College Football

After Wild Finish, Mississippi State downs Illinois, wins ReliaQuest Bowl

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Mississippi State wide receiver Lideatrick Griffin braces for impact as Illinois defensive back Xavier Scott attempts to tackle him during Monday’s ReliaQuest Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida for one day could have been renamed Mike Leach Stadium after the long-time Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach who passed away Dec. 12, 2022 at age 61 from heart issues. It was fitting, perhaps, that the ReliaQuest Bowl was held at the home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday, considering Leach’s long-time affinity for pirates, for a game featuring his Mississippi State Bulldogs against the Illinois Fighting Illini.

The Bulldogs had a special pirate-themed decal made in Leach’s memory that adorned the left side of each player’s helmet. Both teams agreed before the game to hold a special moment of silence in Leach’s memory. The game began with Mississippi State on 1st-and-10 from their 25-yard line. Instead of running a play, the Bulldogs let the play clock expire taking a delay of game penalty. Illinois, per the agreement, declined it. Then the moment of silence in Leach’s honor was held and the game began in front of 35,797.

However, neither team could get rhythm and were forced to punt after three-and-outs on each team’s respective first possession.

The Bulldogs took the field for their second possession on their own 12-yard line. Quarterback Will Rogers tossed a six-yard completion to receiver Austin Williams, and then a five-yard pass to receiver Lideatrick Griffin, followed by a 12-yarder to Justin Robinson at the Mississippi State 35-yard line. After two incompletions, punter George Georgopoulos punted to the Illini 20-yard line with 9:01 remaining in the first quarter to complete a seven play, 28-yard drive.

On the first play from scrimmage on Illinois second possession, quarterback Tommy DeVito handed off to running back Reggie Love III who rushed left for no gain. On the next play, DeVito hit receiver Tip Reiman for an eight-yard reception. Mississippi State safety Jalen Green was hit with a 15-yard face mask penalty, which put the ball on the Illinois 43-yard line. Illini receiver Isaiah Williams caught a 21-yard pass to advance into Bulldog territory at the 34-yard line. A false start penalty by left tackle Julian Pearl and a sack by Bulldog defensive tackle Randy Charlton halted the Illini progress, forcing kicker Caleb Griffin to attempt a 52-yard field goal. Griffin missed the field goal which went wide to the right. Despite a 10-play 46 yard drive, the game was still scoreless with 3:52 remaining in the first quarter.

The teams combined for five incomplete passes and two punts on the next two possessions in the next two minutes.

Mississippi State running back Jo’quavious Marks tries to jump over Illinois linebacker Tarique Barnes during Monday’s ReliaQuest Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

Mississippi State got the ball back at their 40-yard line with 2:02 left in the quarter and seemed to hit their stride. Lideatrick Griffin caught a four-yard reception. Receiver Rufus Harvey hauled down a 17-yard pass. Austin Williams caught passes of 16-yards and 6-yards respectively. Harvey caught a six-yard pass to make it 1st-and-goal at the 7-yard line. Rogers intended a pass for Griffin but was picked off by defensive back Matthew Bailey at the goal line and returned it to the Illinois 17-yard. The turnover occurred with 13:07 left in the half.

After a rush that resulted in a two-yard loss for Love, DeVito hit Isaiah Williams for a 41-yard reception to move the sticks to the Mississippi State 38. DeVito hit receiver Casey Washington for a 13-yard catch on the next play, followed by a 9-yard pass to Reiman at the MSU 16. On 2nd-and-goal, DeVito ran a quarterback keeper for two-yards for the touchdown. Caleb Griffin’s extra point was good making the score 7-0 in favor of Illinois with 2:49 left in the half.

Mississippi State running back Jo’quavious Marks caught a five-yard pass from Will Rogers to begin the Bulldogs final drive of the half. Justin Robinson then caught a pass for 25-yards. After Marks ran up the middle for five yards, wide receiver Jaden Walley threw a 13-yard pass to quarterback Will Rogers on a trick play for a first down. After picking up seven yards on the next three plays, the Bulldogs settled for a 38-yard field goal by Massimo Biscardi to make the score 7-3 in favor of Illinois at the half.

