No. 24 Mississippi State faces Illinois with heavy hearts
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Players and staff at Mississippi State thought they knew what Mike Leach would want them to do after the Bulldogs coach died Dec. 12 due to complications from a heart disease: playing in the ReliaQuest Bowl against Illinois.
“It’s been expressed and they understand we’re doing exactly what Coach Leach wants us to do,” said Zach Arnett, who was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach three days after the death.
“And that’s to finish this season, to stay focused on the game, to work and to prepare,” added Arnett. “There’s no better way for us to honor him and show our respect for him and his family than to go out and play a full game and compete as he expects.”
Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers is among a group of team leaders who took on additional roles for the 24th-ranked Bulldogs (8-4, No. 22 CFP) ahead of the game Monday with Illinois (8-4).
“We have some great guys in our program,” Arnett said. “These guys probably had a bigger influence on our dressing room, our approach and our resilience than myself or any coach.”
Rogers, who completed 386 of 566 passes for 3,713 yards and 34 touchdowns, faces an Illinois defense that has allowed less than 10 points in six games this season.
Illinois lost all four games by eight points or less, including a 19-17 loss to Michigan. It’s only his third game since beating UCLA 20-14 in the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
“We have this thing going on, right?” said Illinois coach Bret Bielema. “It’s starting to go, right? We just have to make sure we keep putting the right fuel in the tank. Keep doing health checks and maintenance on our ride as we ride.
Illinois will be without running back Chase Brown. The nation’s second-best regular-season rusher (1,643 yards) has decided to enter the NFL Draft and will not participate in the game.
Illinois quarterback Tommy DeVito completed 69.9 percent 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 a bowling streak for 13 straight years, although none have been like this before.
“A bowling game is a reward for their year of hard work and success this season,” Arnett said. “They certainly deserve this opportunity.”
Bielema’s wife, Jen, is a native of Tampa and was born at St. Joseph’s Hospital, located less than two miles from the site of the game. She attended the University of South Florida in Tampa.
“I come home once in a while and she still has one of those tattered sweatshirts,” Bielema said. “So going to Tampa and around a lot of his family and friends is going to be very, very important this time of year for us personally.”
Illinois’ OL Alex Palczewski is set to make his 65th career start in the game, which would tie Appalachian State WR Thomas Hennigan (2017-21) for the most in NCAA history. He would join Moe Gardner (1989-90) as the only Illinois players to captain in two bowl games.
Illinois: Opens next season at home against Toledo on September 2
Mississippi State: Hosts Southeast Louisiana on September 2.
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