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January 1, 2008

Rashard Mendenhall

Kevin Mitchell

Ron Zook


GINA CHAPPIN: I'd like to turn it over to Head Coach Ron Zook. Again, he'll make opening comments. We will then turn it over for questions.
COACH RON ZOOK: First of all, I'd like to congratulate Coach Carroll. We knew coming in here that was a great football team. We knew that for us to be able to play with them, we were going to have to play our best game, and obviously we didn't play our best game.
For whatever reason, we felt like there in the second half we got some things going. You can't turn the ball over I guess to a team like that. Whether it was the atmosphere, whether it was the first time in a Bowl or whatever, but as I told our team, I'm very, very proud of them. We made it here. Obviously we didn't play the way we're capable of playing. Can't say enough about our senior class, what they've done in terms of leadership and so forth.
It's one of those things that, you know, you have to learn from. It's kind of what we've been in here all year, so we'll learn from it and we'll get back here and we'll -- it will be a different story.
GINA CHAPPIN: Questions for coach.

Q. Ron, one of the speculations was whether you had the ability to stop their team's speed on defense. Was that a big factor?
COACH RON ZOOK: No. I don't know that the team speed. I thought they did a nice job of attacking some of the things we've done, but for the most part, the mistakes -- we didn't play the way we're capable of playing. I guess, you know, for whatever reason, that's the frustration, but they are a very, very good football team. They had a great plan and came out and utilized it. They hit right in the beginning, which was smart.
As I said, at times we played well and -- you can't -- a team like that that's going to play down after down, you can't relax for a minute.

Q. Ron, the first half, you only hit about eight, you only had about 80 yards of total offense, the defense was dominated in the first half. Is that what you said they did things right early or do anything different? Case of physical overwhelming?
COACH RON ZOOK: I don't have an answer for that, for sure. There in the beginning we were playing like our feet were in sand. As I said, whether they were caught up in the moment or what, but, you know, we settled down there and at times we had -- we kind of flickered a little bit there and had some times we played extremely well. Obviously the second half, I thought the offense we got going there, making some things happen there, and then we turned the ball over.
Obviously to be a good football team to play in a game like this and have the opportunity to win the Rose Bowl, you can't turn the ball over.

Q. Ron, you mentioned it a little bit at the top. Talk a little more about, you know, the mixed feelings, getting here and knowing that not of lot of people were going to be watching this game and not being able to accomplish what you wanted here.
COACH RON ZOOK: Well, you know, that's why you play the game, you have the opportunity to, you know, to win or lose. Obviously we didn't do the right things to win, but as I told our seniors, I thanked them. There's going to be times in their life they're going to be in a situation like this that they'll learn from.
The rest of the guys coming back, this is something we need to learn from. This is something that these guys will learn from. We'll get better, and next time we're in this situation, we'll play the way we're capable of playing.

Q. Coach, can you talk about the preponderance of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and personal fouls on both teams?
COACH RON ZOOK: I told our team, the last thing I said to our team, probably the most frustrating, disappointing thing to me was that for us.
That's not something we've done. That's not something we're going to do. I know it's frustration, I know all that, and I love these guys, I really do, but still we're not going to have that, and that's something we'll address, and something we have to learn from so that it never happens again.

Q. Coach, turnovers did lead to four of their seven touchdowns. Were they forced to cough it up? What's your thought on that?
COACH RON ZOOK: Well, you know, it's something that we've said all year long, particularly the last over half of the season we've taken care of football. That's something you have to do to win a football game. You can't turn the ball over. Whether they were forced or we just -- weren't playing with consistency, the intensity that you have to play with, I'm not sure. You can't turn the ball over in any football game, much less this football game.
GINA CHAPPIN: Any additional questions for Coach Zook?
Final question up-front.

Q. How do you think this loss will affect the perception of the Big Ten nationally?
COACH RON ZOOK: Obviously it's not good for us. It hurts the Big Ten, and I guess one of the frustrating things is, as I told our football team all along, we're representing the University of Illinois but also representing the Big Ten conference and, you know, that's why it's important that we play the way we're capable of playing.
We didn't do that. So we let the Big Ten down as well. But once again, you just have to -- our conference has to continue to do, we get into these games. We have to play the way we're capable of playing. There's no doubt in my mind that the Big Ten conference can compete with anybody, and I can say that, but we have to do it. We have to do it at the University of Illinois and obviously all other Big Ten schools in Bowl games.
GINA CHAPPIN: Last question on right.

