By The Associated Press
STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Never in No. 16 Mississippi State’s 112-year football history have the Bulldogs had as effective of an offense as they did during Thursday night’s victory over the Memphis Tigers.
The school-record 645 total yards in the game included 336 through the air and another 309 on the ground.
Quarterback Chris Relf made it look easy, tossing a pair of touchdown passes. Vick Ballard rushed for 166 yards and three touchdowns, carving up the Memphis defense.
The result was a dominant 59-14 win that begs this question: Is Mississippi State really this good? Or was Memphis just that bad?
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen isn’t sure, but he’s pleased the Bulldogs haven’t shown any signs of complacency so far.
“You look on offense and we’re not patting ourselves on the back for setting school records,” Mullen said. “In their mind, it’s how can we be better? How can we execute at a higher level? How can we be cleaner and more efficient?”
The Bulldogs (1-0), who moved up four spots in this week’s Associated Press poll, open Southeastern Conference play on Saturday against Auburn (1-0) at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The game will undoubtedly be a much more stringent test for the Mississippi State offense.
Some skepticism of a repeat performance is warranted. Even though Mississippi State had a breakthrough year in 2010 with a 9-4 record and Gator Bowl victory, much of that success could be credited to the defense. The offense was solid, but averaged just 29 points per game, which ranked 10th out of the 12-team league.
With nine offensive starters returning, the Bulldogs have grown older, wiser and — if judging by the first game — better. Relf said the first game was a good start, but SEC competition is entirely different.
“There’s a lot of work we have to do to get better,” Relf said. “We had a lot of mental mistakes with penalties (against Memphis) and we just need to work hard to execute better on Saturday.”
Relf’s continued growth has been one of the main factors in the offense’s improvement. He completed 13 of 21 passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns against Memphis and continues to change the perception that he’s a run-first quarterback. Ballard has been excellent since he stepped on campus last season, rushing for at least three touchdowns in five of his 13 career games.
That consistent production has allowed the Bulldogs to open the playbook.
“You give players more when they understand more and obviously on offense, we’ve got a lot of kids that have played,” Mississippi State offensive coordinator Les Koenning said.
Auburn fell out of the Associated Press Top 25 this week after needing a late surge to beat Utah State 42-38 on Saturday. The Tigers are a shell of their 2010 selves, when they went undefeated and won the national championship. Not only is star quarterback Cam Newton gone, but so are 14 other starters from a year ago.
Oddsmakers apparently see tough times ahead for the Tigers. Mississippi State is favored by about a touchdown even though Auburn has won nine out of the past 10 in the series, including the last three.
Auburn coach Gene Chizik said Mississippi State is an “extremely physical, downhill football team.”
“That offense right now is clicking,” Chizik said. “It’s hitting on all cylinders. There’s no question there’s a lot of confidence. They’re physical. They’ve got a great complimentary pass game to the run game. Scoring over 50 points in their last two games is not by accident.”
But Koenning disagrees with the notion that youth makes Auburn an easy target.
“They don’t just all of sudden turn bad — that doesn’t happen,” Koenning said. “That’s not true. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens. When you’re playing youthful players, you’re always going through growing pains.”