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January 2, 2008PASADENA - By the third time, Rey Maualuga didn't even need to tackle him. USC's junior middle linebacker just slapped at Juice Williams, from behind a blocker, and the Illini quarterback went down.
The Rose Bowl had not even reached its second half, and Maualuga already had a career-high three sacks. He also set up USC's second touchdown, with a first-quarter interception. Fellow linebacker Brian Cushing tipped the pass, Maualuga grabbed the deflection, and he returned it 19 yards. On the next play, Garrett Green found Desmond Reed wide open on a trick play, for a 34-yard score.
Ask Maualuga, and his performance was no surprise. Prior to USC's 49-17 victory against Illinois, he said he sat in the locker room thinking about the Rose Bowl's defensive MVP award.
"I actually told myself, 'I'm going to get an interception,'" Maualuga said. He conceded: "I always do that, every game. But it never happens. In this game, it obviously worked out for me, and here I am."
In the midst of his second round of interviews, a team assistant handed Maualuga a small box from Tiffany & Co. He stopped - mid-answer to a reporter's question - and asked, "What is that?"
It was his award for defensive player of the game. He shrugged and picked up where he had left off in the interview.
Maualuga raised his career sack total by 50 percent, after recording three in his freshman and sophomore years combined, and three in the 2007 regular season. The interception was the third of his career.
"The guy's just a freak," fellow junior linebacker Kaluka Maiava said. "For somebody to be that big, to be all over the field, run that fast - it's just amazing."
That's why some people assumed Maualuga would enter the NFL draft after the season. But, several weeks ago, he said he would remain at USC for his senior year. He affirmed that promise Tuesday.
"This game has no factor in my decision making," he said. "The league's not going to go away. I'm having the greatest time of my life here. I'm going to come back and do it again next year and hopefully get a national championship."
Maualuga credited his teammates for helping him put forth the best performance of his career. For his first sack, he ran through a gaping hole at the line of scrimmage, courtesy of defensive tackles Fili Moala and Sedrick Ellis. On the interception, he found the playcall had placed in perfect position to haul in the pass.
Still, few Trojans have the capability to slam Williams down the way Maualuga did on that sack. And, as USC has shown this season, there are easier tasks than getting into position to intercept a ball.
"He took advantage of some of the calls that were made, and he made the plays when the opportunity arose," defensive coordinator Nick Holt said. "He was very resourceful and came up with some big plays for us."
Said linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr., "He worked in practice really hard, did a really good job in school, and he deserved what happened today."
Scouts Inc. rates Maualuga as the No. 16 prospect among draft-eligible players. Still, many have contested that he has not shown a mastery of the game to match his talents.
It appears he will have another year to put it all together. The Rose Bowl was a start.
"I never had a more complete, more special game than this," Maualuga said. "Hopefully there's a lot more to come."
Jonathan Kay can be reached at Jon@USCFootball.com