Q. Coach, how would you stack this USC team against Ohio State?
COACH RON ZOOK: Very, very similar. Very similar. We really felt like going into the game there were an awful lot of similarities, and that's why we felt like we -- if we played the way we're capable of playing, we could stay in it and play.
GINA CHAPPIN: Coach, we'll let you get back to your student athletes. Thank you for a terrific season.
Please address who the question is for.

Q. Kevin, what was the problem do you think early in the game with the way they were moving the ball? How do you think this whole game got away from you?
KEVIN MITCHELL: I think we did well after the defense settled down. Anybody that's followed our team especially as a defense, we always -- you know, the first couple drives, you know, take awhile for us to settle down. After that we do it. But like the coach said, those penalties hurt us, and it's unfortunate, but we didn't have good field position to work with, and on top of that, we were out there a little too long.
Kind of a whole team effort. As a senior, end on a good note. Unfortunately we didn't get the win, but that's life.

Q. Juice, did you feel -- back here. Do you feel like the momentum was shifting your way after that long touchdown from Rashard and quickly shifted right back after the turnover?
KEVIN MITCHELL: Actually, I really did. My man had a heck of a year. Hard runner and only wish him nothing but the best, and I believe it did shift. Coach always talks about momentum and it's up and down, up and down in the college game, and you got to know when to take advantage of things, and unfortunately we didn't really get the job done.

Q. Kevin, talk about even losing this way, how much does that take the edge off of you guys, what you've done here and what you accomplished this season?
KEVIN MITCHELL: From the standpoint as a team, to me that's all that matters, I don't think it really did. I mean, we had a heck of a year, and I mean the seniors know as well as -- I've been around here five years. To win only eight games, we gave it all for this program, and that why it's so hard to lose because if you're a competitor, you don't want to lose, you know. But when you look at the overall picture, and I'm proud of just being out here. I'm proud of proving everybody wrong, week in, week out, because for the most part I know a lot of people said we'd only win three games.
It was up to the seniors this year, not listen to the media, not listen to the fans or whatever, and just play, and that's what we've done. And hopefully we're the catalyst, and I believe we've been the catalyst to start this program on the up and up. And, like I said, it was just tough. But hey, we were in the Rose Bowl. I don't think too many people out there can say that.
But you know what? We played tremendous all year long. We didn't give up, especially on defense and offensively. It didn't go our way. That's how life is. You learn a lot about life through playing college football.

Q. Kevin, have you ever played a game where offensively and defensively you couldn't catch a break every time the ball bounced their way?
KEVIN MITCHELL: Actually yes, four years ago. There's been a lot of times. I remember thinking about last year, other win/loss margin was seven points. You add up all that, that's a Bowl game right there.
You know, that's what happens. You just got to fight back, fight back and never give up. I believe as a team we didn't give up. We continued to play hard. Got some foolish penalties, and that's all about frustration, but at the same time we played hard and especially as a defense. I can't be prouder of my guys I played with.
We continue to fight, and that's what you got to do.

Q. Kevin, is it frustrating as a defense when the offense has the turnovers? You're out there too long, like you said, or bad field position, does it get frustrating?
KEVIN MITCHELL: It always is kind of like, man, but at the same time, that's -- your a defensive player, and our whole motto this year was "Put the ball down." If it's on the two, three, you go out and play. Yes, but, I mean, that's football. There's going to be a lot of up and downs. That's downs, but our whole job is to get it back to the offense.

Q. Kevin, after studying John David Booty on film and playing against him, what makes him unique from the other quarterbacks you've played against this season?
KEVIN MITCHELL: I think he's able to really work the offense. I mean, as you can see, a West Coast offense is 50/50. At the same time, they work the full back involved, the tightend involved, the receivers involved. What he did well was he checked down when he needed to check down and went over the top when he needing to go over the top.
For the most part, I think we did a decent job of containing him in terms of, you know, the deep ball. To be honest, they had to work for what they got. Unfortunately, like I said earlier, the ball didn't bounce our way, especially with the one when we had the momentum and we thought it was a forward pass. But at the same time, you can't give up. You still have to fight, and I think that's what we did.

