Illinois loses another heartbreaker in ReliaQuest Bowl to end season


J. Sidney Malone

Illinois takes on Mississippi State in the 2023 ReliaQuest Bowl game in Tampa, Fla. on January 2, 2023 at the Raymond James Stadium home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

By Jonathan Alday, Assistant Sports Editor

Illinois took on the warm comfort of Raymond James Stadium for the 2023 ReliaQuest Bowl on January 2, 2023, against No. 24 Mississippi State. Illinois would lose the game following a game-winning field goal by MSU and a defensive touchdown in the last 2o seconds of the game.

Illinois began on defense, with a large contingency of fans supporting them on the west side of the stadium. After an honorary air raid formation for late Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach, MSU won the contested pass to Caleb Ducking with freshman corner Xavier Scott in coverage. The Illini defensive line stood firm to prevent the first down on the next two plays, forcing the three-and-out.

The Illinois offense started off the game unceremoniously, with a sack by the MSU defense followed by two passes for a total of seven yards.

Despite holding one of the top passing offenses in the nation, Mississippi State struggled to find completions against Illinois’ man-to-man defense, averaging 4.28 yards per pass a third of the way into the first quarter.

Illinois settled into their offense with two passes to redshirt sophomore tight end Tip Reiman and a screen to sophomore Isaiah Williams. Senior Tommy DeVito found a wide-open Williams for the touchdown but the play was called back for a false start on the offensive line. The drive deflated after the flag, with the Illini coming up scoreless after a miss to the right on a 52-yard field goal attempt by junior kicker Caleb Griffin.

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    The Illinois defense continued to prove why they’re one of the best in the nation despite having multiple key defensive players opt out of the bowl game. Added to the fact that former defensive coordinator Ryan Walters left the program for Purdue and new DC Aaron Henry is calling his first game, the unit was prepared to face a new style of offense.

    Mississippi State started the second quarter moving on offense, with two massive pass plays to put them in the red zone. Freshman safety Matthew Bailey stopped the bleeding with a perfectly timed jump to come down with his third interception of the season.

    With the turn of the tide in Tampa for the Illini, DeVito and the offense churned out 41 yards of offense on five plays. The momentum fizzled out after an incomplete pass, short-run play and a sack on DeVito, the third of the game.

    He would get another opportunity after an interception on a deep ball by senior safety Kendall Smith, making it the second of the day. The drive would prove explosive as DeVito found Williams for 41 yards, junior wide receiver Casey Washington for 13 yards and Reiman for nine yards.

    Sophomore running back Josh McCray pummeled through the defense for a tough four-yard gain to give Illinois a new set of downs. Knocking on the Mississippi State door, DeVito called his own number, running into the endzone for the first points of the game, his sixth rushing touchdown of the 2022 season.

    MSU drew up a trick play to quarterback Will Rogers to move the chains but could not go any further. MSU elected to attempt the field goal after a timeout, cutting the deficit to four heading into halftime.

    Illinois were three-point underdogs ahead of the game but find themselves in control of the game, holding the air raid offense to 152 yards on 27 attempts, no touchdown and two interceptions. Meanwhile, DeVito continued to show why he was one of the most efficient passers in Illinois history, going 12 of 16 for 138 yards, a 75% completion percentage.

    Illinois would go on over a five-minute drive in the third quarter, continuously testing the MSU defense. Their drive would fizzle out around the 40-yard line, setting up another 52-yard field goal attempt for Griffin. This time around, he would push the ball through the uprights, notching a career-long for the junior from Danville, Illinois, giving his team a touchdown lead.

    Junior defensive lineman Keith Randolph Jr. continued to wreak havoc on the MSU offensive line, with two quarterback hurries by the end of the third quarter. MSU, however, continued to find a way to move the ball, completing on third down twice. The Bulldogs ended up in another third-down situation but were unable to convert to end the third quarter.

    Electing to be bold to start the final quarter, Rogers threw a pass towards the back of the endzone, caught by Justin Robinson, tying up the game at 10.

    Illinois found themselves in a third-and-long situation on the ensuing drive but managed to get out of it on a 17-yard reception by sophomore tight end Griffin Moore. DeVito tested the ball on the next play, with the ball going through Williams’ hands. An opposing MSU defender was given an unsportsmanlike penalty for taunting after the play, giving the Illini a first down.

    A sack and a holding call on Illinois pushed them back into a third and long situation. But another penalty on MSU gave the Illini a new set of downs. Williams would juke multiple defenders on the ensuing pass play to get another first down.

    MSU would get the ball back and increasingly rely on their running game. The change in strategy paid dividends immediately as MSU rushers gained a total of 31 yards and opened up the defense for the passing game. The Illinois defense bent but did not buckle, forcing MSU to punt with 4:41 left in the game.

    Illinois could not capitalize on their next drive, giving the ball back with under two minutes to play. MSU pushed the field, getting down to the two-yard line with twelve seconds to go. MSU would go for a field goal shortly after to go up three points.

    Illinois would receive the kick and attempt one more backyard football-esque play. The ball would be thrown away by the Illini and MSU would take it back for another touchdown, ending the game 19-10.

    The game would end in a middle-of-the-field scuffle between the teams before they were dispersed back to their locker rooms.

    This game concludes the 2022-2023 Illinois football season. Illinois finishes 8-5 on the year. DeVito ends his collegiate career 23 of 34 for 193 yards and a touchdown, he was sacked seven times. Williams accumulates 114 yards on nine catches, 86 of those yards came after the catch. Bailey and Smith each notch an interception.

    The 2023-2024 season kicks off against Toledo on September 2nd, 2023 in Champaign.


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