While Mike Leach will no longer be patrolling the Mississippi State sidelines next week at the ReliaQuest Bowl, his footprint will be all over the Bulldogs’ offense.
And the Illinois defense will face arguably its toughest test of the season in the Bulldogs.
It’s a passing offense.
Like any good Mike Leach team, obviously it’s a passing offense.
The Bulldogs average 32.3 points per game and 314.3 yards per game led by 6-foot-2 junior quarterback Will Rogers.
Rogers has thrown for 3,713 yards on the season with 34 touchdowns and six interceptions and a 68.2% completion percentage.
MSU’s leading rusher is junior Jo’quavious Marks, who has rushed for just 532 yards on the season with a 5.2 yards per carry average and nine touchdowns. But he’s also a threat out of the backfield with 45 catches and 274 yards.
The Bulldogs second-leading rusher is junior Dillon Johnson, who has rushed for 488 yards on the season with a 5.5 yards per carry average and three touchdowns, Johnson is also a pass catcher with 48 catches for 285 yards.
So what about these receivers?
Where the Bulldogs excel is in the passing game, as they spread the ball around. Their leading receiver is Rara Thomas, a 6-foot-2 sophomore who has 44 receptions for 626 yards and seven touchdowns. Their second-leading receiver is 5-foot-10 sophomore Rufus Harvey, who has 50 receptions on the year for 472 yards and three touchdowns.
Three other receivers to watch are Caleb Ducking (44 catches for 467 yards and 8 touchdowns), Lideatrick Griffin (35 receptions for 449 yards and 4 touchdowns), and Jaden Walley (29 catches for 305 yards and 3 touchdowns). Mississippi State’s receivers are tall and long and they don’t use a tight end, but seem to throw to their running back out of the backfield.
What should the Illini expect?
It will interesting to see what new Illinois defense coordinator Aaron Henry will do as a first game calling a defense.
Rogers isn’t much of a running threat out of the backfield, and Mississippi State doesn’t use the tight end so hopefully the screen pass that hurt the Illini toward the end of the year won’t be much of a factor, even though their running backs are threats out of the backfield.
The Bulldogs do have some elite wide receivers, and it won’t help that two of the Illini best defensive players (Devon Witherspoon and Sydney Brown) have opted out of the bowl.
Hopefully Matthew Bailey and the other Illini defensive backs step up.