“Coach told me in the middle of the week since I’m a senior,” said quarterback Relf. “So he let me start, and I went out there and got in a rhythm and did pretty good.”
Pretty good? Try simply excellent. Relf ran and threw and generally set the winning tone as Mississippi State defeated Ole Miss 31-3 at Scott Field. The Bulldogs ended their regular season 6-6, 2-6 SEC, to earn bowl eligibility with the specific berth to be settled next weekend. They also achieved a piece of program history by scoring the third-straight victory in this arch-rivalry, something no State squad had done since 1940-42.
The common Dog-denominator in these latest three wins? Relf was in charge of the offense, whether off the bench in 2009 or as the starter in ’10 and now ’11. Coach Dan Mullen may have used senior-ity as an excuse, but Relf’s track record against Rebel teams had to be the real reason.
“He’s won this game, he’s been in this championship game,” said Mullen, now 3-0 in the Egg Bowl in no small part due to Relf. “I think when he knows himself he has a lot of confidence in playing this game. And I thought he did an excellent job managing.”
Not just managing, dominating. The final statistics weren’t spectacular; ten rushes for 49 yards net, 8-of-13 passing for 70 yards with one turnover. But two of his completions produced touchdown plays. And his running style was as brutal on Rebel defenders as it was effective.
“Coach Mullen told me I had to run the ball in order for us to win. That’s what I went out there and did.” From the very start, with rushes of 12 and 17 yards on State’s first two snaps. It wasn’t as if MSU was trying to fool the defense either because those carries came out of an empty backfield, yet Relf rolled ahead routinely.
“It’s all about execution,” Relf said. “We did a good job running the ball and hit a few plays downfield throwing the ball. And we just executed on offense.”
Executed much like Relf did most of the 2010 season, but not too often after a couple of big September games. Offensive frustrations cost him the starting job midway of October, and his one other recent start was cut short by a concussion. But for his last appearance at Scott Field, it was the winner of ’10 showing his stuff again. “He set the tempo for the game early and managed the game the rest of the way,” said Mullen.
“I never gave up on myself,” Relf said. Nor did coach and team, none of whom was surprised at how he came up big against his favorite victim. “It just so happens the Egg Bowl he always shines,” said TB Vick Ballard.
So did Ballard for his own Senior Night showcase. SEC defenses have taken a toll on the tailback this season but the finale was worth the waiting. Just like his quarterback, Ballard looked like the 2010 edition as he rumbled through Rebels for 144 yards on 23 rushes with a touchdown. He also caught two balls, one of which turned into the evening’s opening points.
“It felt good,” said Ballard of a chance to show his old stuff again. “And all the o-line did a great job, I couldn’t asked for anything better.” Actually he had something extra, if not better, to celebrate. In the fourth quarter he broke the 1,000 yard mark for this season, only the eighth Bulldog to make that mark.
If the Relf/Ballard assault weren’t enough, TB LaDarius Perkins added 64 rushing yards with one touchdown via the ground; and another score on a catch-and-go that might as well have been a handoff. The Bulldogs just hammered at Ole Miss’ shaky rush defense to net 247 total yards and 5.1 each attempt.
“We started off running real good and I guess we just stuck with it because it was working,” said Ballard. “I don’t know if that was the gameplan but it worked.”
Yes, it was the gameplan.
“We wanted to pound our guys,” said Mullen. “Especially on a rainy night we wanted to be able to control the line of scrimmage, run the football and win that battle. And obviously we did.” Without ever fumbling the ball away, either. Ole Miss by contrast would drop the ball six times and lose it twice, as the Dog defense got in the first licks more often than not.
“We watched film and knew how to attack them, the best moves and stuff,” said MLB Brandon Wilson. “And Coach challenged us to become great blitzers, we did that in practice and it showed today.” Only two sacks were scored, by LB Cameron Lawrence and DE Sean Ferguson. But UM quarterback Barry Brunetti had a rough road trip to say the least. He finished 12-of-22 passing for 110 yards and had to haul 14 times for 23 net yards. And at least that many hard hits.
“We knew going in we had to tackle, they had a running quarterback and (Brandon) Bolden is a good SEC running back,” said Wilson. “And with the little drizzle we knew they weren’t going to let Brunetti try to pass a lot. So we had to tackle in the run game and we were prepared for that.” Lawrence added 14 tackles to his season total with that sack, while LB Deonte Skinner had nine stops and S Charles Mitchell six more. He, Skinner, and three more Dogs forced a fumble.
Bolden managed just 15 yards on six runs, yielding to Enrique Davis for 12 totes and a team-best 32 yards. Ole Miss ended up with 202 total yards compared to State’s 317, which could have been much more had the Bulldogs not relaxed down the stretch.
They could afford to.
