Numbers show progress, but near-misses frustrate Bulldogs in Auburn loss

STARKVILLE – If the early numbers are to be believed, Mississippi State’s offense has already made a big step forward from last year’s unit, which ranked 113th in the country in total offense for the second straight season.
Through two games, the Bulldogs are tied for 76th with 353.5 yards per game. They averaged just 276.0 last fall under Sylvester Croom.
State had only 29 offensive plays of 20 yards or more in 2008, but it’s had seven of those already.
Through its first two games last year, MSU scored a total of 48 points. Through the first two games of this year, it’s scored 69.
Here’s the catch: Most of those good numbers came against Jackson State in Week 1.
In last week’s 49-24 loss to Auburn, the Bulldogs showed flashes of progress but struggled to find a flow in the second half. Special teams scored a touchdown, which means the offense actually put just 17 points on the board.
In the second half, MSU was held to 126 yards. Quarterback Chris Relf was intercepted twice.
MSU’s offense had only three penalties, but it was three too many for coach Dan Mullen.
“You can’t have negative plays. You can’t have penalties,” he said. “We’re not executing at a high enough level offensively to overcome mistakes.”
Starting left guard Quentin Saulsberry said he thought MSU was close on several occasions to making a big play against Auburn.
“There’s a lot of things we’ve got to clean up each and every week, each and every day, just specific things fundamentally,” Saulsberry said. “We saw on film, we were watching it (Sunday), and we see some things, a six-yard play could easily be a 60-yard play. It’s just the little things at times that’s keeping us from that.”
Close isn’t good enough for offensive coordinator Les Koenning.
“It was (close), but still, it didn’t happen, so you can’t say that,” Koenning said. “You can, but we would rather see it happen than talk about it. It’s so easy to talk about it and say, ‘If this had happened it would have been really nice,’ but it didn’t happen.”
Mullen expressed regret at not throwing deep early in the game, but that raises another issue: the passing game. Relf was off target most of the night, and senior Tyson Lee was average.
Mullen sticks by his decision to play both QBs, saying it’s the best way for each of them to progress. His biggest concern there is the timing with the receivers.
Lee said he and Relf are fine with the two-QB approach.
“Chris and I both know the offense, we both know the plays,” Lee said. “Depending on who coach wants in at the time, we’ll run the plays. As far as being hard for us, I think we pick it up easily, and we roll with it.”
As for the rest of the team, Koenning still sees a disconnect between the preparation and the application. Making that connection is key to making this offense click.
“When you’re being pushed hard, now all of a sudden you have to do it in a pressure situation, and you’re finding out exactly what happens,” Koenning said. “Everybody, when we walk in a meeting, goes, ‘I’ve got it, I’ve got it.’ Well, did you have it?
“Obviously, the film doesn’t lie, and there’s just one little thing that kind of stumped our toe, one here, one there when we went through it, and it’s frustrating.”

Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or brad.locke@djournal.com

Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal