In the first college football game of 2023, the Mississippi State Bulldogs defeated the Illinois Fighting Illini in the ReliaQuest Bowl 19-10. It was an emotional game for the Bulldogs, as the team was looking to honor Mike Leach with a win. It was not pretty offensively with both teams struggling for most of the afternoon. With that said, when the Mississippi State offense had the ball late they made the clutch plays to win the game. Plus, in Mike Leach fashion the game ended with a wild play. For new head coach Zach Arnett, it was his first win and the Bulldogs’ ninth of the season. The Fighting Illini end the season at 8-5.
Mississippi State wins the 2023 ReliaQuest Bowl
Struggling to score
Both offenses had issues moving the ball and putting up any points in the first half. The first points did not come until 2:49 left in the first half when Illinois reached the endzone. Quarterback Tommy Devito an in a two-yard touchdown to cap off a 10-play, 77-yard drive that took up 4:45 off the clock. The big play in the drive was a 41-yard pass to Isaiah Williams to get Illinois to the Mississippi State 38. The two would connect again five plays later for eight yards. That play set the Fighting Illini at the Bulldogs’ eight.
Mississippi State would respond on the next drive going 55 yards in eight plays. The Bulldogs would not be able to score a touchdown and would settle for a Massimo Biscardi 38-yard field goal. On the second play of the drive, Will Rogers would find Justin Robinson for 25 yards to get to the Fighting Illini 45. Robinson was the leading receiver for the Bulldogs with seven receptions and 81 yards. He would find the endzone in the second half.
Rogers had a rough first half with two interceptions, with one coming in the red zone when the Bulldogs were looking to add points. The first interception was inside the ten at the Illinois seven when Rogers had his pass picked off by Matthew Bailey who returned for 17 yards. On the next possession for the Bulldogs, Rogers threw up a desperation pass that was picked off by Kendall Smith. The first half would end with Illinois up 7-3.
Second Half the Same
The struggles would continue for both teams in the second half. The Illinois offense was hampered all game by not having a running game without Chase Brown. His replacement Reggie Love III rushed for 53 yards, but the team as a whole had just 35. Devito played well at quarterback going 23 for 34 with 253 yards, but his seven sacks stalled the offense.
Both teams exchanged punts to start the third quarter before Illinois would go up 10-3 from a 52-yard field goal by Caleb Griffin with 6:57 left in the period. Like in the first half, Mississippi State would respond but this time with a touchdown. The Bulldogs scored when Rogers connected with Robinson in the back of the endzone with 14:54 remaining in the game. The drive went 13 plays for 75 yards but the scoring play came on a fourth and two play from the Fighting Illini eight. Robinson would win the ReliaQuest MVP from his performance on Monday.
On the next drive for Illinois, they would move the ball into Bulldog territory to the 48 but did not make it any further. Devito was sacked by De’ Monte Russell for a loss of two yards on first and ten. Russell was one of seven Bulldogs who had sacks in the game. The next two plays would result in incompletions for Devito, and Illinois was forced to punt. The two teams exchanged punts on the next three drives before the Mississippi State offense took control.
Mississippi State winning plays
Mississippi State got the ball back with 1:47 left in the game at their own 21-yard line. The way the offenses were not performing, overtime was looming. Rogers and company had other ideas though. The quarterback found Lideatrick Griffin for 19 yards on the first play to get the Bulldogs to the 40. After a Simeon Price five-yard run, Rogers connected with Jaden Whaley for ten yards. Price then rushed for 13 yards to get them to the Illinois 30. With the Bulldogs just trying to set up a field goal to win, Price broke through for a 28-yard run to get them to the two-yard line.
That run would result in Biscardi kicking a 27-yard field goal with four seconds left to go up 13-10. It was a great drive by the offense led by Rogers. He did not turn the ball over in the second half and finished the game with 261 yards on 29 of 44 passing. The ground game had some success on the day with 116 yards. Price led the way with 68 yards.
After the kick-off, Illinois went with the lateral play at their own 29. Devito passed to Casey Washington who would lateral the ball to Williams. At that point, the play made it inside Bulldogs’ territory, and after more laterals, the ball made it back to Devito. He would then attempt another lateral that eventually was picked up by Mississippi State. Marcus Banks then took the ball 60 yards for a touchdown to end the game at 19-10.
Honoring Mike Leach
The win was the biggest way for the Bulldogs to honor the great Mike Leach. Rogers’ emotions after the game showed what this win meant for the team. Mississippi State had a new decal on its helmet honoring Leach. It had a similar look to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers logo with ML inside the pirate flag. Mississippi State opened the game with a delay of the game that was declined by Illinois.