Mississippi State lined up in a special formation to honor late head coach Mike Leach at the start of the ReliaQuest Bowl and then ended the game with a touchdown.
The Bulldogs beat Illinois 19-10 on Monday to win nine games in a season for the first time since 2017. Mississippi State broke a 10-10 tie with four seconds to go on a 27-yard field goal by Massimo Biscardi. MSU then scored a TD with no time left as Marcus Banks returned a botched lateral on Illinois’ last-ditch play 60 yards for the game-sealing score.
“I definitely wanted to win this game for coach. I think we all did,” MSU QB Will Rogers said after the game. “If we came out here and lost the game, I don’t think coach would have been too happy with us.”
Monday’s game against Illinois was the first the Bulldogs have played since Leach’s death on Dec. 12. The massively influential college football coach suffered a heart issue the day before his death and had been transported to a hospital where he was in critical condition.
The Bulldogs made it clear in the days after Leach’s death that they wanted to play the game and got the ball first to start the game. As MSU walked out onto the field, it lined up in a tribute formation to Leach and let the play clock expire as QB Will Rogers and nine other players on the offense lined up to the left of the center.
Illinois declined the penalty.
The formation wasn’t the only tribute to Leach at the game in Tampa. Leach was an avowed fan of pirates and his photo was placed on the pirate ship at Raymond James Stadium. The Bulldogs also replaced the school logo on one side of their helmets with a pirate flag in honor of Leach.
The school’s band also spelled out “Leach” on the field before the game.
Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett was made the team’s interim coach after Leach was hospitalized and named Leach’s successor after his death. Mississippi State went 8-4 in 2022 and was 19-17 in Leach’s three seasons with the school. Before coaching at MSU, Leach was the head coach at Washington State for eight years and was the coach at Texas Tech for 10 seasons.
Leach’s teams went 158-107 in a 21-year career that reshaped the way modern offense is played at both the college and NFL levels. Leach’s success at Texas Tech with the Air Raid offense that featured lots of passing changed the way high school football was played in the state of Texas in the 2000s and paved the way for teams all over the country at all levels of football to embrace throwing the football more often than they used to.
It was a running play that set up Biscardi's game-winning kick, however. Mississippi State got the ball back after an Illinois punt with 1:47 to go and went 77 yards after Simeon Price ran 28 yards up the middle to the Illinois 2. After Rogers kneeled the ball at the 11 with seven seconds to go, Biscardi kicked the field goal.
"It’s been tough. Coach and I were so close," Rogers said. "To lose a coach like that and a friend like that it’s going to hurt for a really long time and continue to hurt. To be able to come out with this group of guys, my brothers, I can’t say enough about this team and this university.”