By The Associated Press
STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Dan Mullen says there’s no panic in his program even though Mississippi State has dropped its first two Southeastern Conference games.
After losses to Auburn and LSU, the Bulldogs’ national ranking and lofty preseason expectations are gone, but Mullen is confident his team will rebound in the coming weeks.
“We’re not sitting there in a panic thinking we’re way off,” Mullen said. “We’re not that far off. To be honest with you, we’re probably a couple plays away from being 3-0.”
Mississippi State is finding out that in the unforgiving world of the SEC’s Western Division, mistakes are magnified. Now the Bulldogs (1-2) will try to fix some of their problem areas when they host Louisiana Tech (1-2) on Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium.
The biggest concern is tweaking the offense, which managed only 193 total yards and two field goals in the LSU loss. Mullen credited the Tigers’ defense with being one of the best in the nation, but also bemoaned missed opportunities in the passing game. Senior quarterback Chris Relf completed 11 of 17 passes for 96 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. He was also sacked three times.
Relf was replaced by Tyler Russell in the fourth quarter, but the sophomore didn’t fare much better, completing 4 of 8 passes for 45 yards and one interception. Mullen made it clear that Relf would still be the starter moving forward, and that MSU’s receivers share some of the blame for the LSU game.
“We’re just off the fingertips a little bit on a couple throws,” Mullen said. “I don’t know if it’s the timing so much as we’ve just got to be cleaner. We’re not missing on every throw. We’re just missing a couple deep throws here and there.”
It hasn’t helped that Mississippi State’s quarterbacks haven’t had much time in the pocket. The Bulldogs’ experienced offensive line has taken several hits because of injury. The latest blow came during the LSU game, when junior guard Tobias Smith suffered a season-ending knee injury. Left tackle James Carmon and center Quentin Saulsberry have also missed time with injuries, though Mullen hopes both can play against Louisiana Tech
Filling Smith’s spot could be done in several different ways. Redshirt freshman Blaine Clausell, who has been playing tackle in Carmon’s absence, could move to guard. Or Saulsberry could slide over to guard to make room for freshman Dillon Day at center. Offensive line coach John Hevesy was confident he had plenty of good options.
“I told them from day one of camp — you’re a shoelace away from going in,” Hevesy said. ” … We’re going to put the best five on the field.”
Saulsberry said Clausell and Day performed admirably in the Auburn and LSU games, especially considering both players are in their first college season. He hopes their improvement continues against Louisiana Tech, which narrowly lost to Houston 35-34 on Saturday.
Though Mississippi State holds a 7-3 lead in the all-time series, Louisiana Tech has won the past two meetings, including a 22-14 victory in 2008.
“Coach tells us it doesn’t matter if the Green Bay Packers are coming out there, you still have to do your job,” Saulsberry said. “It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, it’s whether you execute or not.”
A cohesive offensive line could also help the Bulldogs’ running game. Mississippi State’s potent backfield duo of Relf and running back Vick Ballard managed only 48 rushing yards in 26 attempts against LSU. That’s less than two yards per carry.
Mullen is confident the physical problems will be fixed. Now he’s just trying to make sure there are no mental scars from two difficult SEC losses.
“There’s a lot of things we want to accomplish this year that are still ahead of us,” Mullen said.