Illinois looks to finish season strong against Mississippi State in ReliaQuest Bowl

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Sidney Malone

Quarter back Tommy DeVito runs down the field for a touchdown against Iowa on Oct. 8. The Illini will be making their returning debut for the ReliaQuest Bowl this Monday against Mississippi State.

By Ben Fader, Staff Writer

The Illini face No. 24 Mississippi State Bulldogs on Monday, Jan. 2, in the Reliaquest Bowl in Tampa, Florida. An 11 a.m. CST kickoff will mark the first bowl game appearance for the program since 2019 when the Lovie Smith-led Illini lost the Redbox Bowl.

A new page has turned within the Illini football program since 2019, and head coach Bret Bielema seeks a victory in his first bowl with the program. One of the final games in bowl season, the ReliaQuest bowl, was set to be a matchup between great coaches historically, but the unfortunate passing of Bulldog coach Mike Leach creates a new emotionally packed environment for both teams.

The Bulldogs feature a versatile offense that prides itself on spreading the ball around to its bountiful supply of weapons at the running back and receiver positions. Leach was famous for a wild air raid offense and, despite defensive coordinator Zach Arnett stepping into the head coach role, the Bulldogs will continue this style of play.

While they will be without their best receiver and an excellent running back due to the transfer portal, the Bulldogs still have plenty of weapons to showcase in Tampa against a young Illini secondary. With senior safety Sydney Brown and junior cornerback Devon Witherspoon declaring for the draft, the Illini will have their hands full with the explosive offense.

Junior running back Jo’quavious Marks can run and receive the ball well, pairing well with a wide receiver duo of sophomore Rufus Harvey and senior Caleb Ducking. Having three solid players with the losses the Bulldogs endured thus far shows how hard they are to defend.

Freshman Matthew Bailey got regular snaps at times during the season but will likely take on a much more significant role to replace Brown. At the corner position, the Illini will rely on freshmen to fill the gaping hole left by Witherspoon. Elijah Mc-Cantos, Tyson Rooks and Xavier Scott will all look to make the most of their snaps and potentially give the coaching staff a preview of what to expect for 2023.

On the offensive side of the ball, junior running back Chase Brown joins his brother as an opt-out for the game. The offensive identity of the Illini has been a power-running game since week zero, and that won’t change now. Sophomore running back Josh McCray returns for the first real game since Wyoming and will split the backfield with sophomore running back Reggie Love III. Love III is coming off a terrific performance, taking over for an injured Brown, rushing for 85 yards and a touchdown in their most recent game against Northwestern.

When the Bulldogs struggled this season, it was defensively, allowing 144 rushing yards per game. The Illini will look to attack the defensive line as they always do, but with a defensive-minded head coach in Arnett taking over, the Bulldogs may be more focused on that end.

It will be the final collegiate game for several other Illini who did not opt-out, most significantly senior quarterback Tommy DeVito. The Syracuse transfer did not get his waiver accepted for another year of eligibility and plans to make the most out of this final matchup. DeVito wants to end his career with a win and is ready for a Big Ten vs. SEC showdown to end the 2022-2023 football season for the Illini.

 

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