By NEMS Daily Journal
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Mississippi State’s depth chart for Saturday night’s game at Kentucky listed “Chris Relf or Tyler Russell” as the first-string quarterback.
The “or” should have been an “and.”
Relf and Russell combined for 261 yards passing, the team’s highest total since the season opener against Memphis, and each threw a touchdown pass. Relf also ran for two scores in the Bulldogs’ 28-16 victory.
Russell earned his second start of the season, but the two quarterbacks split time almost evenly. The plan proved successful for the Bulldogs — Russell’s style as a pocket passer contrasted with Relf’s reputation as a running quarterback, and Kentucky’s defense failed to adjust to either.
“I think both of them played well,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “Both of them had a great week of practice. On the plane ride up here, we talked about how they graded in practice. One was 72; the other 73. I said to Tyler, ‘You’re going to go the first series,’ and (to) Chris, ‘You’re going to go in on the second. And we’ll keep going back and forth.’ I think both of them played pretty well tonight.”
Mullen and Mississippi State (4-4, 1-4 Southeastern Conference) kept Kentucky’s defense on its toes not only by swapping quarterbacks, but by doing so in the middle of drives.
After Relf led a touchdown drive midway through the first quarter, Mullen sent Russell out for the next drive. Russell completed a 40-yard pass to Michael Carr, and as the rest of Mississippi State’s offense ran to the new line of scrimmage, Russell and Relf swapped.
Two plays later, Relf ran untouched into the end zone from 3 yards out.
“I think it really opens it up,” Russell said. “The defense doesn’t know what to do. There would be times the defense would think Chris would be in the game, which really opened up the pass for me.”
The offense wasn’t perfect, though. It turned the ball over three times — one on a miscommunication from the shotgun, when the ball was snapped and deflected off a Mississippi State player who was in motion. Both fumbles lost by Mississippi State were recovered inside the Bulldogs’ 25-yard line.
But the Wildcats (3-5, 0-4) failed to capitalize, scoring field goals on both drives.
Kentucky quarterback Morgan Newton left the game in the first quarter after suffering a high ankle sprain. Freshman Maxwell Smith replaced him, struggling on early drives, but finding a rhythm in the second half. He led the Wildcats on a drive late in the fourth quarter with his team down two possessions, converting on third downs in the air three times during the drive.
But his fourth-and-7 pass from the Mississippi State 8-yard line with 4:46 left sailed over La’Rod King’s head.
After the game, Russell said it didn’t matter to him who played quarterback because both he and Relf will be ready whenever their number is called.
“There is no quarterback controversy,” Mullen said. “It could be a toss-up. We’ll have to see how it goes. Those guys know what to do.
“They are comfortable. There are some advantages to rotating them to give us flexibility.”
Read more in Sunday’s NEMS Daily Journal newspaper.