TAMPA, Fla. — Mississippi State players and staff felt they knew what Mike Leach would want them to do after the Dec. 12 death of the Bulldogs coach due to complications from a heart condition: play in the ReliaQuest Bowl against Illinois.
“It has been expressed and they understand that we are doing exactly what Coach Leach would want of us,” said Zach Arnett, who was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach three days after the death. “And that is to finish this season off, to stay focused on the game, to put in the work and prepare.
“There’s no better way for us to honor him and show our respect for him and his family than to go out there and play a complete game and compete like he would expect us to.”
Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers is among a group of team leaders that have taken on additional roles for the No. 22 Bulldogs (8-4) leading up to the matchup with Illinois (8-4) at 11 a.m. CT Monday (ESPN2).
“We’ve got great guys in our program,” Arnett said. “Those guys have probably had a greater influence on our locker room and our approach and our resiliency certainly than myself or any one coach.”
Rogers, who completed 386 of 566 passes for 3,713 yards and 34 touchdowns, faces an Illinois defense that allowed fewer than 10 points in six games this season.
Illinois lost all four of its games by eight points or fewer, including a 19-17 loss to Michigan. This is just its third bowl game since beating UCLA 20-14 in the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
“We’ve got this thing going, right?” Illinois coach Bret Bielema said. “It’s beginning to go, right? We’ve just got to make sure we keep putting the right fuel in the tank. Keep getting checkups and maintenance on our ride as we get rolling.”
Illinois will be without running back Chase Brown. The nation’s No. 2 rusher in the regular season (1,643 yards) decided to enter the NFL draft and won’t play in the game.
Illinois quarterback Tommy DeVito completed 69.9% of his passes (234 of 335) for the third-best completion percentage nationally during the regular season. He threw for 2,397 yards and 15 touchdowns and had four interceptions.
Mississippi State has played in a bowl game for 13 straight seasons, although none before was like this one.
“A bowl game is a reward for their year’s worth of hard work and success this season,” Arnett said. “They certainly deserve this opportunity.”
Bielema’s wife, Jen, is from Tampa and was born at St. Joseph’s Hospital, which is less than two miles from the game site. She attended the University of South Florida in Tampa.
“I come home every once in a while and she’s got one of those ragtag sweatshirts still on,” Bielema said. “So to be going to Tampa and around a lot of her family and friends will be very, very big this time of year for us personally.”
Illinois offensive lineman Alex Palczewski is set to make his 65th career start, which would tie Appalachian State wide receiver Thomas Hennigan (2017-21) for the most in NCAA history. He will join Moe Gardner (1989-90) as the only Illinois players to be a captain in two bowl games.
Rogers vs. the Illinois defense. Rogers is the Southeastern Conference career leader in completions (1,130) and holds the school records for passing yards (10,428) and touchdown passes (81). Illinois was ranked in the top 10 in 17 major defensive categories during the regular season.
Illinois: DeVito’s role will be pivotal because of Brown’s decision not to play.
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Mississippi State: Linebacker Nathaniel Watson has a team-leading 108 tackles, including 11 for a loss. The redshirt senior also has five sacks and an interception and recorded double-digit tackles in seven games.
Illinois cornerback Devon Witherspoon and safety Sydney Brown also won’t play after deciding to enter the NFL draft. Sydney and Chase Brown are twins. … Mississippi State wide receiver Rara Thomas, who caught 44 passes for 626 yards and seven touchdowns, transferred to Georgia through the portal. … Mississippi State won the last meeting between the teams, 28-21 in 1980. Illinois took the initial game, 27-0 in 1923. … Three of Mississippi State’s losses came against then-No. 22 Kentucky, No. 6 Alabama and No. 1 Georgia. The other defeat came in Week 3 to then-unranked LSU, which ended up No. 16 in the final Associated Press regular-season poll.