Mississippi State's ReliaQuest Bowl Win One for the Pirate
By Joey Johnston
TAMPA - Somewhere in the afterlife, probably aboard a lonely seafaring vessel, a maroon-clad pirate put away a cowbell to swing his sword, then raise a goblet in triumph.
There's no doubt. Mike Leach would have appreciated the ReliaQuest Bowl's unforgettable finishing kick on Monday afternoon.
The Mississippi State Bulldogs, playing in honor of their fallen head coach, awoke from their offensive slumber with a fourth-quarter rally to down the Illinois Fighting Illini 19-10 before a sun-splashed crowd of 35,797 fans at Raymond James Stadium.
It was a nine-play, 70-yard drive - highlighted by Simeon Price's 28-yard run on third-and-8 down to the Illinois 2-yard line - that set up Massimo Biscardi's tie-breaking 27-yard field goal with seven seconds remaining.
The SEC's Bulldogs (9-4) had tied the game on the fourth quarter's first play, an 8-yard pass from quarterback Will Rogers to wide receiver Justin Robinson on a toe-tapping masterpiece in the back of the end zone that was upheld by replay.
The game's final score was skewed on the last play, when the Big Ten Conference's Illinois (8-5) attempted its "Desperado'' strategy, a 31-yard pass from quarterback Tommy DeVito to wide receiver Casey Washington that resulted in five dizzying laterals. The last one, a bouncer, was scooped up by Mississippi State's Marcus Banks and returned for a walk-off touchdown.
"It's about the players - the players play the game - and the assistant coaches, who did everything we asked them the last few weeks,'' said Bulldogs coach Zach Arnett, the defensive coordinator who was elevated to the top job after the Dec. 12 death of Leach. "I'm just happy we came together and get to celebrate a moment like this.''
What would Leach have thought?
"I think he'd be pretty mad at me for some of the bad clock management,'' Arnett said with a smile before adding, "I know there's a cowbell ringing down from heaven for them.''
The presence of the free-wheeling Leach was undeniable in Monday's pregame festivities.
On the pirate ship in the north end zone, there was a portrait of Leach, along with a flower arrangement. Near the 20-yard line, there was a "Mike'' logo (with the 'I' taking the shape of a cowbell). The Mississippi State band spelled out "LEACH'' in a pregame formation to prompt a moment of silence. On the left side of the Bulldogs' helmets, a specially designed pirate-flag logo was displayed (along with the ML initials).
On the game's first play, Mississippi State took the field without a quarterback and lined up with the center by himself and everyone else split to the left. The Bulldogs intentionally drew a delay of game penalty (which was declined by Illinois).
Once the game got going, it seemed to suit the style of the defensive-minded Illini.
DeVito put Illinois up 7-0 on a 2-yard run in the second quarter before the Bulldogs answers with Biscardi's 38-yard field goal just before halftime. In the third quarter, it was Illinois place-kicker Caleb Griffin on a 52-yard field goal (the second-longest in the bowl's history) and the Illini led 10-3.
Through three quarters, Illinois had upheld its reputation as one of the nation's best defensive units. Mississippi State had been limited to just 261 yards and a field goal. In the first half, for the only time all season, Rogers was intercepted on back-to-back drives (Illinois defensive backs Kendall Smith and Matthew Bailey got the picks, hoisting the Illini's nation-leading interception total to 24).
"I don't think Coach Leach would've been too happy with me at halftime,'' Rogers said. "That actually crossed my mind. What would Coach Leach be thinking right now? I think he would've said, 'Play the next play. Keep swinging your sword.' ''
The Bulldogs did just that.
Illinois, which held an opponent without a touchdown through the first three quarters for the fifth time this season, had forced a fourth down on the third quarter's final play. It was fourth-and-2 from the 8-yard line. Had Mississippi
State chosen the safe route, a successful field goal would've cut the Illinois lead to 10-6.
Not on your life.
Rogers delivered a bullet to Robinson, the game's Most Valuable Player (seven catches, 81 yards), and it was tied.
The fourth quarter was a battle of wills. Both teams had two full possessions. DeVito (23 of 34 for 253 yards) had moderate success moving the ball, but both drives ended on a punt. Mississippi State reached the Illinois 39 on its first fourth-quarter chance but a fumble and two incompletions quickly ended a promising march.
It was left for the Bulldogs with 1:50 to play, just when it looked like the bowl's fifth-ever overtime seemed likely. Rogers hit on two pass attempts - 19 yards to Lideatrick Griffin and 11 to Jaden Walley - and Price raced for 13.
On third-and-8 from the Illinois 30, already within range for Biscardi to win it, Price burst up the middle on a draw and found nothing but green grass. He cut upfield and veered left, nearly scoring before being dragged down by Smith.
"I got a little emotional after the big run,'' Price said. "I knew Coach Leach would be proud of the team and what we did in this game, how we executed and how it came down the wire. I know he's out there smiling right now.''
Rogers shuffled in the backfield on a kneel-down to center the ball for Biscardi, who weathered a pair of Illinois time outs to ice the kicker. Biscardi instead had ice water in his veins.
"I don't think we played our best,'' Biscardi said. "But at the end of the day, we won. We had a great week down here in Tampa and we took care of business when we needed to. That's what a successful bowl trip is all about.''
It was the 13th consecutive bowl appearance for Mississippi State, which registered only its second bowl victory against a Big Ten team (also beating Michigan 52-14 in the 2011 Gator Bowl). The memorable finish was enhanced by the lack of belief in the Bulldogs when the season began (Mississippi State was picked for sixth in the seven-team SEC West).
For Illinois, making its first bowl appearance since 2019, it was a disappointing finish after starting the season at 7-1 and spending five weeks in the Associated Press top 25 rankings. For Illini coach Bret Bielema, the ReliaQuest Bowl was a just reward - and the result was a reminder that the program's work has only begun.
"I told our guys to think about where they wanted to be - being a good football team and winning games or sacrificing to get to a level of championship expectations on a yearly basis,'' Bielema said. "By no means am I going to settle for an eight-win season. I think if we're disappointed in an eight-win season, we've made a step in the right direction.''
Illinois wants to build upon the ReliaQuest Bowl. So does Mississippi State, which can relish an Egg Bowl victory against rival Ole Miss and now a postseason triumph. For both teams, Monday's result was more about the future, not the past.
But looking back at the way it unfolded in true swashbuckling fashion, with Mississippi State backed to the edge of the gang plank before drawing its sword and claiming its destiny, there was only one conclusion as the sun set on another bowl-game showcase for the Tampa Bay area.
This one was for the Pirate