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Dec. 29—MEMPHIS — Sonny Cumbie looked into a sea of Texas Tech fans for the final time in his short interim tenure as the football team's head football coach.
He leaned into the microphone while standing on a stage draped in red, the Liberty Bowl title officially his, and recited what most Texas Tech fans felt following the team's 34-7 beatdown of Mississippi State in Memphis:
"I guess the Red Raider gets the pirate after all," Cumbie said.
Many Texas Tech fans have stayed loyal in their support of Leach following an ugly, lawsuit-filled firing. Not all have.
Leach let his feelings be known during his Liberty Bowl press conference Monday about the leadership at Texas Tech, though he spoke highly of the fans and Lubbock community.
But his words, regardless of their support, lit a fire under a Texas Tech team looking to give Cumbie something to celebrate as he heads into his head coaching tenure at Louisiana Tech.
Mississippi State lacked that same energy.
It started moments before the game as it became clear key pieces of the Mississippi State roster were unavailable for the game, including four starters.
As is the case with many bowl games — and college basketball games — the recent spread of COVID-19 is depleting rosters.
Mississippi State was caught in the fire to the point where Leach eventually lost count of unavailable players as the week progressed.
But the thought of not playing the game didn't cross Leach's mind.
"I don't like that very much," Leach said. "I think you try to play if you can, no matter what, because it's an opportunity to improve."
So, Mississippi State took the field. And was ran off it — almost literally.
Texas Tech pounded the ball up to middle to the tune of 145 rushing yards in the first quarter and 260 in the game.
The Red Raiders posted 10 points on its opening two drives, but as the Bulldog defense settled, its offense couldn't flip momentum.
Mississippi State had a chance to take a lead going into the halftime after getting the ball down three with 4:20 to go in the second quarter. That drive resulted in a punt.
The MSU defense got another key stop to at least leave the damage at a three-point defict. Then, the sure-handed Austin Williams muffed a punt and gave Texas Tech a chip-shot field goal to double its lead going into the break.
Still, Mississippi State got the ball back with a chance to score out of halftime to regain a lead. Again, Mississippi State punted.
Turnovers followed. There was an interception. There was a turnover on downs after moving into field goal range only to allow two sacks. There was a fumble.
Texas Tech's offense found its rhythm again while State flushed away chances. The run game opened up the passing game against a shorthanded Mississippi State secondary.
Tech completed passes of 39, 52, 15, 48 and 19 yards in the second half.
It was the perfect recipe for a horrendous ending to a season that saw so much promise in MSU's second season with Leach at the helm — enough promise to leave Leach battling emotions when speaking on it postgame.
"With youth you get inconsistency sometimes, but the other thing is, with youth you also get guys that wilt. I didn't feel like our guys wilted," Leach said before a long pause.
"They really stood up to a lot of challenges that people didn't expect them to be able to do. I think that's impressive."
The back-to-back losses leave a sour taste for an MSU team that understood the significance of winning eight games versus seven or just to carry a win into the spring.
The season featured major victories against ranked opponents (NC State, Texas A&M, Kentucky and Auburn). Mississippi State was projected to be among the bottom two teams in the SEC West, as Leach noted postgame, but shattered most of those expectations.
That's why expectations got higher as the season progressed.
With a young team, those expectations will only rise heading into next year — regardless of the final memories of the 2021 season. Mississippi State doesn't appear to be afraid of that.
"The only guys that really had higher expectations were us," Leach said. "We're disappointed we didn't meet our expectations. That's unfortunate. So we're gonna work a lot harder this next year to try to meet our expectations."
STEFAN KRAJISNIK is the Mississippi State athletics reporter for the Daily Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.