LEXINGTON, Ky. — Apparently the cure for offensive futility is having a bye week to prepare for the University of Kentucky’s defense.
This set of steps is the only way to explain Mississippi State’s 398 total yards and its 28-16 road win against Kentucky on Saturday night.
“That margin of error is so small that when you have the opportunity and then convert you’re going to find yourself on the winning end of the game,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said.
On the second play from scrimmage, MSU essentially handed Kentucky three points as senior tailback Vick Ballard fumbled after being stuffed by All-America linebacker Danny Trevathan. MSU’s defense held Kentucky to a three-and-out, but a 32-yard field goal got the Wildcats on the scoreboard first.
After the turnover, Mullen inserted senior Chris Relf at quarterback and he completed five passes and directed MSU on a 80-yard drive. The 2011 Gator Bowl MVP, who hadn’t seen any action since being replaced in the second half of the game against the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was 5-for-7 for 77 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown strike to Ricco Sanders.
“I was very proud of Chris tonight for being energetic and ready to go,” MSU offensive coordinator Les Koenning said. “Coach Mullen told him he would get a chance, and he told us that’s all I ask for.”
The wide receiver screen that allowed Sanders to run past three defenders to the end zone was his first touchdown reception since the 52-14 victory against the University of Michigan in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day.
After Russell re-entered the game on the next possession, Relf checked back in to finish off the drive in a goal-line situation with a 3-yard quarterback draw play up the middle to give MSU (4-4, 1-4 Southeastern Conference) a 14-3 at the end of the first quarter.
Russell had 172 passing yards and a second-half touchdown to tight end Malcolm Johnson. Relf had most of his 105 total yards with on the first drive of the game.
“I think (the two-quarterback system) really opens the offense up,” Russell said. “The defense doesn’t know what to do. There would be times the defense would think Chris would be in the game, which opened up the pass for me.”
MSU’s second miscue of the first half cost it another three points, as the shotgun snap bounced off tight end Marcus Green while he was motioning to the other side of the line. The recovery by Ridge Wilson led to a 22-yard field goal seven plays later for the first score of the second quarter, but it did little to excite the announced attendance of 57,891.
“We got to get the ball in the end zone,” Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said. “We had a chance with short fields that the defense gave us and only got six points out of it. That’s what we mean when we talk about playing to win.”
MSU’s defense held Kentucky (3-5, 0-5) to field goals after turnovers thanks to the ability of the linemen to get penetration on nearly every Kentucky snap.
MSU knocked starting quarterback Morgan Newton out of the game twice, the second time for good in the second quarter, and held Kentucky to 40 passing yards in the first half. That total was the lowest since Vanderbilt had 29 in
a 15-3 victory on Sept. 19, 2009.
“(Kentucky backup quarterback) Maxwell Smith isn’t much of a runner, so we could do more with the pass rush,” MSU junior defensive tackle Josh Boyd said.
Junior defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who had back-to-back SEC Defensive Player of the Week before the bye week, notched a career-high tying seven tackles, three and a half for loss, and two sacks. In his first five SEC games this season, the All-SEC candidate has nine and a half tackles for loss and four sacks.
Saturday marked the first time Kentucky has won the turnover battle but lost the game with Phillips as coach.
MSU has allowed its lowest point total in a three-game stretch (33 points) since allowing 30 from Nov. 25, 1999-Sept. 2, 2000.
“We bent a lot tonight but at least we didn’t break,” Mullen said. “There’s been times (during the season) where we didn’t make those big plays at the end of the game, and we did that tonight.”
The Russell-Relf combination worked again for a 12-yard quarterback draw touchdown scamper by Relf immediately after a 50-yard pass from Russell to Green. Relf’s touchdown was the first time the senior has had multiple touchdown runs in a game and made MSU 4-for-5 inside the red zone.
“He went through his progression and our job at that point is to just get open and he’ll find you,” Green said. “We worked on that play all week and then finally hit it at the right time.”
After hearing boos from the Kentucky faithful in the stands, Phillips decided to go for a fourth-down conversion inside MSU’s 5-yard line and tailback Jonathan George bulled his way into the end zone for a 4-yard plunge to cut the deficit to 28-16 early in the fourth quarter.
The victory was MSU’s first in the league since it defeated the University of Mississippi in the 2010 Egg Bowl, and the third straight against Kentucky.
MSU will try to get back over the .500 mark — and one game from bowl eligibility — at 6:30 p.m. Saturday (CSS) when it will play host to the University of Tennessee-Martin of the Football Championship Subdivision on Homecoming weekend.
“We’ve put ourselves in good position to continue having a great season,” Mullen said. “Three of our last four games are at home … and I’ve said all along this is the most important season in school history. We get ourselves to a bowl game this year and, hopefully, a really good bowl game then we’re going in the direction we want to go with this program.”