Mississippi State smashed both the school record for offensive yardage and the helpless host Tigers with a 59-14 at the Liberty Bowl. The Bulldogs made opening night of Coach Dan Mullen’s third season one literally for the books, piling up an all-time best 645 yards. This more than erased the mark of 597 set against Florida State all the way back in 1978.
Did Mullen, who was all of six years old when that record was set, have any notion his third Bulldog team could put on such an opening night act? “Sure!” he quipped.
Somewhat more seriously, “I’m happy we’re balanced. We had 309 yards rushing and 336 passing. And a lot of big plays. A lot of big plays. I love all those explosive plays.”
The Bulldogs were indeed explosive, and it was Memphis caught in the blast. Six plays went for 37 yards or more—often lots more. And six times State was able to score starting from beyond the red zone. Just to keep the coach happier, the three times State did snap the ball inside the Tiger twenty-yard line they also scored points.
“Everybody did pretty good,” said tailback Vick Ballard. “But there’s always things we can work on.”
True, but there couldn’t have been much anything else Ballard could have done better. He opened his senior season with his own record-night, rushing for a (to date) collegiate best 166 yards on just ten total carries. More impressively, three of those ten totes produced touchdowns.
Most impressively? Twice Ballard converted routine-looking runs into great big bursts, of 46 yards in the first quarter and 66 more in the second. Each was good for six points and helped stake State to a 31-7 intermission lead. Ballard got his third score on a far shorter but more acrobatic move as he vaulted the goal line from a yard out midway of the third quarter. The three touchdowns tied his personal MSU mark.
Not, Ballard said, that he even knew he was on a record running rate. “I think I can have a game like this every game. I’ve just got to go out there and produce, to do my job and let everything happen.”
Make it happen, more like it. Though Ballard acknowledged his big first-half blasts, each on the same type of play call actually, were set up by State’s first touchdown. That came on the second offensive series beginning just the far side of midfield after Ballard had punched out nine yards on first down. With the Tigers crowding the line, quarterback Chris Relf was signaled to play-fake and look long for Chad Bumphis.
“I saw they were in six-inverted coverage and I just hit the post,” said Relf. “Chad made a good catch.” For a 44-yard touchdown less than four minutes into the new season. Relf got a similar look early in the second period too and cashed in, hitting Arceto Clark for a 35-yard score and 24-0 lead.
“All credit goes to my o-line,” said Relf. Well, and to the hard hitting of Ballard between the tackles, too. “We were going to run gas, gas, gas and open up with a big play,” Relf said. It worked so well that long before halftime Memphis was the one out of gas.
What might have been most remarkable about the big offensive numbers was how Relf made it look so ordinary as he threw for 202 yards and the two touchdowns. “Which is what we want of Chris,” Mullen said. “13-of-21, and he had a couple of drops. He managed the offense very well, I thought he distributed the ball, was never flustered, he got rid of it when he needed to get rid of it. I’m pretty pleased with his management.
Relf, as well as Ballard, were both able to retire to the sidelines after the latter’s last touchdown and with a 38-7 lead. Tyler Russell ran the rest of the show and netted 138 passing yards of his own, completing five of nine tries. He was on the throwing end of the night’s longest play, too, finding Jameon Lewis open for a grab and go that covered 80 whole yards. Lewis, the redshirt freshman, also had a 19-yard touchdown on an end-around run.
For good measure Russell put the punctuation mark on MSU’s win when at 2:41 remaining he went naked-boot around the left end on a 4th-and-10 and beat coverage to the pylon 26 yards away. It was his first rushing score at State. Between them Russell and Relf ran for 83 more yards, as the Bulldog averaged 8.1 each rush.
Memphis did debut their fancy new blue and silver uniforms to open the 2011 season. But they forgot white…as in the white flag which ought to have waved as soon as State scored for the third time in their first quarter. The 17 points were the most in an opening period, of an opening game, on record in at least 21 years.
Though as Mullen said, “That’s a better team than we played last year. they executed ‘cleaner’ in a lot of things. Larry Porter is doing a good job trying to get that program going in the right direction.” The MSU coach could afford to be generous with wins of 49-7 and now this 59-14 margin over Tiger teams.
Mullen was correct in regard to more Memphis proficiency in their new spread offense. They were able to run for 164 net yards, 85 by Artaves Gibson and 63 more by Billy Foster. Two Tiger quarterbacks combined for 174 more yards on 26-of-40 throwing with one interception and a touchdown. The score came off backup Reed Taylor’s arm after he took over for battered starter Andy Summerlin.
Either way, “Not much fooled us, we see the same thing every day,” said defensive tackle Devin Jones of the Dog defense’s regular exposure to a spread as MSU runs it. “Coach (Chris) Wilson did a wonderful job saying what they might do when they were in formations, what we might get.”
Despite the ground yards, the Tigers were forced for a half to try lots of short passing and under pressure. “They were a little ‘dinky’,” safety Charles Mitchell said. Not until State began running lots and lots of their own backups onto the field did the Tigers get many real drives going. And just two ended up with points.
“We had too many missed tackles but other than that we were pretty solid,” Mitchell said. “Everybody was doing their job I don’t think we had too many ma’s.” Enough second- and third-line defenders got in that tackle stats were spread all over the roster. Linebacker Deonte Skinner had seven stops, four teammates five each, and rookie corner Jamerson Love had two tackles for loss to lead the team.
It was great we got to play a lot of players and they got experience,” Mullen said. “I think we had over twenty freshmen play tonight.” A total of 23 first-time players, whether true freshmen, redshirts, or transfers made their debut in a big win.
If Mullen had a sore point on opening evening it was special teams. Some weren’t so special, with a failed fake punt, a kickoff caught and run out of bounds at the two-yard line, then a punt done the same at the one, and a missed 47-yard field goal. None of Brian Egan’s kickoffs were touchbacks. At least State’s coverage was efficient, regularly contributing to miserable Memphis field position whether on punts or kickoffs. Of the Tigers’ first ten possessions seven began inside their 15-yard line.
If not happy about these gaffes, or five first half penalties at the line of scrimmage, or some off-tempo offense a few—very few—times, this evening gave Mullen the best of all possible outcomes from a coaching perspective. “We came out with a good win, and there’s a lot of good teaching moments--more than I want to really count!--that have to get fixed and things we have to do to improve to achieve any of the goals we want.”
The Bulldogs also get a free weekend to relax after the big opening, but also begin head-start work on the real start to the real season. The next bunch of Tigers on the schedule is much tougher task with State traveling to Auburn. Still, Mullen said, “It’s great we can teach all that off of a win. We’ve got ten days to get all those little things fixed and go on the road and try to win a big-time football game.”