TAMPA – It was a contest between two programs hoping to bring their 2022 seasons to a positive end, but at the same time, it was a tribute to a coach who meant a lot to all of college football.
Mike Leach, the leader of the Mississippi State program who died in December of a heart attack, was remembered by the Bulldogs along with their opponent, Illinois, before, during, and after the ReliaQuest Bowl on Monday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
Both Mississippi State and the Illini wore special stickers in tribute to the former head coach, who had just completed his third season with the Bulldogs before his death.
A picture of Leach and flowers was placed on the pirate ship located at one end of Raymond James Stadium for the ReliaQuest Bowl. The former coach would often talk about his love for pirates and used the phrase “Swing Your Sword” with players during a number of stops in his career.
A logo created in honor of Leach was also displayed on the field.
At the end of the day, however, it was the Bulldogs that would pay the greatest tribute to their coach over the course of 60 minutes – and especially in the final seconds.
Locked in a defensive battle all afternoon, Mississippi State running back Simeon Price delivered the play of the game with 20 seconds remaining. On 3rd-and-8 at the Illinois 30-yard line, the running back broke through the Illini defense for a 28-yard gain.
That set up Massimo Biscardi’s game-winning 27-yard field goal that put the Bulldogs ahead to stay. A fumble recovery touchdown from Mississippi State’s Marcus Banks on Illinois’ desperation final play on offense finished off the 19-10 win.
With the victory, the Bulldogs finished the 2022 season with a 9-4 record and a spot in the final Top 25 poll.
For the Illini, it’s a bitter end to what was a season of improvement as they won their most games and appeared in their first January bowl since the 2007 campaign.
Bret Bielema’s team got the lead on a quarterback sneak touchdown by Tommy DeVito in the second quarter and improved it on a Caleb Griffin 52-yard field goal in the third.
But Mississippi State saved their best for the fourth quarter, tying the game on a fourth down touchdown reception by Justin Robinson to start before their heroics in the final minute in tribute to their late coach.