TAMPA, Fla. (WCIA) — A rainy Saturday in Florida delayed Illinois football’s final full practice before Monday’s ReliaQuest Bowl against Mississippi State but the Illini still managed to get their work in, with only a walkthrough remaining now before game day.
“Good to get that one in the books, had a really good week of practice,” Illinois head coach Bret Bielema said on Saturday. “Today is what we call our Thursday practice so we got an event for the guys in here tonight that will keep everyone in the hotel. It’s New Year’s Eve for everyone else in America but not for anyone in this hotel.”
After several days mixing both work and play including a trip to the beach, a night out bowling and an afternoon at Busch Gardens riding rollercoasters, it’s now time to lock in on what’s to come on the field for the Illini. An 8-4 Bulldogs team with a first time head coach in Zach Arnett awaits, following the tragic death of Mike Leach, the mastermind of the program’s air raid offense.
“We’re excited for one more opportunity,” Arnett said during a joint press conference with both head coaches earlier this week. “Obviously the best way we can honor Coach Leach is to go out there and play the way he expects us to play and that’s with tremendous effort and toughness and we know Illinois is going to show up and do just that so we’re excited to share the field with them.”
Questions linger with how Mississippi State’s offense will look with a new playcaller but Illinois has uncertainty as well after multiple players opted out of the first bowl game for the Illini since 2019. Chase Brown is the most notable guy not on the field in Tampa, with the bell cow back opting to start his preparation for the NFL Draft. He accounted for more than 40 percent of the team’s offense this season and without him, Illinois will turn to Reggie Love III and Josh McCray in the backfield. The sophomore hurt his knee in the season opener and only appeared in two games thereafter but Bielema says he’s ready to roll.
“Josh has been 100 percent all through bowl prep so to get him out on the field but also a guy like Reggie Love, Chase Hayden, two of the young bucks in Aidan Laughery and Jordan Anderson, it’s exciting to get those guys out there,” said Bielema. “Josh the way he looks right now I venture he’ll get the ball and get it often.”
Offensively, Luke Ford will also not suit up in the bowl game. Defensively, the loss of Chase’s twin brother Sydney and First Team All-American cornerback Devon Witherspoon will be felt. But new defensive coordinator Aaron Henry sees their absences as an opportunity for other guys to step in their place.
“A lot of these players, this is going to be their first time getting a lot of experience so all these young players, it’s a great opportunity for them,” Henry said. “At the end of the day it’s football, it ain’t hard, it ain’t complicated. If you can run around and hit people and do your job, you can have a lot of success.”
Illinois and Mississippi State kickoff Monday at 11 a.m. CT on ESPN2 in the ReliaQuest Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
For even more Illini football coverage watch the Your Illini Nation Bowl Specials, available now on demand. Then tune into a special presentation of the Your Illini Nation Pregame Show LIVE from Raymond James Stadium on Monday morning from 9-10 a.m. on WCIA 3.
Watch the 30-minute special here: https://www.wcia.com/sports/your-illini-nation/your-illini-nation-30-minute-bowl-special-2022/
Watch the hour long special here: https://www.wcia.com/sports/your-illini-nation/your-illini-nation-bowl-special-2022/