MEMPHIS — The absences that beleaguered Mississippi State football started slowly, but as the buildup to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl reached its apex, they were heavily felt. By the time the bowl game arrived Tuesday, coach Mike Leach said he “lost track of all the guys that weren’t there.”
The Bulldogs were down 16 players who might have otherwise played roles in the 34-7 loss to Texas Tech due to positive tests, virus protocols, opt-outs or injuries. Six of the players absent were starters, including left tackle Charles Cross and cornerback Martin Emerson, who declared for the NFL draft this month.
Leach told The Clarion Ledger after the postgame press conference that the coronavirus-related absences began accumulating late last week. And during the stay in Memphis, they “kind of trickled on” the next couple days. A team spokesperson said the program doesn’t differentiate between how many players were out through illness rather than injury.
But Leach never considered pulling out of the Liberty Bowl, as other teams have done in similar situations.
“Yeah, I don’t like that very much,” Leach said. “I think you try to play if you can, no matter what, because it’s an opportunity to improve, and there’s a lot of guys that get to go out there and have game experience, and certainly the bowl experience, which I think is something special. So I didn’t want to pull out if there was any way that we could play. We started losing a couple guys, but I didn’t want to pull out of it.”
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Across the country, coronavirus absences have canceled five bowl games: the Hawaii Bowl, Military Bowl, Fenway Bowl, Arizona Bowl and Holiday Bowl. Leach was determined the Liberty Bowl wouldn’t be added to that list.
The Bulldogs’ absences were perhaps most felt on defense, a unit that allowed Texas Tech to gain 512 yards. But Leach pointed out how Mississippi State played with two starting offensive linemen, a complicating factor for an offense that managed its fewest points of the season.
Quarterback Will Rogers threw for a season-low 290 yards and was sacked four times, including on consecutive plays late in the fourth quarter, part of the Bulldogs’ final push that fell short of making Tuesday’s contest close.
The four other starters missing were right tackle Scott Lashley, safety Jalen Green and defensive linemen Randy Charlton and Jaden Crumedy. The defensive depth was shattered, too, with safeties Dylan Lawrence, Shawn Preston and Kyle Cass absent. Defensive linemen Aaron Odom and Jack Harris were also missing. Linebacker Aaron Brule had transferred to Michigan State and wide receiver Malik Heath suffered an injury in a car accident.
Lashley had started each game this season, and his absence reshuffled the line. Cross had already opted out of the bowl game to prepare for the NFL Draft. Then right guard Kwatrivous Johnson suffered a leg injury during the game and didn’t return.
The slew of absences left Mississippi State shorthanded in the Liberty Bowl — and in the end, overpowered.
“You’ll have to let me know what the number was,” Leach said, “because somewhere in the middle of the week, I lost track.”
This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Despite absences, Mike Leach didn’t consider Mississippi State missing Liberty Bowl