STARKVILLE — Through two games, Mississippi State”s offense has had performances at opposite ends of the football spectrum.
In Mississippi State”s 49-7 season-opening win against Memphis, backup quarterback Tyler Russell threw for four touchdowns and the team eclipsed 500 yards of total offense.
But in a 17-14 loss to Auburn this past Thursday, Mississippi State was held to less than 250 yards of offense and left stewing about unforced mistakes in a game it believed it should have won.
Mississippi State (1-1, 0-1 Southeastern Conference plays at No. 15 LSU on Saturday and the offensive unit is eager to recapture the efficiency and explosiveness of Week 1.
At the forefront of the progression is the team”s quarterback rotation, which saw starter Chris Relf take the majority of snaps and navigate the last drive against Auburn. Russell threw a first-half interception and led a pair of three-and-out possessions in the same game, though he started both series inside the MSU 15 and had two first-down conversions nixed by dropped passes.
Because of the periodic breakdowns at other positions and the overall competitiveness of the Auburn match, MSU coaches aren”t about to pull the plug on the Relf-Russell combo.
The need to build Russell”s experience is a factor, but coaches believe the redshirt freshman can help the team win games this season. Just how much influence Russell will have on games the rest of the season is determined week-to-week through game performances and practice.
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen insists the starter”s job is Relf”s to lose.
“Chris will be our starter unless something happens at practice this week where one guy blows away the other guy,” Mullen said Monday.
Mullen has championed the valuable experience both quarterbacks get when watching from the sidelines. Relf and Russell acknowledge the benefits of wearing a headset instead of a helmet, but coming in and out of the game isn”t particularly easy, Relf said.
“It”s been pretty difficult, but something I”ve had to deal with right now,” Relf said. “I know when my time comes, I have to come in and make a play.”
The pressure-packed final series against Auburn, in which Relf overcame a pair of off-target throws with a 21-yard pass to convert on fourth-and-5, has provided him added confidence going to LSU.
With the experience, Relf believes he”s taken a closer step toward being “the guy,” at least at the end of games.
“It was a great experience for me,” Relf said of the last drive against Auburn. “I know I had to try and go out there and make a play. Tried to, and we just ain”t come up with it.”
It”s clear through the first two games the play calls for the two quarterbacks are tailored to fit their strengths. Relf, a superior runner, leads the team with 21 carries thus far, while Russell has just one, which came via a sack.
Relf said he and Russell are “basically” running the same plays, though Mullen”s post-Auburn assessment of wanting more carries for the running backs and a “few less out of the quarterback” hints at a need for a more balance approach under center.
Though there”s a higher probability for designed quarterback runs with Relf in the game, offensive coordinator Les Koenning played down the likelihood of opponents” defenses having an advantage in adjusting to Russell.
“Again, we have the flexibility of putting him in anytime we want to put him in,” Koenning said. “I think that”s our perogative and kind of leaves us with the flexibility. Tyler”s done a real good job of managing the game offense and the situations we”ve put him into.”
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