Plenty of losses ahead of Illini-Mississippi State bowl game on Monday
There was no ignoring the sad and unusual circumstances in the run up to Monday's ReliaQuest Bowl between Illinois and Mississippi State.
Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach died suddenly from a heart condition on Dec. 12.
Leach, 61, was popular for his colorful soundbites and a legend in coaching circles for his pass-heavy "Air Raid" offense.
The Bulldogs chose to play in the bowl game and named defensive coordinator Zach Arnett the new (not interim) head coach.
"I don't quite have the vocabulary of my predecessor, so I am still searching for the correct adjective to describe this last couple of weeks," Arnett said. "Tragic, unique, interesting to say the least, unprecedented. We'll do our best to honor coach Leach and finish this season they way it's supposed to be."
The end of this season hasn't been easy for Illini coach Bret Bielema, either. He lost both his mother and father-in-law during a six-game span in November, and said he considered Leach a friend after the two met at the Alamo Bowl in the early 2000s.
Mississippi State linebacker Jett Johnson said there was never much doubt among the players they would carry on with the bowl game. He also pointed out the synchrony between Leach being an avid collector of pirate memorabilia, and the bowl game taking place at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' stadium, with its pirate ship in the end zone.
"No doubt. We want to have this last game for coach Leach," Johnson said. "It's a tragic situation. We all love and care for coach Leach. We want to put it all on the line for him and get him a victory for this game."
From a football standpoint, Illinois is dealing with the loss of defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, who was named head coach at Purdue. Walters brought along Illini outside linebackers coach Kevin Kane to lead the Boilers' defense. Meanwhile, Bielema promoted defensive backs coach Aaron Henry to be his new defensive coordinator.
The Illini already have the school's first eight-win season since 2007, but keeping pace will be a challenge. Illinois will lose a number of key contributors to graduation, and the Big Ten West figures to get more competitive with the coaching additions of Luke Fickell at Wisconsin and Matt Rhule at Nebraska.
Four Illini players announced plans to opt out of the bowl game -- RB Chase Brown, who led the nation in rushing yards during the regular season; Brown's brother Sydney, a key part of the defensive secondary; Thorpe Award finalist Devon Witherspoon; and TE Luke Ford.
"Unique experience for me this year," Bielema said. "Bowl games, seven straight at Wisconsin, three of the five years at Arkansas, never had a player opt out of a game. That was the first challenge. We had three good players opt out. That's the first unique challenge."
Offensive tackle Alex Palczewski is expected to play, and if he does, the Prospect High School grad will tie the NCAA record for most career starts with 65. Quarterback Tommy DeVito is also expected to start the bowl game.
Mississippi State's leading receiver Rara Thomas has already announced plans to transfer to Georgia. Veteran QB Will Rogers said he's planning to play against the Illini.
Leach's teams were always known for their explosive offense. But during the final bowl news conference, with Arnett and Bielema sitting together at the podium, Leach's successor had the Illini defense on his mind. Illinois leads the nation in points allowed (12.3) and are second in total defense.
"If these guys can build upon and improve on that defense, I feel bad for the rest of the Big Ten," Arnett said. "As a fan of aggressive defense the way it's supposed to be played; the job they did this year, it's fun to watch. That's how defense is supposed to be played."