By David Brandt/The Associated Press
STARKVILLE — A bumbling offense and brutal schedule have put a big dent in Mississippi State’s high hopes for the season.
Instead of dreaming about winning the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division and earning a spot in Atlanta, the Bulldogs are simply trying to figure out a way to six wins and become bowl eligible for a second consecutive season.
It’s been a quick dive from the heady days of early September, when Mississippi State was ranked as high No. 16 before back-to-back losses to Auburn and LSU. The latest setback was Saturday’s 24-10 loss to Georgia. The Bulldogs managed just 213 total yards while falling to 2-3 overall, including 0-3 in the SEC.
“Playing the SEC schedule like we do, being in the conference we are, you’re going to get some punches thrown your way,” Mississippi State linebacker Cameron Lawrence said. “It’s all about how you respond. We’ve definitely been thrown a few punches. Now it’s about how we respond.”
Mississippi State’s ability to bounce back would be greatly helped if it can find a way to fix an offense that’s managed just two touchdowns in the past three games. The Bulldogs have long relied on a bruising running game led by quarterback Chris Relf and running back Vick Ballard, but the duo has been slowed in recent weeks.
One of the biggest reasons is injuries along the offensive line, which have forced the Bulldogs to use four different starting lineups in five games. Right tackle Addison Lawrence said there haven’t been widespread breakdowns, but there have been very few “perfect plays” when all five linemen have done their job.
“It’s very frustrating knowing that four guys will have their guy blocked and then one guy will miss his,” MSU right tackle Addison Lawrence said. “It’s not the same guy every time and that’s what’s frustrating. We’re not all five on the same page. We have to get that. It’ll take a little time, but once we get everyone settled into their position, we’ll be fine.”
There’s not much time to fix things. The Bulldogs have a non-conference game against Alabama-Birmingham on Saturday, but then dive right back into conference play on Oct. 15 against South Carolina.
Coach Dan Mullen admits there hasn’t been much flow to the offense in the recent weeks. Mississippi State has often had to stray from its usually effective running game because mistakes have forced the offense into bad situations. Plays that can be effective on 1st and 10 aren’t nearly as appealing on 2nd and 14.
“What takes you out of the flow is negatives,” Mullen said. “We had nine negative yardage plays on offense, five penalties on offense and three turnovers. You add all that up and you have about 30 percent of the game where you had that going on. You add some incompletions and that makes 40 percent where you aren’t even getting four yards on a play.”
Mississippi State’s problems can’t all be blamed on the offensive line. Relf has thrown just four touchdowns this season to five interceptions, and the good decision-making that made him so effective last season has given way to uncertainty in the pocket and bad throws. Ballard carried the ball just eight times for 23 yards against Georgia.
The duo’s struggles are related. When Relf isn’t passing well, opposing defenses can pack players close to the line of scrimmage, making it nearly impossible for either player to find running room.
Mullen said Relf’s confidence isn’t an issue and he’s certain his quarterback will turn things around.
“Sometimes he’s good, sometimes he’s bad — a little inconsistent at times,” Mullen said. “He’s a senior, he’s been through it. We were 1-2 last year, and he turned it around and led us on a little win streak. That’s got to be the focus.”