TAMPA, Fla. — Unusual setting, but a usual type of game for Illinois.
In its first bowl appearance since the 2019 loss in the Redbox Bowl to Cal, Illini nation showed out to Raymond James Stadium on Monday afternoon, giving the Illini an unexpected neutral field advantage.
A good ol’ fashioned slugfest was certainly not what we expected to see in the ReliaQuest Bowl against a team known for its offensive outbursts — but Illinois was able to play its type of game against SEC foe Mississippi State.
Although, after being up 7-3 at halftime in what seemed to become the Illini’s game to lose, they only scored three additional points which was not enough to get the win.
The Bulldogs — after previously scoring the only touchdown in the half to this point — were able to hit a last-second field goal to make it 13-10. Everyone expected that to be the final score until the Bulldogs would extended the lead on a walk-off touchdown from an errant Illini pitch back to end up winning, 19-10.
“Obviously, this was a tough one today,” said head coach Bret Bielema. “This was a defensive battle that was came down to who got the ball last, who was able to execute, and unfortunately we came up short.”
Facing a Mississippi State team after the death of head coach Mike Leach, Illinois (8-5, 5-4 Big Ten) entered as 3.5-point underdogs and were doubted coming in without having stars on both sides of the ball.
Without players like Devon Witherspoon and the Brown twins, new guys needed to step up. Bielema took notice to guys in the secondary like Matt Bailey and Xavier Scott who did so today.
“I thought those guys were really up to the challenge,” Bielema said. “Not only today but in all the preparation back in Champaign and the practices down here. Really was excited about those guys.”
The secondary Illinois put up against the Will Rogers-led Mississippi State (9-4, 4-4 SEC) offense seemed destined to get scored on, but in Aaron Henry’s first game as defensive coordinator, his guys showed out for him. Only allowing 13 points against a high-powered offense is a bright sign of things to come moving forward.
“I couldn’t give enough credit to our younger players especially in the secondary,” Bielema said.
Unfortunately, the offense could never really get it going. DeVito finished with 222 passing yards and a rushing touchdown, but was under pressure all day. Isaiah Williams was the top target today receiving 114 of those 222 yards from DeVito.
“Just one of those days where we’re a little bit off,” Bielema said. “Not enough to get over the edge.”
Even though the Illini weren’t able to get over that “edge” Bielema was describing, this was still the best football season since 2007 and things are only headed in the right direction.
“This is not where we’re going to settle, this is hopefully a springboard into bigger and better things,” Bielema said. “We were trying to get to a 9-win season and obviously fell short, but this was a season where we did a lot of good things.”
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
FALSE HOPE: On the second Illinois possession of the game, Tommy DeVito found Isaiah Williams wide-open for a touchdown down a seam, but not so fast. The play was called back due to a false start. Illinois would then go on to miss a 52-yard field goal and end up with no points on the drive.
MATT BAILEY: MSU went on a drive that already covered 53 yards and got down to a goal-to-go situation, but enter freshman CB Matt Bailey. On first and goal, MSU QB Will Rogers threw an errant pass and Bailey was all over it. The score remained tied at 0-0.
BULLDOG PRESSURE: This was a big story of this game. DeVito was under pressure from the MSU front all game long, as they got to the Illini QB seven times. It wasn’t just one or two players applying the pressure either, seven different players each had a sack for the Bulldogs.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Mississippi State played this game with heavy hearts following the death of head coach Mike Leach last month.
Very cool of how both teams honored him on this special day.
Mississippi State also lined up in his coveted Air Raid formation and took a delay of game on the first play of the game. (Illinois declined the penalty.)
Mississippi State took an intentional delay of game penalty in honor of Mike Leach ❤️ pic.twitter.com/kzeswBFunF— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) January 2, 2023
The defense was literally record-breaking this season.
And for one last time, we got to shout out the iron man himself.
Alex Palczewski started for the 65th time in his career, extending his Illinois and Big Ten record for career starts.— Illini Stats & Notes (@IlliniStats) January 2, 2023
Palczewski matches Appalachian State's Thomas Hennigan (2017-21) for the most starts in FBS history.#Illini | #HTTO
TWEET OF THE GAME
Football is officially over, and what a season for the Illini.
Time to turn our fandom to the men’s and women’s basketball teams as they are both about to head full steam into Big Ten play.