Both teams went three-and-out on their first possession to begin the second half. When Illinois got the ball back for their second possession, they hit the ground running. Love ran for 15 yards and then caught a seven-yard reception, followed by a rush up the middle by running back Josh McCray for four yards to bring the ball close to midfield. Tight end Michael Marchese caught a pass for seven yards to move into Mississippi State territory. McCray ran for five yards and Washington hauled in an 11-yard reception at the MSU 30. Then the drive stalled. An incomplete pass, then a loss of two-yards on a short pass to Isaiah Williams, which was followed by a Jaden Crumedy sack on DeVito brought another long field goal attempt by Caleb Griffin. This time he booted a 52-yarder through the uprights for the longest field goal in Illinois Bowl game history. In 11 plays covering 45 yards over 5:13, the Illini extended their lead to 10-3 with 6:57 remaining in the third quarter.

The Bulldogs took their time with their next possession. After a false start by Justin Robinson to move them back by five yards, he redeemed himself on the next play – a 22-yard strike to their 42-yard line. Lideatrick Griffin hauled in a 12-yard reception in Illinois territory but on the next play, right tackle Albert Reese IV was called for a false start. Robinson and Walley hauled in a pair of receptions for eight yards each, and Rogers scrambled up the middle for a three-yard gain when the third quarter ended.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, 4th-and-2 from the Illinois 8-yard line, Rogers hit Justin Robinson in the back of the end zone for the touchdown. Biscardi’s extra point tied the game 10-10 with 14:49 left in the game.

Short yardage rushes, penalties, sacks and incomplete passes was the story of the next Fighting Illini possession. They ran 11 plays, advanced the ball 32 yards over 6:40, and had to settle for a Hugh Robertson punt to the MSU 8-yard line.

Mississippi State wide receiver Rufus Harvey attempts to knock the ball out of the hands of Illinois defensive back Kendall Smith during Monday’s ReliaQuest Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

The Bulldogs threw to Walley for seven yards, and then Price ran up the middle for 14, Marks ran on two consecutive plays for 22 yards, and Harvey hauled in a 10-yard reception. It didn’t take long for the Bulldogs to get into Illini territory. Like other possessions during the game, things fell apart rapidly. A bad snap from center resulted in a fumble which Will Rogers recovered at the 41 yard line. After two incomplete passes, including one that was tipped at the line of scrimmage, Mississippi State punted again.

Love rushed to the right for six yards to the Illinois 26 on the first play of Illinois next drive. Washington’s 7-yard reception brought the ball to the 33. Bulldogs linebacker Jett Johnson came up with the big play and sacked DeVito for a 10-yard loss. It was now 2nd-and-20 at the Illinois 23 and DeVito fired a 14-yard pass to Isaiah Williams to recover the loss from the previous play. However, he overthrew Williams on the next play and Robertson punted it back to the Bulldogs with 1:50 left on the clock and a tie score.

Rogers and the Bulldogs wasted no time advancing the ball downfield. Lideatrick Griffin hauled in a 19-yard reception. Price gained five yards on a rush up the middle. Walley pulled in a catch for another 10 yards. Price rushed twice for 15 yards before busting one open up the middle for 28 yards to advance to the Illinois two-yard line. In order to better line up a field goal attempt, Rogers kneeled down in the middle of the field for a seven-yard loss. Biscardi kicked a 27-yard field goal through the uprights giving Mississippi State a 13-10 lead with just four seconds left.

What happened next is one of the most remarkable plays ever to happen in college football, and Bulldogs players and fans might even think it was the spirit of Mike Leach that was behind it.

On the ensuing kickoff, Tip Reiman caught the ball at the Illinois 26 and returned it three yards. The Fighting Illini would have only one play to march 71-yards for a touchdown in order to win since with three seconds, there wasn’t enough time to advance the ball into field goal range and make the kick.

