TAMPA — Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers can’t explain why the question popped into his head during a low moment in Monday’s ReliaQuest Bowl.
What would Mike Leach tell him?
Rogers needed some help as he and the Bulldogs struggled through three quarters in their first game without Leach, who died last month at age 61. He didn’t have to dig far into his memory bank to come up with the answer:
“He probably would tell me just to play the next play,” Rogers said.
He did, throwing for a tying touchdown in the fourth quarter and leading the last-minute, winning drive in the No. 24 Bulldogs’ 19-10 victory over Illinois.
“I know there’s a cowbell ringing down from heaven for them,” Mississippi State coach Zach Arnett said.
The Bulldogs’ traditional noisemakers rang all around Raymond James Stadium in memory of Leach, one of the most colorful characters in college football. The tributes were everywhere.
Mississippi State swapped a Bulldogs logo for a pirate flag on one side of their helmets in honor of Leach, the swashbuckling coach who was fascinated with maritime history. The marching band spelled out “LEACH” and played the theme to “Pirates of the Caribbean.” A portrait of Leach looked onto the field from a perch atop the stadium’s iconic pirate ship.
Fans traveled from across the country to pay their respects. Josh Wise came from Tupelo, Mississippi, with a “Swing Your Sword” pirate flag he bought the day his beloved Bulldogs hired Leach. He couldn’t help but appreciate how much the part-time Key West resident would have appreciated the setting — a sunny Florida day at the home of the Bucs.
“He would have absolutely loved it,” Wise said.
Gareth Chabot certainly did. He and his daughter, Megan, admired Leach when he coached their team, Washington State. Chabot even bought a pirate costume (complete with a crimson Cougars bandana) to wear to games. The 47-year-old put the outfit in the attic three years ago when Leach left for Mississippi State but brought it back Monday to wear to the game 3,100 miles from his home in Yelm, Washington.
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“We wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” Megan Chabot said.
The Leach remembrances continued onto the field when the Bulldogs lined up in a funky Leach formation — no quarterback and a receiver ready to snap the ball — before taking a delay of game penalty (which Illinois respectfully declined).
Then the game started. Leach wouldn’t have been happy.
The Bulldogs (9-4) mustered only 175 yards and three points in the first half — nowhere near good enough for Leach, one of the most innovative offensive minds of his era, even if it came against an elite Illini defense.
But Mississippi State continued to show the other traits Leach valued. The Bulldogs were tough, holding Illinois (8-5) to only 35 yards on 29 carries. They threw the ball all over the field (30 completions spread across 10 different receivers). And, most importantly, they played the next play.
“Mike Leach has been leading this program for three years,” Arnett said, “and he was out there leading us today.”
Rogers hit game MVP Justin Robinson in the back of the end zone to tie the game at 10 on the first play of the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs defense forced two punts to give Rogers and the offense one more chance to win it.
A pair of runs by Simeon Price put Mississippi State in chip-shot field goal range for the go-ahead score, and Marcus Banks returned a lateral 60 yards for a touchdown on Illinois’ desperation final play. That’s when Arnett could hear his mentor in his ear — nagging him in that gruff, sarcastic voice about taking the final timeout with 7 seconds remaining instead of 2 or 3.
“I’m sure he’ll find a way to let me know my mistakes,” Arnett said.
But those mistakes shouldn’t overshadow what Arnett and the Bulldogs did Monday. They earned a ninth victory to secure the program’s fourth top-25 finish this century. And they did so after battling three emotional weeks and the loss of one of the most influential coaches of this generation.
The celebration rose from the field to the stands and back. Cornerback Alexander Shaw posed for photos wearing a pirate hat Mississippi State alumna Ashley Freeman bought off Amazon the day Leach died; it somehow made its way down from section 137.
Before the final field goal, defensive lineman Cameron Young went over to the seats to grab a maroon MIKE flag that wasn’t supposed to be there. Longtime Bulldogs fan Johnny Rasberry got it Sunday night at a fan event at Sparkman Wharf, and security officials told his family they couldn’t hang it from the railing because it would obscure a sponsorship sign. ESPN officials overruled them; it made for a great shot.
Young, apparently, agreed. He asked for the flag, then paraded it around the sidelines and got his team to sign it as one final way to honor one of the most unforgettable figures in recent college football history.
“That,” Rasberry said, “is meant to be.”
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