Which is just what Mississippi State did all evening at Kentucky. Even better, Tyler Russell and Chris Relf alternatively drove the Bulldog offense up and down the field four time for touchdowns in a 28-16 victory at Kentucky. Visiting State scored its first conference victory of the season and left Commonwealth Stadium 4-4 overall, 1-4 SEC. The Wildcats slid to 3-5, 0-4.
Three of the touchdowns were the direct responsibility of Relf, who had not seen any on-field action since halftime at UAB. A six-quarter layoff, and losing his starting job, didn’t seem any problem for the senior though.
“I’m always confident,” Relf said. “It’s just a matter of them calling my name and going out there and doing my job.” Did he ever. Entering as scheduled for the second series, he drove State 80 yards in eight plays capped by a 15-yard touchdown strike to WR Ricco Sanders that put the Bulldogs ahead 7-3.
A lead that expanded to 21-6 at halftime after Relf twice ran the ball in himself, with touchdown dashes of three and 12 yards. If Relf felt any personal vindication from the outstanding effort, he kept it in-check nicely.
“When my name was called I just had to go out and do my job. Just like Tyler.”
Russell, who’d taken over from Relf for the rally at UAB and then earned starting status, wasn’t shabby either. He accounted for the final Mississippi State score on a 13-yard strike to TE Malcolm Johnson in the third quarter, providing all the margin needed to get that much-sought SEC victory.
“A lot of people try to make a big deal out of it,” Russell said. “But whoever Coach calls we’re going to be ready. I felt comfortable about it, it was pretty much the same situation. All you have to do is go out and execute.”
Mullen was certainly satisfied how this revised rotation of his triggermen worked. “I think both of them played pretty well tonight. They both had a great week of practice.” Not just that, but so close were the results—which coordinator/QB coach Les Koenning said was a single point apart, though he would not say which had that point—that Mullen couldn’t make a call until on the plane yesterday. And, that it would be a rotation to start and an alternation as events played out.
Both quarterbacks were willing, and proved able. “I’m comfortable,” said Russell. “As long as we win, I don’t care!”
Russell came out atop the stat sheet, 9-of-12 for 172 yards and the last touchdowns. Relf was 6-of-9 for 92 yards and the first score, and did have an interception just before halftime. “He made the right decision, just made a poor throw and kind of floated the ball out there,” Mullen said. Kentucky couldn’t use that turnover.
For that matter the Wildcats didn’t take enough advantage of two other Bulldog turnovers, both forced fumbles in the first half. Those became field goals; points to be sure but not nearly what the home team needed…or the home crowd wanted. In fact the first three times Kentucky made Mississippi State’s red zone they went to fourth down, and blinked. Instead of making a statement or at least trying their luck, the Wildcats kicked for nine points.
Actually that was a statement being made: that UK didn’t want to test its luck against a Dog defense that allowed yards but not touchdowns until too late to matter.
“That’s the big thing, just keep them out of the end zone,” said DT Fletcher Cox. “Keep them to field goals at all times. It’s a big show of respect.”
Cox had a game to respect. Of his seven credited tackles 3.5 were for losses and a pair were sacks, or as many baggings as he’d had the previous six games. But that was only half the total because DT Josh Boyd got one of his own, and another stop for a loss; and CB Johnthan Banks a sack as well on a corner blitz.
It was on Cox’s first sack, and the second Kentucky series, that starting quarterback Morgan Newton was put out for the rest of the game with an injured left leg. Maxwell Smith went the rest of the way, throwing 33 times with 26 caught for 174 yards. But he was dropped three times as well and while he did not throw anything to the wrong team neither did he get a touchdown toss. His preferred target was obvious as Matt Roark collected 13, count ‘em, 13 receptions for 116 of the 189 air-yards. Seven other Wildcats had a catch too.
But all those numbers didn’t amount to a win. “He wasn’t a runner so we could do more things pass-rushing,” Boyd said of Smith. “With the other guy you had to keep someone in his face.” Losing the more mobile Newton crimped UK’s ground game, too, which ended with 118 net yards. Coshik Williams had 64 of those while Jonathan George got his teams’ only touchdown on a four-yard squirm at 13:50 of the fourth quarter. Though, no official was actually noticed putting both hands in the air on the goal line pileup.
Bulldog TB Vick Ballard had 90 yards on 18 runs and wasn’t dropped for a loss on any carry. For that matter neither Relf nor Russell absorbed a sack. “The O-line protected real well tonight, they worked hard in practice all week and had a bye-week to get the themselves ready for this week,” Relf said.
Both passers spread the ball around well with multiple catches for six Dogs. Johnson and Sanders both had three grabs and a touchdown apiece, while TE Marcus Green’s two catches were for 66 yards. Not only was the ball distributed but for the first game this season the vertical passing attack was productive. In a big way.
Mullen said the key was making Kentucky, the SEC’s poorest rushing defense, keep over-committed to stopping State on the ground. They tried, but the tradeoff was letting Bulldog ends—split and tight alike—go on their way downfield.
“You get some play action and they commit everybody to the line of scrimmage, you’re going to get some one-on-one situations out there. It was great to see our guys make some of those catches.” Or a lot more of those catches. State’s first touchdown typified the improvement as Relf, whose last touchdown was in overtime against Louisiana Tech, looked as if he had been doing it all season.
“Basically it was me go three steps to my left and put the ball in front of Ricco so he could go upfield.” Which Sanders did on an inside-screen. That 15-yarder completed a drive on which Relf was good on five of seven throws for 76 yards, or more than he’d thrown in a whole half at UAB.
“I felt like we really executed tonight,” Relf said. “Up front, at the wide receiver position, and at the quarterback position.”
Especially at that key position, and with two Dogs confidently and comfortably taking their turns and shots. Mullen wasn’t entirely pleased with a scoreless fourth quarter when the Wildcats finally went for touchdowns on fourth downs and succeeded once. The other time a corner-blitz by Corey Broomfield forced an incompletion to seal victory. But on the whole, this was the sort of SEC display the coach has sought all season.
“I’m proud of the way our guys played tonight. We made plays when we needed to make plays.” In a game, Mullen added, that the Bulldogs absolutely needed.
“We’ve put ourselves in good position to continue to have a great season. We’re 4-4 going into November, three of our last four games are at home. We have to find a way to get a win next week. I’ve said all along this is one of the most important seasons in school history and we’re battling through that right now. If we get ourselves to a bowl game this year, and hopefully a really good bowl game, we’re going in the direction we want to go in this program.”