Mississippi State cornerback Marcus Banks runs back a 60-yard fumble return for a touchdown on the last play of the 2022 ReliaQuest Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. on Monday. Banks touchdown gave the Bulldogs a 19-10 victory over the Fighting Illini. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

DeVito took the snap from center and passed right to Casey Washington at the Illinois 43-yard line. Washington lateralled to Isaiah Williams at the Illinois 42, who then ran to the Mississippi State 32. Williams lateralled to Reiman at the MSU 38, who then tipped it back to Washington at the MSU 40. Washington was nearly tackled at the 37-yard line but lateralled it to DeVito at the 39. DeVito, in a lateral, then threw it across the width of the field to Williams who was waiting at the 35, but the ball hit the turf and was ruled a fumble. It was scooped up by Mississippi State cornerback Marcus Banks at the MSU 40. Banks returned the fumble 60 yards for a game ending touchdown. Mississippi State won the game 19-10 with the last two scores coming in the final nine seconds of the game.

Will Rogers went 29-for-44 with 261 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and a quarterback rating of 114.1 to lead the Bulldogs. Jaden Walley threw one pass for 13 yards. Simeon Price ran seven times for 68 yards, while Jo’quavious Marks added 50 yards on 10 carries. The Bulldogs ran for 116 yards on the ground and 274 in the air. Justin Robinson led Mississippi State in receiving with seven receptions for 81 yards; Lideatrick Griffin caught five passes for 53 yards; and Walley pulled down five receptions for 43 yards. Justin Robinson was named the game’s most valuable player.

Illinois quarterback Tommy DeVito was 23-for-34 with 193 yards, one rushing touchdown and a passer rating of 125.0. Reggie Love III rushed 11 times for 40 yards; Josh McCray picked up 17 yards on seven carries; but DeVito was sacked seven times for a loss of 35 yards. Isaiah Williams caught nine passes for 114 yards and Casey Washington hauled in eight passes for 74 yards to lead the Illini, who finished with 193 yards passing and only 22 positive yards rushing.

“I think we did exactly what has been preached for the last three years in this program by Coach Leach,” said Mississippi State head coach Zach Arnett, who coached his first ever game after being promoted following Leach’s sudden passing. It’s an emotional game obviously. We had a lot to play for today. The thing I don’t want to get lost in this is we had a chance to get to nine wins, which I believe … is only the tenth time in school history. So these players have left a legacy on Mississippi State football. I’m incredibly proud of their efforts and their success this season, and it’s a perfect springboard into the off-season.”

Mississippi State wide receiver Justin Robinson was named most valuable player of the 2022 ReliaQuest Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. on Monday. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

“Obviously this was a tough one today. This was a defensive battle that probably came down to who had the ball last, who was able to execute. Unfortunately, we came up short,” said Fighting Illini head coach Bret Bielema. “Not taking anything at all away from Mississippi State. They played a great game and played to their strengths and came through in the end.”

Illini wide receiver Isaiah Williams said, “They wanted it more than us. Their guys just came with juice I feel like they didn’t really do too much different. We really hurt ourselves on a lot of things too, like plays we gotta capitalize, missed blocks, penalties, holding, stuff like that I feel like that hurt us in the second half it really wasn’t based on what they did but they did a great job.”

For Mississippi State, it was about Coach Leach.

“You know my first half wasn’t my best half. We came out there in the second half and I was standing there on the sideline just having one of those moments,” said quarterback Will Rogers. “I don’t know why I thought about it but [I thought] ‘what would Coach tell me right now?’ He would probably tell me to just play the next play, keep doing your job and play the next play… We had a little better second half [and] were able to put some drives together to go win a game.”

When asked about what Leach would have told him if he missed the game-winning kick, Massimo Biscardi said, “He would probably just say ‘I don’t understand, cause it’s not that hard. I would just go out there and kick it myself.’ Leach did say that before that he could be out there in the field goal competition.”

Linebacker Jett Johnson summed up what Leach would do if he were in attendance at the game. “He would be really happy. He would be shocked that Will Rogers called pass, and he would be swinging the sword for sure. You know, it’s a great win for coach Leach and a great start to the Arnett era,” he said.

Mississippi State was ranked No. 22 in the nation and finished with a 9-4 record. New head coach Zach Arnett has a record of one win and zero losses. Bret Bielema’s Illinois team fell to 8-5 on the year.

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