Q. Rashard, we didn't forget you. Talk about that momentum swing a little bit. You made that big touchdown run, then you catch that little pass and take it down about their 23. Just talk about, did you have a feeling that you guys were going to get it going there and how deflating was it for you when the turnovers started happening?
RASHARD MENDENHALL: You know, college football, it's all about momentum and swings, and during the course of a game, it's going to be like a rollercoaster, going up and down as far as momentum swings. You get plays like that, it does bring momentum your way. We have to capitalize when you have a chance. You got to capitalize and keep the momentum in your direction.

Q. Rashard, what does it feel like if this is likely your last college football game?
RASHARD MENDENHALL: I'm still not sure. There's a lot of things I have to assess. I still have to get things back from the NFL and still a lot of thought going into it. It was nice to have the season over and get some time to sit down and think about it.

Q. Rashard, talk about the USC defense, the yards were tough to come by the first half, and then also talk about your long touchdown run in the third quarter.
RASHARD MENDENHALL: USC has a great defense. They wouldn't be here if they wasn't towards the top of the nation and -- in rushing defense and all categories of defense. They're pretty sound defensively, and they've got the athletes to execute it. Getting yards was tough by them.
I feel by us pounding away at them in the second half, we come fired up. We knew we were still in this game and still play in game. The line did a great job. BG had a block down field and I was able to take it.

Q. This is for both players. Why do you think this isn't a one-year thing, that this will be the norm for Illinois going forward?
RASHARD MENDENHALL: I say somebody that's following us seen two years ago how the games were and last year, the 7 point loss margin. We may have the same record, but we were miles ahead as a team. It wasn't an accident we come this year and win nine games. We feel like since Coach Zook has been here, we're getting better and better as a team. I don't see anything else happening but us getting better.

Q. Rashard, make a comment about the Fighting Illini fan base that was up there. You had a sea of orange who cheered from beginning to end.
RASHARD MENDENHALL: You know, it's not just our team. It's our fans's team, the university, and there's a lot of proud people in the stands. We give them the utmost respect for them coming out here and staying with us even towards late in the game, just being there with us. And a lot of our season, a lot has to do with them. We thank them for that. It's a blessing to have them out there.

Q. This is for both you guys. Did this game kind of remind you guys of last year's games maybe, where a couple of bad breaks turns the whole game around and the offensive struggles and everything?
KEVIN MITCHELL: In terms of turnovers, maybe a little bit, but at the same time, our whole attitude about the whole game is different. I mean, anytime we go down -- say they make a turnover as a defense, we know we can stop whoever and as the offense -- or offensively they know we mess up sometimes.
I think the whole overall mentality is different. I mean, when we went down by 18 or whatever it was, in the back of our heads, we could still come back and play, you know. And I mean, we're competitors. I just got to always thank the Lord for giving me the strength to continue to fight. And as a whole, I think I'll continue to do so.
GINA CHAPPIN: Final two questions on the right, please.

Q. For Kevin, this is practically USC's home away from home, they're the more experienced team. Do you think they had a comfort level that maybe was tough for you guys to overcome?
KEVIN MITCHELL: The coach did a good job to let us know we might be in their backyard, but going back to what we're talking about with the fan support, it was a sea of orange. It was great to see them there. It's always comforting to see your fans right behind you 110 percent, especially in the 4th quarter. There was times when I always relate back to two, three years. I mean, anytime we went down, all of a sudden everybody ran, you know.
But to see the crowd really stay into it, and it was amazing to see, and like I said, the coaches did a good job ever letting us know we would have support there. That's one of the reasons why we're always able to fight.
GINA CHAPPIN: Final question on the left.

Q. As far as USC and Ohio State, you've played both of them. Your opinion, which one would win on a neutral field?

Q. Yes, thank you.
RASHARD MENDENHALL: You know, that's a question I feel like I couldn't really answer. Games aren't played on paper. Teams match up differently against each other. They're both great teams. We really couldn't answer. That's something you're going to have to go out there and see.
KEVIN MITCHELL: I think the difference, though, in between games is, I mean, we're able to make turnovers when we needed to, and today we didn't get it done. We made some turnovers -- or we had some turnovers, excuse me, and that's how football is, you know.
Unfortunately, you guys -- everybody didn't see our best and be talking about, "Oh, Illinois shouldn't be there." But, at the same time, everybody can talk, say what they want, but we'll be back, they'll be back.
GINA CHAPPIN: Guys, thanks again for you time and congratulations on a good season.

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