STARKVILLE – When the Countdown Clock reached zero, it was Mississippi State’s time.
In his first season as coach, MSU’s Dan Mullen pointed his players toward this game, their locker room clock helping them keep an eye on it all year.
Saturday, the Bulldogs administered a physical beating similar to the one they endured 45-0 in Oxford last year.
Led by backup quarterback Chris Relf and tailback Anthony Dixon, MSU rushed for 317 yards to beat No. 20 Ole Miss 41-27, much to the delight of the majority of the 55,365 fans in a sellout crowd at Scott Field.
The Bulldogs (5-7, 3-5 SEC) concluded their season, while the Rebels (8-4, 4-4 SEC) must wait to learn what bowl they’ll compete in after their first November loss in two seasons under head coach Houston Nutt.
Dixon rushed for a game-high 133 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries, but he didn’t hit his groove until Relf had announced his presence.
Dixon had just 17 yards on 10 carries in the first half. It was late in the first half that Mullen got away from starter Tyson Lee and began to use Relf almost exclusively.
Relf finished with 131 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. He passed sparingly but effectively, completing 3-for-5 attempts for 43 yards and two scores, one for 34 yards to Tupelo freshman Chad Bumphis.
Relf outdueled Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead, who was 17-for-29 passing for 275 yards and three touchdowns but also threw three interception.
Those miscues led to 14 points, with his third pickoff returned 64 yards for a touchdown by Corey Broomfield. The kick made the score 41-20 with 5:17 left, a dagger in the Ole Miss comeback attempt.
Mullen said Relf brought consistency to the offense.
“We were going back and forth for a while, but Chris got it rolling and got a feel for what was going on. I think they had 11 guys on the line of scrimmage, and we were still able to run the football.”
Ole Miss entered the game fourth in the SEC in run defense and had not given up as many as 200 yards in a game since Oct. 17 against UAB.
Relf made reads on the option and picked his holes, and his 235-pound frame made him tough to tackle.
For Relf, it was grand end to a sophomore season that included a two-game suspension and inconsistent playing time.
“I knew I was going to play this week, because I practiced hard, and they were switching me in and out with Tyson every other play,” he said. “I know they knew they had it coming.”
The Rebels prepared for the option during the week with scout team looks that included freshman Raymond Cotton at quarterback and sophomore Enrique Davis at tailback.
“We just didn’t do a good job defending,” Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said. “We missed tackles. We had players not playing their responsibilities, and they made plays.”
“We worked on stopping that play all week, but they executed it,” Ole Miss nose tackle Jerrell Powe said. “They had more emotion than we did. They tried to hit us in the mouth, and they had a good game plan.”
While the Bulldogs rolled with Relf on offense, defensively they kept Ole Miss tailback Dexter McCluster from hurting them with big plays.
McCluster needed 93 yards to reach 1,000 for the season and no team had held to him to fewer than 123 yards since he became the full-time tailback.
State limited McCluster to 82 yards on 16 carries. He also caught five passes for 63 yards and scored on a 52-yard catch and run.
The touchdown came with 4:56 to play and the Bulldogs ahead 41-20.
The teams traded punches in the first half, the Rebels taking a 6-3 lead in the second quarter, unable to cash in big when in close and settling for field goals (26, 28) by Joshua Shene.
Dixon capped an 81-yard drive with a 2-yard run, and State led 10-6 with 3 minutes, 22 seconds left in the half.
Relf began to assert himself on that drive with four carries for 57 yards.
In spite of that, Nutt liked his team’s position after Snead ended a six-play, 73-yard drive with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Shay Hodge on a fade route. Ole Miss regained the lead at 13-10 and carried that advantage into the break.
“I thought they got off to an emotional start, and we were on the right track,” Nutt said. “I thought we would take care of business in the second half.”
Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal