ATHENS, Ga. — The isolated early season mistakes have become trends after the Mississippi State football team suffered its third straight Southeastern Conference defeat.
A lack of chemistry on the offensive line, special teams mistakes, and an inability to establish a running game led to a 24-10 loss at Georgia on Saturday afternoon. The loss is MSU’s ninth straight at Georgia. The program last left Athens, Ga., with a win in 1956.
“Sometimes I see a lack of sensing urgency of what has to be done and what is your role,” MSU senior offensive lineman Quentin Saulsberry said.
Georgia (3-2, 2-1 SEC) held MSU to 56 rushing yards, the second-lowest mark since Dan Mullen became the school’s head coach. The lowest rushing total came two weeks ago when LSU held MSU to 52 yards.
While then-No. 3 (and now No. 1) LSU’s defense has a well-deserved reputation for dominance, Georgia’s defense had received heavy criticism for giving up 80 points in losses to then-No. 5 Boise State and then-No. 12 University of South Carolina in its first two games of the season. But Saturday it limited MSU to 4 of 15 third-down conversions.
“You can see we’ll have some well-blocked plays and we’ll miss a back block and it’s a minus-3 yard gain,” Mullen said. “Second down and 15 is not a real good down for us.”
In its first look at a 3-4 defensive front, MSU surrendered nine tackles behind the line of scrimmage and five sacks. Once Georgia took a 21-3 halftime lead, Georgia defense coordinator Todd Grantham basically sent a different blitz on every play to harass MSU quarterback Chris Relf.
“We played great defense, and our boys up front are getting the job done,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “Coach Grantham did a great job of making the right calls. The defense was the story of the day.”
After getting himself in a better offensive rhythm in the first two drives, Relf finished 19 of 31 for 157 yards and two interceptions. He completed eight of his first nine passes but went 11 of 22 for 77 yards in the final three quarters.
“I think I just lost my confidence and we weren’t able to make any big plays,” Relf said. “The young guys have to step up. A lot of them haven’t played in games like this, and in the SEC you have to come with your ‘A’ game.”
Relf was sacked four times and took physical punishment throughout the afternoon thanks in part to an inexperienced offensive line that has had three different starting combinations.
The only time MSU (2-3, 0-3) found the end zone was on a 72-yard interception return for a touchdown by junior college transfer Darius Slay in the middle of the fourth quarter. The Brunswick, Ga., native also forced a fumble and had a tackle for loss in the most significant playing time he has received since arriving at the MSU campus from Itawamba Community College.
“I’ve been waiting for a long time to do this,” Slay said. “It felt good to come back and make some big plays. I had a lot of friends, former teammates, and family that were hyped to see me do something like that.”
MSU couldn’t rally in the second half even though Georgia had only 84 yards of offense. Blair Walsh’s 28-yard field goal was the team’s lone score in the final 24 minutes. MSU failed to counter because it had only seven first downs and had drives end in two punts and two turnovers.
Mullen insisted during the postgame media conference MSU is close to performing at the level of last season, when it pounded the University of Michigan 52-14 in the Gator Bowl to cap a nine-win season, but Saturday represented another weekend that ended with MSU players shaking their heads searching for answers.
“It’s the little things we are not doing,” MSU senior tailback Vick Ballard said. “I can only do my job and everybody else needs to do theirs. It isn’t going to get easier.”
Three of Georgia’s four scoring drives started from deep inside MSU territory due to turnovers or special teams errors that turned the momentum for the crowd of 92,746 at Sanford Stadium.
On its first punt of the game, MSU kicked the ball to senior Brandon Boykin, whose 30-yard return gave Georgia the ball at MSU’s 33-yard line. The return helped Georgia take a 7-0 lead on a 21-yard touchdown strike from quarterback Aaron Murray to tight end Orson Charles.
MSU sophomore punter Baker Swedenburg had his worst punt of the season — an 11-yarder — on his next opportunity. The punt landed at MSU’s 22 and set up Murray to find Malcolm Mitchell for a 6-yard touchdown pass that gave Georgia a 14-3 lead.
“We made life easy for Georgia today,” Mullen said. “That’s on us as coaches to make sure all phases of our team are ready to execute at a high level.”
After preseason talk of contending in the SEC’s Western Division, Mullen causally mentioned the goal of becoming bowl eligible as the team’s goal as it is 0-3 in the league for the first time since 2006.
“We’re trying to get six wins, get ourselves to a bowl game and continue to build this program into the future,” Mullen said. “We got to find a way to a get a win and then go 3-3 in the second half to finish it off.”
MSU will be on the road again Saturday for an 11 a.m. kickoff against the University of Alabama-Birmingham at Legion Field. MSU then will play host to nationally ranked South Carolina at Davis Wade Stadium.