By Brad Locke | NEMS Daily Journal
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Mississippi State’s offense found a few answers, and more importantly, an SEC win.
Employing a very effective two-quarterback system, the Bulldogs shook off some recent offensive struggles and handed Kentucky a 28-16 loss at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday night.
MSU (4-4, 1-4 SEC) avoided its first 0-5 league start in five years and drew within two games of bowl eligibility.
Tyler Russell started at quarterback for the second consecutive game, but the man he supplanted, senior Chris Relf, also saw plenty of action and accounted for three touchdowns – two rushing, one passing. The duo kept Kentucky’s defense off-balance for much of the game, as MSU totaled 398 yards of offense.
“It’s my senior year, and nobody wants to have no losing season their senior year,” said Relf, who was 6 of 9 for 92 yards passing. “I want to go to a bowl game, so that’s what I’m shooting for.”
Coming in, the Bulldogs had scored just one offensive touchdown in its three previous SEC games, and a big part of that was due to struggles in the red zone. Against Kentucky (3-5, 0-4), State scored on four of its five red zone chances.
That helped offset three turnovers in the first half, as did a stingy defense. Kentucky took over at the Bulldogs’ 21-yard line in the first quarter after a fumble, then at the 23 after another one.
The Wildcats managed only field goals both times, gaining a total of 24 yards on the two possessions.
“That’s our motto. They can get down there, they just can’t cross the goal line,” middle linebacker Brandon Wilson said.
MSU took a commanding 21-6 lead into halftime. When it wasn’t turning the ball over, State moved it at will, and it ran smoothly with the quarterback platoon, which was established early when Relf entered on the second possession and directed an 80-yard scoring drive.
Relf hit Ricco Sanders for a 15-yard touchdown and a 7-3 lead.
Later in the first, Russell directed a touchdown drive that Relf finished off. A 40-yard pass from Russell to Carr set up Relf’s 3-yard TD run for a 14-3 edge.
Relf added a 12-yard scoring run in the second quarter, but he was intercepted at the Kentucky 2-yard line just before halftime.
MSU’s three first-half scoring drives took a combined 6:09 off the clock.
“They hit us with some play-actions because they run the ball so well,” Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said. “Linebackers have to pay attention to the play fakes, how they get behind you with the tight ends and the wide receivers.”
Big plays were plentiful for MSU, which had found the downfield passing game troublesome previous weeks. Tight end Marcus Green had a 50-yard catch to set up a touchdown, and Michael Carr made a nice 40-yard grab to set up another.
“We’ve had a couple opportunities like that (this season), it’s been just off the fingertips, we just didn’t make the catch,” MSU head coach Dan Mullen said. “And tonight we came up and we made some of those big catches. That’s the difference between winning and losing.”
Kentucky lost starting quarterback Morgan Newton in the first quarter when he hurt his ankle on a Fletcher Cox sack. Maxwell Smith came in and was sacked by Cox on the next play, but he played a solid game and made it interesting in the second half.
He finished 26 of 33 for 174 yards.
Kentucky reached MSU’s 11-yard line with a chance to make it a one-score game in the fourth, but Josh Boyd got a big sack on first down, and Corey Broomfield hit Smith as he threw on a fourth-and-7 from the 8 with 4:46 to go.
Now MSU has a chance to get back above .500 with UT-Martin, a Division I-AA school, coming to Starkville on Saturday.
“We’ve got to find a way to get a win next week, and all of a sudden we’re back, we have a winning record in the second week of November,” Mullen said. “That’s not bad.”