Mississippi State offense much improved in Year 2

STARKVILLE — Mississippi State scored 49 points against Memphis in an easy victory on Saturday. That’s the most the Bulldogs have scored in a game since 2002.

Impressive? Yes. But surprising? Second-year coach Dan Mullen doesn’t think so.

“It’s the overall understanding of the offense,” Mullen said. “They’ve learned it and have run the plays. They understand the speed of the game on Saturday. That’s a huge advantage from year one to year two.”

Mississippi State ranked ninth out of 12 Southeastern Conference teams in scoring offense last season, but the Bulldogs are much more confident in their ability to score points in bunches.

Improved quarterback play is the most obvious difference. Redshirt freshman Tyler Russell completed 13 of 16 passes for 256 yards and tied a school record with four touchdowns against Memphis. Junior Chris Relf, who started, completed 7 of 9 passes for 116 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Mullen was pleased with his quarterbacks, but said all facets of the offense have improved. The Bulldogs (1-0) face a quick turnaround before playing Auburn (1-0) on Thursday in Starkville.

The Tigers beat Arkansas State 52-26 on Saturday.

“Obviously, quarterback play has been huge for us,” Mullen said. “But our quarterback play was helped by the offensive line and the receivers. It wasn’t just the quarterbacks making spectacular throws.”

Mullen said he’ll probably continue to go with a two-quarterback system against Auburn. Russell, who was named the SEC’s Freshman of the Week on Monday, said time on the sidelines helps both quarterbacks play better when they’re in the game.

“I have the headset on, I can hear the play call and see the defense react,” Russell said. “So when I get out there I know what the defense is going to do.”

Auburn coach Gene Chizik said the Bulldogs have shown an “unbelievable amount of improvement” over the past year, and the improved passing game is a big reason.

“They can throw the ball down the field much better than they could a year before,” Chizik said. “They looked more confident with their offense.

Mississippi State’s receivers have been the beneficiaries of the wide-open offense.

Brandon Heavens caught five passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns. Chad Bumphis nearly matched him with four catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns. The two sophomores play the same position, and split playing time almost evenly against Memphis.

Bumphis’ good game wasn’t a surprise. He led the team with 375 receiving yards and four touchdowns in 2009 as a true freshman. But Heavens rarely played as the coaching staff worked to put about 25 pounds on his skinny 5-foot-10 frame.

Offensive coordinator Les Koenning said as the offense continues to add viable options, the playbook expands. But execution is still the most important issue.

“The thing we told our kids — it’s not the play call, it’s how you execute that play,” Koenning said. “There’s all kinds of plays. But it’s not worth a darn unless you execute, and they went out and executed the plays (against Memphis) and that’s what we’re most proud of.”

David Brandt/The Associated Press