By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Football Writer/Analyst
January 2, 2023
(Cover photo courtesy Mike Granse/USA Today Sports)
Date/Time/Place: Monday, Jan. 2, 2023: 11 a.m. CST, Raymond James Stadium
Surface: Natural Grass
Records: Mississippi State 8-4, 4-4 in Southeastern Conference; Illinois 8-4, 5-4 in Big Ten Conference.
Betting Line: Mississippi State by 3
Series notes: The ReliaQuest Bowl will be the third meeting between Illinois and Mississippi State. In the most recent meeting, Illinois was defeated 28-21in Champaign on Oct. 4, 1980. In the programs’ first meeting, Illinois won 27-0 in Champaign in 1923 when Mississippi State was named Mississippi A&M at the time. Illinois will be playing in the ReliaQuest Bowl for the second time in program history. Illinois first appeared in Tampa in 1991 when the bowl was known as the Hall of Fame Bowl. It was the third straight bowl trip for the Illini under John Mackovic. Illinois lost 30-0 in the 1991 Hall of Fame Bowl to Clemson. Illinois head coach Bret Bielema will make his second appearance in the Tampa bowl game as a head coach. He previously took Wisconsin to Tampa for the 2008 game, which was named the Outback Bowl at the time, where the Badgers fell to Tennessee, 21-17. Bielema was also in Tampa for the 2005 Outback Bowl as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator, as the Badgers fell to Georgia, 24-21. The ReliaQuest Bowl will be the Illini’s first bowl game in the state of Florida since the 1999 MicronPC.com Bowl, a dominant 63–21 win over Virginia in Miami. The ReliaQuest Bowl will be the ninth January bowl game in Illinois history and first since the 2008 Rose Bowl Game.
TV: ESPN2; Dave Flemming (play-by-play), Rod Gilmore (analyst), and Tiffany Blackmon (sideline reporter)
Radio (Illinois): Brian Barnhart (PBP), Martin O'Donnell (analysis), Michael Martin (sidelines) & Steve Kelly (Pre/HT/Post) » The broadcast can be heard live on TuneIn online radio, Sirius/ XM satellite radio & SiriusXM Internet and at FightingIllini.com.
TAMPA, Fla. -- In the media conference leading up to the 2023 ReliaQuest Bowl, both teams' head coaches used the word reward to describe the meaning of the game for their players’ season.
Illinois defensive tackle Jamal Woods would certainly agree with that idea but would add that the program’s first New Year’s Day bowl game since the Rose Bowl culminating the 2007 season represents a six-year journey he didn’t know he’d get to take at Illinois.
Woods, who has had an injury-plagued career at Illinois but served an integral role as a complimentary part to the Illini defensive front in 2022 for a unit that comes to Tampa with the nation’s best scoring defense, said Wednesday he’ll be cherishing every moment of this bowl experience leading up to his final game in an Illini uniform.
“Truly, I wasn’t completely sure I’d be here,” Woods said. “I knew the program would turn around but I wasn’t sure if I would be able to see it get to this point where we’re playing in a January bowl game and trying to beat an SEC team in Tampa, Florida to get a ninth win for the season. It’s been a emotional and fulfilling ride for me and this coaching staff made it possible.”
Woods, who is nicknamed “Bobo” and has off-the-field talents as a chef he’ll likely pursue after his football career ends Monday afternoon, never knew how his career would progress after being signed by Lovie Smith out of Hueytown, Alabama and was quoted on his signing day as part of the 2017 recruiting class that he wanted to be at a program “where I could be a part of making a change”. Even with it being with a coaching staff who didn’t sign Woods, the 290-pounder will leave his football career having seen a massive turnaround in Bielema’s second season in Champaign.
“I will always be a Illinois alum and this will always be my program but this coaching staff has embraced me in a way I couldn’t imagine,” Woods said. “I’m so thankful and blessed to have this opportunity to have one more experience with my guys and that bond will be for a lifetime no matter where I’m headed.”
Outside of football, Woods speaks proudly of his ability as a chef who aspires to own a food truck after his college football days are finished and has produced a rap album on Spotify. The 23-year-old is one of the few members of this Illini roster that can remember how bad the program had spiraled under Lovie Smith and has transformed his final season into a productive campaign with five unassisted tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a veteran presence behind ‘The Law Firm’ All-Big Ten combination of Jer'Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph.
When Illinois accepted the ReliaQuest Bowl invitation, Woods sent out this message on Twitter: “Big Bob would have loved this bowl game.” in reference to his friend and former teammate Bobby Roundtree, who passed away in 2021.
“Once I heard Tampa, I knew it was special and maybe fate,” Woods said. “I get to come down here and visit with his family. I talked to his mom multiple times over the phone before we made the trip. They’re doing okay but I want them and specifically his mom to know that I’m always thinking of them. Her mom is my mom for the rest of my life.”
Woods is part of an Illinois roster filled with several players on their sixth-year and even seventh-year of eligibility including quarterback Tommy DeVito, safety Kendall Smith, offensive lineman Alex Palczewski, center Alex Pihlstrom, tight end Michael Marchese and wide receiver Kody Case. Shortly after being hired as the 26th head football coach in Illinois history, Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman made a promise to Bielema that other Big Ten Conference athletics directors weren’t willing to make.
“I’m not gonna skip a step to get to where we wanna be, but I’m trying to be good now,” Bielema said in 2021. “I don’t want to wait three years from now. I think the way the rules are set up right now, I think you can kinda try to do that.”
In the following 2021 season, the 85 scholarship limit was eliminated and Illinois administration allowed any player to return to the roster regardless of age and giving Woods, who was a cherished find by Lovie Smith’s coaching staff, an opportunity to have a home for one season and likely the remainder of his time at Illinois.
“So, they make a coaching change and you’re thinking this guy is going want me to leave and he’s going to push me to leave to make room for his guys and it was the exact opposite,”
Before Whitman made this deal with his new football coach, Woods wasn’t sure if his skills would be wanted in Champaign after he spent my time on injured reserve than on the playing field in his first four seasons on campus. Woods missed eight games in 2018, four games in 2019, and four
games in 2020 due to injury. Other Big Ten Conference athletics departments were public in telling players with the same injured-prone reputation of Woods that they wouldn’t be continuing their eligibility despite the COVID-19 season of 2020 being a freebie year. Bielema went one step further by campaigning players like Woods used a medical redshirt year and the COVID-19 year to get six years of playing experience for the Illini.
“Yeah, when I took the job two years ago, I told Josh, coming out of COVID, entering the portal, it's really allowed you for a coach taking over a program, allows you to flip your roster pretty quickly into your skill sets,” Bielema said Wednesday. “What I didn't realize, and I had a personnel meeting yesterday, and it was brought to my attention, we are one of the top five or tied for second, whatever it was, in fewest guys in the portal. I didn't really know that. I don't really count it. I didn't track it. I've been listening to some of these bowl games. I heard as high as 20 guys in the portal. To me that's, like, crazy.
It is this promise by Whitman and subsequently the attitude of Bielema that quality pieces from Lovie Smith’s program would be welcome in this rebuild that allows Woods to enjoy this bowl game reward Bielema and Mississippi State head coach Zach Arnett spoke eloquently about on Wednesday afternoon.
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