In retrospect Ole Miss likely regretted giving State first turn with the ball. Because Relf & Company immediately rammed it downfield on a 11-play scoring drive, beginning with those consecutive double-digit quarterback keepers. He also converted 4th-and-4 on his own strength, losing his helmet in the process. At the 18-yard line Relf rolled right and sucked all support that direction before turning and throwing to Ballard.
The tailback only had to slip linebacker Joel Kight and was gone for the touchdown at 9:35, as Ole Miss cornerback Senquez Gholson decided not to tangle with lead blocker OC Dillon Day around the five.
“The first drive we executed well,” Relf said. “It all started on Q-paint, the o-line was blocking rael good and I just took the run down the field. And it just started flowing.”
Ole Miss lost the ensuing kickoff on a Mitchell strip recovered by CB Damein Anderson, but the Bulldogs did nothing with this gift and punted. So did Ole Miss after DT Fletcher Cox dropped Brunetti on third down. Their punt rolled dead at the two-yard line.
All State did was go 98 yards to double their lead, though it took a third-down facemask by UM’s Justin Smith to get the drive going. From there it was big gulps of ground as Ballard broke safety Cody Prewitt’s arm tackle for half his 21-yard gainer. On 2nd-and-3 at the Rebel 36, Relf went right on a deep option roll and absorbed the hit from Keith Lewis as he pitched. Perkins picked his way through superb downfield blocking for the touchdown at 1:22.
“Everything was sealed, all I had to do was run. They had the corners sewed-up and I could make just one cut on the safety and it was a touchdown.”
Relf wasn’t flawless in the first half, as he forced a throw into double-coverage that was deflected into Prewitt’s hands at the Bulldog 40-yard line. All this did was set up more Rebel frustration because the defense made its own statement. “The offense actually took off what, 12 minutes in the first quarter?” said Wilson. “So we were sitting there waiting, telling each other stay loose!”
And clamp down tight on Brunetti and Bolden, as the latter caught a swing-out throw on 4th-and-5 only to be chopped down immediately by CB Johnthan Banks for a loss of ground and possession. Seven snaps later the lead was 21-0. It ought to have come faster as on his fourth-straight rush Ballard got inside the one-yard line. A dubious holding call on WR Arceto Clark brought it back but Ole Miss returned the favor interfering with WR Chad Bumphis in the end zone. On 3rd-and-14 at the 20 Relf had all the time he could ask for to find Perkins at the five-yard line.
It was good enough for a first down but the Bulldog back spun out of Damien Jackson’s grasp to score at 6:51. “Yeah, it seemed they were missing a lot of tackles,” Perkins said. “They were trying to be physical but weren’t wrapping up.” The Rebels were content to wrap up the first half without having to punt as the clock ran out.
Any question of contention was answered immediately in the new half, as two rushes-in Bolden was separated from the ball by Banks with Lawrence recovering at the 27-yard line. Ballard’s two rushes were much better. After a two-yard dive he ran a counter-left through the gaping hole cleared by FB Sylvester Hemphill for the 25-yard touchdown at 13:38.
That left a lot of game still to run out before the visitors could leave and the home folk celebrate with the Golden Egg. And as Mullen said, “We got sloppy in the second half, stagnant. And we didn’t hit any shots down the field the second half, we probably should have been throwing the ball a little more because they were standing everybody at the line of scrimmage.”
Then again the Rebels weren’t going to really rally this time. Their best drive of the evening against State’s starters took a dozen plays and got them as far as the ten-yard line where on 4th-and-7 they avoided the ignominy of shutout and kicked the field goal. “It was a great stop to hold them to a field goal, a touchdown would have created more momentum for them,” said Mullen.
Besides, State had an answer early in the fourth period with a 35-yard field goal by senior Derek DePasquale for the last points of the contest. State’s backup defense made sure of that, even as Ole Miss did come very close to scoring a few pride points on their last chance. Officials on the field signaled a catch by Donte Moncrief in the end zone was good for touchdown at 0:10 seconds; review showed his foot hit out of bounds first. Brunetti was slammed for no gain on the final snap.
Yes, Mullen said, the Bulldogs could have tried more offensively to make it a blowout. “But we were playing such good defense and shutting them down we wanted to play smart and not give them any opportunity to win the game by making a mistakes. We figured the only chance they had to win the game was if we made a mistake.”
There was no mistaking Bulldog delight at scoring the latest rivalry win. Maybe the greatest, at least to the departing seniors like Ballard. “It means a lot. It’s the first time since before I was born they’ve won three straight. And I told the younger guys to keep it going, because Coach Mullen says we’re never going to lose to them and you have to back him up.”
Just the way these old Dogs did in their last go-round with Rebels. Though low-key as ever with his words, Relf’s face told the success story best. No, the entire season didn’t develop as well as everyone hoped, he most of all.
“But beating Ole Miss put our confidence on up,” Relf said. “And hopefully those guys can carry it on to next year and have a great season.”