How Mississippi State football, Illinois match up in ReliaQuest Bowl

Starkville — Mississippi State Football is scheduled to face Illinois on January 2 in the ReliaQuest Bowl.

The game begins at 11:00 am that day at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. It airs on ESPN2.

Here’s the Big Ten matchup between the Bulldogs (8-4, 4-4) and the Illini (8-4, 5-4):

Mississippi Pass Offense and Illinois Pass Defense

This could be the matchup that decides who comes out victorious in the ReliaQuest Bowl.

Mississippi State’s passing game brings the Bulldogs offense to 314.3 passing yards per contest.

Quarterback Will Rogers threw for 3,713 yards, 34 touchdowns and 6 interceptions this season.

However, Illinois ranks second in the nation in total defence, and ranks in the nation’s top 10 in both passing defense and rushing defense.

Illinois allows 165.4 passing yards per game. That’s just over half the Bulldog’s average yardage in the air.

The Illini has intercepted 22 passes this season, making him the most FBS player with 3 interceptions. They allowed fewer pass attempts (5.4) than any team in the country.

Mississippi State will likely play wide receiver Lara Thomas without leading, which will affect the Bulldogs’ ability to put up big numbers in the air.

Illinois Pass Offense vs. Mississippi Pass Defense

How Mississippi State’s pass defense will fare in Tampa will depend on who takes the field.

Safety Jackie Matthews and Jalen Green will play the final game with the Bulldogs, but safety Colin Duncan has been declared in the NFL Draft and could be out.

Junior cornerback Emmanuel Forbes also declared, but was still able to play. As of mid-December, he had yet to announce whether he would be participating.

The Bulldogs have a strong secondary in 2022, with Forbes finishing second nationally in interceptions and MSU finishing 15th as a team in picks.

Mississippi State had the 36th-lowest passing yards per game with 206.8 and was the 23rd-leading FBS in yards per attempt.

Illinois’ strength is not in the passing game. Illini passed for only 208.3 yards per game, putting him 97th in the 2022 National Rankings.

Quarterback Tommy DeVito’s 69.9% completion rate ranked fourth on FBS. DeVito threw for 2,397 yards, 15 touchdowns and 4 interceptions.

Mississippi Rushing Offense vs. Illinois Rushing Defense

Mississippi State will miss one of the top two running backs in the ReliaQuest Bowl.

Dillon Johnson entered the transfer portal in early December.

Jo’quavious Marks and redshirt freshman Simeon Price are ready to roll against Illinois’ run defense, which is probably as good as Illinois’ Pass D.

Illini ranks eighth in the nation in rushing yards and ninth in yards allowed per attempt, with 3.17 yards per carry and allowing less than 100 yards per game on the ground.

These averages could only improve against teams from Mississippi, which are not known to run football.

The Bulldogs are last in rushing attempts and penultimate in rushing yards per game, totaling just 78.83 yards on the ground per contest.

With Illinois’ strong rushing defense and MSU’s reluctance to run, don’t expect many rushing attempts by the Tampa Bulldogs.

Illinois Rush Offense vs. Mississippi Rush Defense

Another very important matchup in Tampa is how Mississippi State can handle the Illinois run game.

That run game started and ended with junior back Chase Brown, who ran for 1,643 yards, second-most in FBS with 5 yards per carry.

There’s a big drop in production between Brown and sophomore Reggie Love III, who has just 276 yards this season. No other Illini player is over 100.

This disparity is partly why Illinois has only the No. 48 Rush Attack in the nation. Illini’s efficiency is even worse, ranking him 71st in yards per attempt.

Mississippi State’s rushing defense rivals the Illini in its category, ranking 68th in yards per attempt allowed.The Bulldogs are 55th in total rushing yards allowed.

Two key members of MSU’s front six, nose tackle Cameron Young and linebacker Tyrus Wheat, are likely to turn pro after the 2022 season. That would strengthen the Bulldogs’ run defense and help MSU hold off Brown and Illinois.

Theo DeRosa reports on sports in Mississippi for The Dispatch. Follow @Theo_DeRosa on Twitter.

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