Mississippi State wins one for The Pirate in bowl game vs. Illinois

Published 8:23 pm Monday, January 2, 2023

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Mississippi State swung its sword one last time and won one for The Pirate.

Massimo Biscardi made a 27-yard tiebreaking field goal with four seconds left, Marcus Banks returned a fumble 60 yards for a touchdown on the game’s last play, and No. 24 Mississippi State rallied to beat Illinois 19-10 on Monday in the ReliaQuest Bowl in the Bulldogs’ first game since coach Mike Leach’s death.

“Obviously, Mike Leach has been leading this program for three years, and he was out there leading us today,” said Zach Arnett, who was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach three days after Leach’s death in December. “Emotional game, obviously.”

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Among the tributes to Leach, who died on Dec. 12 due to complications from a heart condition, was “MIKE” with a pirate logo as part of the “I” painted between the 20 and 30 on one segment of the field.

The Mississippi State band spelled out “LEACH” before a moment of silence was held prior to the game.

The Bulldogs had a pirate flag instead of the school logo on their helmets, and the decorative pirate ship in Raymond James Stadium had a picture of him attached to it. Leach’s nickname was “The Pirate.”

“It was really cool,” Mississippi State wide receiver Justin Robinson said of the special helmet logo. “It was our first time seeing it in person. Definitely ready to rep it.”

Banks’ score came on Illinois’ fifth lateral following a completed pass after the Fighting Ilini got the ball at their own 29. There was a scrum on the field as the game ended, but order was restored after a couple of minutes.

Will Rogers was 29-of-44 passing for 261 yards and one touchdown for Mississippi State (9-4, No. 22 CFP). Simeon Price had 68 rushing yards, including a key 28-yard dash on the go-ahead fourth-quarter drive.

“Football isn’t always a pretty game,” Rogers said. “I know Coach Leach would probably be a little upset at some of the decisions, but we fought hard and stayed together as a team. He was with us all the way. He’s been with me all the way. I really, really miss him.”

Tommy DeVito completed 23 of 34 passes for 253 yards for Illinois (8-5).

“A defensive battle that just really, probably, came down to who had the ball last,” Illinois coach Bret Bielema said. “Who was able to execute. Unfortunately, we came up short.”

Reggie Love III rushed for 40 yards on 11 carries for Illinois. Fighting Illini running back Chase Brown, the nation’s second-leading rusher in the regular season with 1,643 yards, sat out to prepare for the NFL draft.

Illinois lost all five of its games by nine points or fewer. The school hasn’t had a nine-win season since the Rose Bowl team in 2007 went 9-4.

“This is going to be, hopefully, a spring board into bigger and better things,” Bielema said.

Mississippi State was held without a touchdown until the first play of the fourth quarter, when Rogers connected on an 8-yard throw to Robinson that tied the game at 10.

Robinson had seven receptions for 81 yards and was named the game’s MVP. Illinois’ Isaiah Williams picked up 114 yards on nine catches.

The Bulldogs averaged 32.7 points during the regular season.

Illinois, which entered allowing 12.3 points and held six opponents to fewer than 10 points, played without defensive backs Devon Witherspoon and Sydney Brown. Both opted out ahead of the NFL draft.

DeVito put Illinois up 7-0 on a 2-yard run with 2:49 left in the second quarter.

Mississippi State responded with a 38-yard field goal by Biscardi with nine seconds to go in the first half.

IIlinois went up 10-3 on a 52-yard field goal by Caleb Griffin midway through the third.

Mississippi State was limited to 50 yards on its first three possessions, while the next two ended on interceptions by Matthew Bailey and Kendall Smith.

Illinois tops the nation with 24 interceptions.
I thought it would be a gritty game.

“Really kind of played to script how I thought, we thought it would play out. I thought our defense would play well,” Bielema said. “Offensively just kind of one of those days where we were just a little bit off. A lot of good things, some positive things, just not enough to get over the end.”