ReliaQuest Bowl Preview & Picks: Illinois vs. Mississippi State

TAMPA, Fla. — Illinois football players have enjoyed all the trappings of a Tampa bowl game. The Illini fed giraffes and rode rollercoasters at Busch Gardens. The Illini literally bowled at a bowling alley at Sparkman Wharf. The Illini participated in a beach party at Clearwater Beach, which included jet skis and a pie-eating contest.

This trip certainly had some vacation vibes, including sandals, tropical shirts and bucket hats. But the balance of bowl week — something this Illinois football program hasn’t experienced often — is that it also is a business trip.

So while the Illini enjoyed themselves in escaping the Midwest winter, Illinois is looking to lock in to make sure they experience a happy flight home and end the season with a win against Mississippi State in Monday’s 11 am CT kickoff at Raymond James Stadium.

“Mississippi State’s a good football team. Nobody’s going to just let the other team win, so credit to them,” Illinois junior wide receiver CaseyWashington said. “But we’re doing this to win. We’re not just coming here to play. We come here to events to have fun, but more than anything just being able to lock in when it’s time to lock in and compete.”

Illinois football experienced a breakthrough season in Year Two under head coach Bret Bielema. For the first time since 2007, the Illini (8-4, 5-4 Big Ten) won eight games and had a winning Big Ten record. Led by the nation’s no. 1 scoring defense, a strong rushing attack and a much-improved passing game, the Illini were in the mix for a Big Ten West title through all 12 regular-season games, ultimately losing a conference championship appearance to Purdue by one game following a three -game November losing streak.

But Illinois ended the regular season on a high note, routing rival Northwestern 41-3 to claim the Land of Lincoln Trophy for a second straight season. Now, the Illini are looking to wrap up the 2022 season with a win on the second day of 2023.

“I want to finish off,” Illinois senior quarterback Tommy DeVito said. “To me, 8-4 is a solid year. Obviously, we wanted it to be better. But to be able to get nine wins as a team and just go out and put more stuff on film, and just play football. It’s the game I love. I just can’t wait for the opportunity ahead.”

Both teams will look a bit different than they did all season.

Mississippi State, of course, will be playing without a head coach mike leach, who tragically died last month due to complications from a heart condition. In his place, defensive coordinator Zach Arnett was promoted to permanent head coach. The Bulldogs also lost key running back Dillon Johnson and leading wide receiver RaRa Thomas to the transfer portal.

The Illini also will be playing without several people who made a huge impact on the team. defensive coordinator Ryan Waltersa Broyles Award finalist, is now the head coach at rival Purdue, and Walters took two Illini assistants with him to West Lafayette: outside linebackers coach Kevin Kane and running backs coach Cory Patterson.

Three of the team’s biggest stars opted out of the bowl game to stay healthy and start to prepare for the NFL Draft: All-American running back Chase BrownAll American cornerback Devon Witherspoon and All Big Ten safety Sydney Brown.

But the Illini will look to show the program is stronger than a few shining stars with its final showcase this season.

“It’s huge. I feel like it’s just a testament to where we’ve been going,” Illinois wide receiver Isaiah Williams said. “We just constantly moving forward time after time and just getting over obstacles. I came here to win championships, and I feel like this is a step in the right direction. But ultimately, [the bowl] is not the goal. Of course, it’ll be huge for us to finish this game strong and start 2023 on the right now.”

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