By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
HOUSTON – Chris Relf is finally becoming a bona fide passing quarterback, but he’s still got a long way to go.
A testimony to the first claim can be found in these numbers: A 61.1 percent completion rate for 618 yards and five touchdowns.
Evidence for the latter claim: three interceptions (and it could be more) and six fumbles.
Fortunately for the Mississippi State junior, only one of those fumbles has been recovered by the opponent. That doesn’t mean head coach Dan Mullen has let the miscues slide, and he’s been addressing the issue with Relf this week as the Bulldogs prepared for today’s game at Houston.
“Two of (the fumbles) are, while he’s running with the football, bad ball security, and that’s just a lack of mental focus and mental toughness,” Mullen said. “On the option, (the key) is just be definitive in your decision-making. When you make a decision, trust your decision, stick with it and go with it.”
As offensive coordinator Les Koenning put it, “Ball security (equals) job security.”
Decision-making is what’s been of greatest concern for coaches. While Relf has made some sharp throws – like the 33-yard touchdown to Arceto Clark against Georgia, or the bullet between two defenders for a TD to Chad Bumphis against Alcorn State – Relf can drive his coaches batty.
Against LSU, for instance, pressure came quick on one play and he lobbed a pass high into the air. It was easily picked off.
He did the same thing against Georgia, but a defensive penalty wiped out the play.
“Thank goodness the TV camera wasn’t on me,” Koenning said of the play against Georgia. “I came out of the press box pretty hot, I came off my seat pretty hot. He knows better than that, and he knew better than that, and after it was over with he said, ‘Coach, that wasn’t real good.’ I said, ‘Naw, it wasn’t, Chris.’ I said, ‘But you got away with it, now let’s go back and concentrate and learn from it.’”
As for the actual exercise of throwing a football, and throwing it accurately, Relf has come miles.
“When he first came here it was kind of rugged, it really was,” Koenning said. “But he’s understanding movement, keys, progressions and coverages, and that’s been a great part of his success, understanding that and being able to develop into a quarterback.”
Relf has always made plays with his legs, and now he’s making them with his arm. He’s a big reason MSU has converted 50 percent of its third downs, which ranks second in the SEC, and he ranks sixth among SEC quarterbacks in pass efficiency with a 147.8 rating.
Last season, in limited duty, Relf completed 53.7 percent of his throws for 283 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions. Now that he’s gotten a chance to be the man – and it’s looking increasingly like backup Tyler Russell is going to have to settle for spot duty right now – Relf is seizing the chance.
“He’s a guy that, it just shows, if you really work hard, the improvement you can make,” Mullen said, “and that’s the most important thing you can do.”
Tonight’s game at a glance
– Where: Houston, Robertson Stadium, Houston
– Kickoff: 7 p.m. n Television: CBS College Sports.
– Radio: MSU Network; XM 198; Sirius 212.
– Records: MSU 3-2, Houston 3-1.
– Rankings: Both teams receiving votes in USA Today poll.
– Series: Houston leads 9-6.
– Last meeting: Houston won 31-24 on Oct. 10, 2009, as MSU committed four turnovers.
n Coaches – Houston: Kevin Sumlin, 21-10, third year; MSU: Dan Mullen, 8-9, second year.
– Statistical leaders – Houston: QB Terrance Broadway 24-36-1, 258 yards, 1 TD; WR Patrick Edwards 19-259, 1 TD; RB Bryce Beall 62-418, 9 TDs; LB Marcus McGraw 33 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries; MSU: QB Chris Relf 44-72-3, 618 yards, 5 TDs passing, 51-199 rushing; RB Vick Ballard 44-284, 8 TDs; WR Chad Bumphis 25-352, 4 TDs; LB Chris White 35 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks.
– Trends: MSU has shut out each of its first five opponents for at least two quarters. … State has won two in a row, but it’s won three straight just once since the start of the 2001 season. … In its last two wins, MSU has run few offensive plays than its opponents. … Houston has won 18 consecutive games at home, the fourth-longest current streak in the country.
– Notes: Junior linebacker Sammy Brown is the lone Houston player from Mississippi (Wiggins). … MSU coach Dan Mullen recruited Houston’s Broadway, who’s a freshman. … Houston WR James Cleveland has been suspended for this game for a violation of team rules. … MSU’s 50-percent conversion rate on third downs ranks second in the SEC.
– Summing it up: “They’re going to move the football; you’ve got to keep them out of the end zone.” – MSU defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, on Houston’s offense
– Prediction: MSU, 34-23.