TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - Mississippi State players and staff felt they knew what Mike Leach would want them to do following the Dec. 12 death of the Bulldogs coach due to complications from a heart condition: play in the ReliaQuest Bowl against Illinois.
"It has been expressed and they understand that we are doing exactly what Coach Leach would want of us," said Zach Arnett, who was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach three days after the death.
"And that is to finish this season off, to stay focused on the game, to put in the work and prepare," Arnett added. "There's no better way for us to honor him and show our respect for him and his family than to go out there and play a complete game and compete like he would expect us to."
Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers is among a group of team leaders that have taken on additional roles for the 24th-ranked Bulldogs (8-4, No. 22 CFP) leading up to the matchup Monday with Illinois (8-4).
"We've got great guys in our program," Arnett said. "Those guys have probably had a greater influence on our locker room and our approach and our resiliency certainly than myself or any one coach."
Rogers, who completed 386 of 566 passes for 3,713 yards and 34 touchdowns, faces an Illinois defense that allowed fewer than 10 points in six games this season.
Illinois lost all four of its games by eight points or fewer, including a 19-17 loss to Michigan. This is just its third bowl game since beating UCLA 20-14 in the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
"We've got this thing going, right?" Illinois coach Bret Bielema said. "It's beginning to go, right? We've just got to make sure we keep putting the right fuel in the tank. Keep getting checkups and maintenance on our ride as we get rolling."
Illinois will be without running back Chase Brown. The nation's second-leading rusher in the regular season (1,643 yards) has decided to enter the NFL draft and will not play in the game.
Illinois quarterback Tommy DeVito completed 69.9% of his passes (234 of 335) for the third-best completion percentage nationally during the regular season. He threw for 2,397 yards and 15 touchdowns and had four interceptions.
Mississippi State has a streak of playing in a bowl game for 13 straight years, although none before was like this one.
"A bowl game is a reward for their year's worth of hard work and success this season," Arnett said. "They certainly deserve this opportunity."
Bielema's wife, Jen, is from Tampa and was born at St. Joseph's Hospital, which is less than two miles from the game site. She attended the University of South Florida in Tampa.
"I come home every once in a while and she's got one of those rag-tag sweatshirts still on," Bielema said. "So, to be going to Tampa and around a lot of her family and friends will be very, very big this time of year for us personally."
Illinois OL Alex Palczewski is set to make his 65th career start in the game, which would tie Appalachian State WR Thomas Hennigan (2017-21) for the most in NCAA history. He will join Moe Gardner (1989-90) as the only Illinois players to be a captain in two bowl games.
Illinois: Opens next season at home against Toledo on Sept. 2
Mississippi State: Hosts Southeastern Louisiana on Sept. 2.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/ap_top25. Sign up for the AP's college football newsletter: https://tinyurl.com/mrxhe6f2
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