By David Brandt/The Associated Press
STARKVILLE — Mississippi State isn’t apologizing for its latest victory. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some serious causes for concern.
The Bulldogs needed overtime to beat Louisiana Tech 26-20 on Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium, turning what was supposed to be a non-conference breather into an agonizing evening. Now coach Dan Mullen is trying to fix some of the problems from that game before facing Georgia This weekend.
A big issue is igniting a sluggish offense.
Bulldogs’ quarterback Chris Relf struggled at times during Saturday’s win, completing 14 of 29 passes for 164 yards, one touchdown and one interception. The offense bogged down so much by the fourth quarter that in a tie game, Mullen elected to run the ball five straight times to end regulation — all but assuring the game would go into overtime.
The ultra-conservative strategy brought boos from the crowd.
Mullen said he didn’t blame them.
“I was pretty frustrated at times during the game, too,” Mullen said. “They were probably using more polite words than we were. We’re working, trying to get better as a football team and as a program. It’s good that our fans have high expectations. They want to win football games, too. And we did.”
The 6-foot-4, 245-pound Relf has been the one of the Bulldogs’ biggest enigmas so far this season. He often looks uncomfortable in the pocket, and has a tendency to go into mini-slumps that can make the offense one-dimensional. But just when all seems hopeless, he’ll snap out of it. Relf had missed on six straight passes at the end of Louisiana Tech game before connecting on his biggest throw of the season — a 17-yard touchdown pass to LaDarius Perkins in overtime to win.
Mullen said Relf is slowly learning to have a short memory, which he hopes will improve the quarterback’s confidence.
“You have to sit there and say, ‘Hey, this next play is its own play and I’ve got to work to execute this play at the highest of levels and not worry if you’re hot or not. Hey, I hit six in a row or missed six in a row,’” Mullen said. “None of that matters on the next play.”
Relf’s consistency issues aren’t all his own doing. Mississippi State has dealt with multiple injuries on the offensive line and the shuffling will continue this week. Senior James Carmon could move from left tackle to guard, while freshmen left tackle Blaine Clausell and center Dillon Day have been forced into the lineup.
“It’s a challenge,” MSU offensive coordinator Les Koenning said. “We’re getting a great opportunity to play some young kids. Blaine and Dillon — those guys are getting some great experience. Do we want to have that experience? Well, no, we wish we had (the starters). But that’s part of playing in the SEC. People are going to deal with injuries. When your opportunity arises you take advantage.”
Mississippi State’s defense was solid against Louisiana Tech, and has certainly improved since giving up 41 points to Auburn two weeks ago. Linebacker Brandon Wilson had 18 tackles on Saturday— the most for a Bulldogs’ player since 2004. Safety Nickoe Whitley and cornerback Johnthan Banks each had crucial interceptions late in the game.
Now the defense will face a Georgia offense that features sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray and freshman running back Isaiah Crowell, two of the most talented young playmakers in the SEC. Murray is the SEC’s third-leading passer while Crowell ranks fifth in rushing.
Wilson said it will be hard to completely stop Georgia, but the defense has to make the Bulldogs settle for some field goals.
“They can drive 80 yards — it doesn’t matter,” Wilson said. “They just can’t get in our end zone.”