By Billy Watkins
If there was any doubt who the Mississippi State players had on their minds Monday during the ReliaQuest Bowl, senior linebacker Jett Johnson erased it late in the fourth quarter with the outcome far from settled.
After earning a sack, Johnson —the SEC’s leading tackler in the regular season — jumped to his feet, took a swordsman’s stance and jabbed three times at an invisible opponent.
Yes, the Bulldogs beat Illinois 19-10 for Mike Leach, their coach the past three seasons. The man known for his innovative offenses and love of pirates died Dec. 12 from complications of a heart problem at age 61.
Visibly emotional postgame on the field in Tampa, junior quarterback Will Rogers said: “It’s been tough. Coach and I were so close. And to lose a coach like that, to lose a friend like that … it hurts and will continue to hurt. But to come out here with this team, my brothers, I can’t say enough about this team and this university.
“I definitely wanted to win this game for Coach.”
Rogers had much to do with the Bulldogs’ comeback victory. He completed 29 of 44 passes for 261 yards and a touchdown. He threw two interceptions, but no one will remember those after Rogers’ superb fourth-quarter.
Trailing 10-3 and facing fourth-and-goal at the Illinois 8-yard line, Rogers hit Justin Robinson in the back of the end zone for a touchdown. Robinson performed a marvelous foot tap to stay in bounds.
Tied 10-10 with 1:50 to play, Rogers led his team on a nine-play, game-winning drive. Rogers kick-started it with a 19-yard strike to Lideatrick Griffin and later hit Jaden Walley for 10 more.
Another hero on that drive was Simeon Price, a little-used sophomore running back during the regular season. His best game had been against Alabama — eight carries for 36 yards.
But against Illinois, Price led the Bulldogs with 68 yards on seven carries, including a 28-yard burst to the 2-yard line with 12 seconds left.
That set up Massimo Biscardi’s 27-yard field goal with seven seconds remaining that put State ahead for the first time all day.
Marcus Banks returned a wayward lateral 60 yards on the game’s final play.
“Coach Leach led this program for three years and he led us today,’ said new Bulldog head coach Zach Arnett, defensive coordinator under Leach the past three years.
Asked about his players’ grit to fight back, Arnett said: “They’re Mississippi State guys. They listened to the teaching of Coach Leach over the last three years. That came in handy the last couple of weeks.
“We put our heads down and went to work. When something tragic happens, it’s best to go through it with the people you’re closest to. That’s what a football team is, a locker room is. It’s a family. It was good to be together and pour ourselves into this preparation.”
Arnett added: “I think they did exactly what’s been preached in this program by Coach Leach. A play-the-next-play mentality. Never look at the scoreboard. Just compete as hard as you can on each play. And things will take care of themselves. It turned into that kind of a game.”
Much credit goes to State’s defense, which allowed only a field goal in the second half and sacked quarterback Tommy Devito seven times. Illinois gained just 35 yards rushing on 29 carries.
Johnson had 12 tackles. Emmanuel Forbes and Decamerion Richardson made seven each.
Yes, this was Leach’s team and Leach’s victory. But Arnett deserves credit for giving Robinson more playing time. State probably wouldn’t have won the game without him.
“He’s a matchup nightmare on defense when you’re that big and strong and can run,” Arnett said of the 6-foot-4 transfer from Georgia. “It was good to see him get his opportunities today and make plays.”
His catch for the TD is highlight reel material. Rogers put it where no one else could catch it, and Robinson went up and got it.
He caught just 16 passes for 164 yards in the regular season. On Monday, Robinson grabbed seven throws for 81 yards.
Also, Price took advantage of more playing time due to Dillon Johnson entering the transfer portal.
“Simeon has always been that guy,” Arnett said. “He is about as dependable as there is. He’s a great young man. Every day he shows up with the right attitude and mindset to get better.”
This was a quality win over a team that played Michigan to the wire November 19, losing 19-17 on the road on a last-play field goal. Illinois finished 8-5. All five losses were by one touchdown or less.
The Bulldogs ended 9-4 and enjoyed their first 9-win season since 2017. They enter the off-season with a three-game winning streak.
No one except the players and coaches will ever truly know what they went through the past three weeks.
To lose their leader so suddenly … to lose a coach with such a unique personality … to attend his memorial service in the midst of bowl practices … we can only imagine. But it sure seems a tall order.
And what about Arnett, going from plotting the defensive strategy to leading a grieving team while also trying to hold the 2023 recruiting class together — which he and his coaches did — and handle head coaching duties for the first time?
Arnett admitted postgame to being “pulled in a lot of directions.”
But he nor his team ever lost sight of the fact that bowl games matter. Especially, this one.
“There is going to be a winner and a loser,” Arnett said. “That’s the mentality of this program. Whether the stadium is packed or empty, you go out and compete. Our guys take that to heart. I’m glad they left with a victory.”
Notes: Rogers will enter the ’23 season well within striking distance of becoming the SEC’s all-time leading passer. He has 10,422 career passing yards, 2,744 behind Aaron Murray’s 13,166 … This was State’s 13th consecutive bowl appearance and the 26th overall … Both teams lined up and took a moment of silence for Coach Leach on the game’s first play … Attendance was 35,797 … Arnett showed his sense of humor postgame while discussing his role on the sideline. “I signaled the defense in, but I didn’t call it. Matt Brock called it. I don’t want to take credit for something I didn’t do — unless you think the signals went in nicely.”