LEXINGTON, Ky. — Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen said for weeks it was possible his quarterbacks would constantly rotate.
The third-year coach was a man of his word Saturday as Tyler Russell and Chris Relf had impressive performances in a 28-16 victory against the University of Kentucky.
MSU (4-4, 1-4 Southeastern Conference) alternated quarterbacks each possession and Russell and Relf combined for 283 yards (264 passing).
MSU’s 117 passing yards in the first quarter were its most since 119 against the University of Arkansas on Nov. 20, 2004.
Mullen said in the postgame media conference he had an impromptu meeting with offensive coordinator Les Koenning on the phone Friday evening and the two marveled at the practice grades of the two quarterbacks.
“I looked at the grades and said, ‘Tyler, you’re going to go the first series. Chris, you’re going to go the second series and we’ll keep going back and forth,” Mullen said. “I thought they both played pretty well tonight.”
Koenning said the quarterbacks graded out with 72 and 73 out of 100 throughout the week.
“I said, ‘Coach, they’re right even with each other,’ and he said, ‘Hey, we got a plan for both of them,’ ” Koenning said. “I was like, ‘Let’s go. We’ve got two guys back there that can take over.”
Russell received his second consecutive start but that statistic
immediately became irrelevant as Relf, who hadn’t seen action since the first half of the game against the University of Alabama at Birmingham, ran on the field for the next drive.
“A lot of people try to make a big deal out of it, but whoever the coach calls will be ready,” Russell said.
It was the most effective the two-quarterback system has worked since Mullen took over as coach before the 2009 season. One back-to-back play sequence showed the brilliance of the move included Russell hitting Marcus Green for a 50-yard strike down the middle of the field. Relf immediately ran onto the field to score on a 12-yard draw play up the middle for the score.
“When my name is called, I just have to make a big play, and it’s as simple as that,” Relf said. “I’ll always be confident, and it’s just a matter when they want me in. When they do, I’ll be there to do my job.”
Relf’s run was a product of being right next to Mullen and having Mullen tell him what he wanted before he executed the play.
“We had a specialty package for Chris, especially those power runs that as a good football you know won’t be to Tyler’s advantage,” Mullen said. “When Chris is running well it is an added dimension to your offense.”
Russell finished 9-for-12 for 172 yards and a touchdown in his first start on the road in league play. In his past two road games, he is 20 of 25 for 338 passing yards and four touchdowns. He has a a quarterback rating of 246.4.
Relf rushed for a career-high two touchdowns, while finishing 6 of 9 for another touchdown. With his 92 passing yards, Relf moved into ninth on the school’s all-time passing yardage list (3,037).
Mullen has said he was convinced MSU fans hadn’t seen the last of Relf, and after Saturday’s performance that attitude isn’t likely to change.
“I’m not going to lie. It made it a lot easier when Chris came in and scored on his first drive,” Russell said. “I think we both can put the offense in positions to succeed and score points.”
Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said throughout this week his defense was training for Russell and Relf but couldn’t slow down either of them in the first 40 minutes.
“They threw the ball vertically down the field a little bit, (but) they’re a big play-action team,” Phillips said. “They hit us with some play-actions because they run the ball so well.”