Mississippi State Football: Friends with the enemy vs. Illinois

Dec 30, 2022; Clearwater, FL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini band perform during the Clearwater Beach Day for the 2022 ReliaQuest Bowl against the Mississippi State Bulldogs Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 30, 2022; Clearwater, FL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini band perform during the Clearwater Beach Day for the 2022 ReliaQuest Bowl against the Mississippi State Bulldogs Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports /

To learn more about Mississippi State football’s matchup vs. the Illinois Fighting Illini, I caught up with Rees Woodcock from WritingIllini.com.

Hello, my name is Rees and I am the editor for the Writing Illini. I have been with the Writing Illini for around a decade and have been the editor since November 2014. I bleed Orange and Blue.

Let’s kick things off by honoring Mississippi State football’s former head coach, Mike Leach. Give me your favorite Mike Leach quote, story, or post-game press conference.

Honestly, there isn’t a specific quote, story, or post-game press conference that comes to mind. When I did come across Mike Leach, it was always when I was listening to a radio show, seeing a clip online, or something of that nature. I always had a great appreciation for the fact that he didn’t take himself too seriously. He just lived life to the fullest and enjoyed every second. There is such a great lesson to learn from him. Leach will be missed on and off the field.

Bowl games have started not to mean much for college football. What does this game mean to the Illinois football program?

That narrative about bowl games is not true to me or for the vast majority of the Illinois football program and fanbase. Our last bowl game was in 2019 and our last bowl win was on December 31, 2011, against UCLA. I understand that bowls don’t mean a lot to some of the teams that consistently make bowl games, and maybe one day I will be in that position, but the ReliaQuest Bowl means a lot. It shows that Illinois has become a legit program again. We aren’t a laughingstock anymore. That is why this game means so much.

Without their starting running back, who will be the offensive playmaker for the Fighting Illini in Monday’s ReliaQuest Bowl?

I have a feeling Illinois is going to go with a pass-heavy offense. Quarterback Tommy DeVito was denied a waiver to come back next season, so this will be his final game for the Illini. As you mentioned, Chase Brown is gone, so we are down to Reggie Love III as the likely starter. Love can hold his own in the backfield. He is a good running back, and he should be the starter next season. But something tells me Illinois is going to stray away from our game plan for the 2022 campaign and we are going to throw it around the field more often on Monday. Look for DeVito to be our playmaker.

What exactly is a Fighting Illini?

The term was coined back in the early 1900s when Memorial Stadium was being built. Memorial Stadium was built as a memorial for those lives lost in World War I. While it was being built, the term Fighting Illini was used as a way to describe the soldiers. The nickname started to gain traction from there.

When I think of Illinois football, I think of excellent defense. Who leads that defense?

Well, Mississippi State is about to get a different defense than what was on display in 2022. We lost our defensive coordinator who is now the head coach of Purdue. Cornerback Devon Witherspoon entered the NFL Draft and is likely going to be selected in the first two rounds. Our starting safety, Sydney Brown, also declared for the NFL Draft. Entering the game on Monday, I think the player(s) you are going to need to keep an eye on our defensive linemen Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph Jr. Illinois’ defensive line is our strength. They have the ability to get pressure on the quarterback and stop the run well. They are going to be crucial if we want to stop Will Rogers.

What are Illinois fans’ thoughts and opinions on head coach, Bret Bielema?

I didn’t care for him when he was at Wisconsin and Arkansas. I think he was humbled a bit by the firing at Arkansas, though. His couple of years in the NFL also helped shape him as a coach. I love what he does with the program on and off the field. He has won me over with his ability to connect with players and coaches. Just look at what Bielema has done in two seasons. Beyond winning, he has already sent a defensive coordinator to Purdue to be the head coach. His coaching tree is already starting to grow. His players love him too. While there always could be more after the bowl game, Illinois has only had three players hit the transfer portal. I think that shows you how connected he is to the players. I have zero complaints about Bielema. He has represented the program well, and everything seems to be running smoothly.

Is there a player that Mississippi State fans have not heard of that you expect to have a big game in this year’s ReliaQuest Bowl?

Michael Marchese. I said earlier that I expect Tommy DeVito to throw the ball more on Monday, and don’t be surprised if tight end Michael Marchese sees some of those balls thrown his way. He is a sixth-year senior who walked onto the team and was our safety for a little while. He transitioned to tight end in the last couple of years. Marchese only has seven receptions this season, but Illinois lost tight end Luke Ford to the NFL Draft, so Marchese will see more snaps in the ReliaQuest Bowl. Look for his name to be called at various points in the game.

What is your score prediction and analysis of what happens during Monday’s ReliaQuest Bowl?

I want to be a homer here and say Illinois wins the game, but while I love this program and the players, I think we have lost too much. When a team loses the defensive coordinator, one of the top cornerbacks in the country, one of the top running backs in the country, and a starting safety, it is very difficult to win. If all of that was back on the team, then I would easily pick the Illini to come out victorious. On top of that, I know Mississippi State lost some talent, but I believe their core is still pretty strong. Will Rogers is also back, and with our missing defensive backs, I think he has a big day. I think the score ends up being something like 28-20 in favor of Mississippi State.