnel returning. Look for them to push Ohio State in the Big Ten.
The teams combined for a Rose Bowl record 1,078 yards of total offense. … The Trojans set the Rose Bowl team record for total offense with 633 yards. … USC tied the Rose Bowl scoring record with 49 points. … USC running back Stafon Johnson had 104 yards on nine carries. … The Trojans' defense yielded 445 net yards, but forced four turnovers and picked up five sacks. … The Illini's Vontae Davis led all defenders with 13 tackles. … Illinois quarterback Juice Williams had an up-and-down day, completing 21 of 35 passes for 245 yards with a touchdown and a pair of interceptions. … Arrelious Benn was Williams' favorite target, catching five passes for 80 yards and a score.
"Let the argument go on out there for the people who are battling the BCS process to try and figure it out. I don't know, and I have no answers for them. I just wish we could keep playing. And I know these guys do, too."
After letting the Illini climb within 11 points in the third quarter, USC stepped on the accelerator. Powering to their fifth consecutive win, the Trojans seem to be playing as well as any team in the land.
Will the skidmarks they left on the Illini serve as a springboard to a split championship?
The BCS did its best to seal the Trojans' fate by pitting them against Illinois instead of Georgia in the Rose Bowl. The rigged system hoped to quell any chance for controversy over the validity of the Jan. 7 championship game. Instead it served to deny the nation a more interesting Rose matchup that would have better quantified how good USC and Georgia are.
So the Trojans proceeded to pile up a 32-point win over the Illini, 9-4 and the second-best team from a sketchy Big Ten. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs whipped overmatched Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl - just as everyone expected they would.
Not exactly food for thought.
One could argue that USC (11-2) looks better at this stage than Ohio State (11-1). The Buckeyes were beaten by this same Illini team just seven weeks ago in Columbus. It could be debated that the Trojans are superior to LSU (11-2), which bowed to a mediocre Arkansas team on Nov. 23.
With the BCS instead of a playoff, we'll never know.
A USC leap is highly unlikely. In addition to jumping Ohio State and LSU, the Trojans would have to hurdle Georgia and Oklahoma. The Sooners also seem to be peaking, and they are favored to defeat West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl.
USC can only hope that Ohio State and LSU get bogged down and slog along on Bourbon Street, and the Buckeyes escape with an ugly, narrow victory.
That still won't be enough.
Why? USC would have two losses to Ohio State's one. Say what you will about the Buckeyes' creampuff scheduling (Youngstown State, Akron and Kent State) and the crummy Big Ten.
It doesn't offset the Trojans' Cardinal sin. National champions do not lose to 41-point underdogs. At home. Against a backup quarterback making his first start.
Even the raucous events at the Rose Bowl can't change that.