No. 21 Mississippi State enjoys off week

By David Brandt/The Associated Press

STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — For running back Vick Ballard, Mississippi State’s six-game winning streak has been a blur.

“Coming into the season I didn’t now what to expect, but now this whole team is expecting something big,” Ballard said. “We have proven ourselves to everyone so far.”

In the midst of the program’s longest winning streak since 1999, the 21st-ranked Bulldogs (7-2, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) finally have a chance to catch their breath, getting two weeks of rest before a final three-game stretch to the season that begins with Alabama on Nov. 13 in Tuscaloosa.

There’s little secret as what’s caused Mississippi State’s recent string of success — which has included victories over Georgia, Alcorn State, Houston, Florida, Alabama-Birmigham and Saturday’s 24-17 victory over Kentucky. The Bulldogs have been remarkably consistent, winning each game by using the same script of great defense, running the football and limiting turnovers.

Ballard had another solid performance against the Wildcats, rushing for 103 yards, including a 54-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Quarterback Chris Relf also rushed for 79 yards and the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, but completed 7 of 17 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown.

MSU coach Dan Mullen hasn’t been pleased with the passing game all season, but improvement has been spotty at best. During the off week, Mullen hopes to have some extra time to pinpoint problems that will help Relf’s accuracy. The junior has completed just 53.4 percent of his passes this season for 926 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions.

“You hear me say this is a herky-jerky offense at times, and that’s what it was,” Mullen said. “We had some big plays and then some really bad plays. There were opportunities to make big plays and we missed some.”

Mullen even inserted backup quarterback Tyler Russell in for one series early in the game to shake up the offense. But the redshirt freshman misfired on both passes he threw and the Bulldogs went three-and-out.

Mullen said he wants to keep developing Russell, who is generally regarded as a better passer than Relf. But the one thing Relf has going for him is he has a knack for pulling out big plays and drives when the Bulldogs need it — like capping Saturday’s fourth-quarter touchdown drive against Kentucky with a 5-yard run up the middle to give Mississippi State its final 24-17 margin.

“We planned to play Tyler a little bit more and said we were going to do it, but I just didn’t do that it is my fault,” Mullen said. “Chris makes those drives at the end when the game is on the line, though. He knows when it is time to step up and he did that.”

Mullen probably won’t do nearly as much tinkering with Mississippi State’s defense, which has given up just 16.4 points per game in the SEC. Linebacker Chris White had another huge game for the Bulldogs, leading the team with 15 tackles against Kentucky. His 86 total tackles (3rd), 13 tackles for a loss (3rd) and five sacks (6th) all rank among the SEC’s leaders.

But the defense isn’t particularly deep, with several starters playing almost every snap. For them — the extra week is especially important.

“The SEC gets to you after a while,” White said. “Coach Mullen has been telling us all week that if we can go into the bye week 7-2, that means we’ll have the rest and the momentum going into Tuscaloosa.”