Honorable Mention: 2023 ReliaQuest Bowl vs Illinois
Technically, this was not a Mike Leach-coached game. But I would be remiss to not at least acknowledge it on this list given it’s significance, which is why I’m including it as an honorable mention.
Mike Leach passed away on December 12, 2022. Just three weeks later, his Bulldogs were set to take on Illinois in the ReliaQuest Bowl in Tampa. Rather than back out of the game, State chose to play in their coach’s honor and close out his tenure at MSU the right way. Donning helmets with pirate decals in a stadium with a pirate ship, the Dawgs embraced the mantra Mike Leach had instilled in them, playing until the clock hit 0:00.
An ugly, low-scoring affair, MSU entered the 4th quarter trailing the Illini 10-3. Facing a 4th-and-2 from the 8-yard line, Will Rogers found Justin Robinson in the back of the endzone, who just managed to get a foot in-bounds for the game-tying touchdown. MSU got the ball back with under two minutes to go and drove down the field to set up a potential game-winning field goal. With just four seconds left, Massimo Biscardi knocked his 27-yard attempt through the uprights to give the Bulldogs a 13-10 lead.
The theatrics were not done, however. Illinois had one final opportunity to end the game, lateraling the ball down the field with hopes of a miracle score. There was a moment where it looked like the Illini might just pull that off, but Marcus Banks had other ideas. Banks intercepted the final lateral and took the ball back for a walk-off defensive touchdown. Mississippi State won 19-10 to reach nine wins for the first time since 2017.
The funny part in that final score was that MSU was a 4-point favorite going into the game. That touchdown, while meaningless to the actual result on the field, meant that State covered the points spread in the most improbable fashion imaginable. There was no way the Bulldogs weren’t going to cover the spread for the Pirate, right?
This game signifies the end of an era. Though Mike Leach wasn’t calling the shots on the sidelines, this was still very much a Mike Leach team, specifically the last Mike Leach team. This was the end of the Pirate’s reign in Starkville, and it was the last time Leach’s brand of Air Raid would take the field in major college football.