September 5, 2010 12:31:00 AM
The appetizer was delicious. Now bring on the main course.
In five days, Dan Mullen''s Mississippi State football team will get to show another ESPN audience if his team is up to the challenge.
On Saturday, the Bulldogs delivered a building block -- 49-7 victory against the University of Memphis at Davis Wade Stadium -- that at least makes you stop and go hmmm.
From Chris Relf and Tyler Russell to Vick Ballard, LaDarius Perkins, and Robert Elliott to Brandon Heavens, Chad Bumphis, and Leon Berry, MSU showed a variety and depth of weaponry that fits a coach who wants to spread it out and to keep opponents back on their heels.
Russell showed an ability to carve up a Conference USA program that went 2-10 last season and is rebuilding with a first-year head coach.
Bumphis exhibited an ability to make big things happen whenever he touches the ball, whether it be on returning punts or kicks or jetting across the middle in a sea of open space.
There was a lot of open territory in the secondary Saturday night, and MSU exploited it to the tune of five touchdown passes, four by Russell. The redshirt freshman from Meridian was 13 of 16 for 256 yards. He is the first MSU quarterback to throw four touchdowns in a game since Wesley Carroll did it against Arkansas in 2007.
Heavens, who tied Berry for team-high honors with five catches, caught his first two career touchdowns, and led the way with 112 receiving yards. Bumphis, who had four catches, also had 100 receiving yards.
Throw in 61 rushing yards by Ballard, a junior transfer from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, 59 by Perkins, a redshirt freshman, and 42 by Elliott, a junior, and the Bulldogs'' 594 yards were the most in a game since 1994 against Tulane.
"I still think we''re a young team," Mullen said. "When you look at those skill players, all of the guys who touched the ball, Leon Berry and Brandon Heavens are the only seniors. There are a lot of guys who got first action today, and they responded. Hopefully we can continue to develop some confidence going into the SEC schedule."
That confidence will be put to the test at 6:30 p.m. Thursday when No. 22 Auburn comes to Starkville. The Bulldogs won''t need a 500-plus yard explosion to beat the Tigers, but it would be nice. The fact that so many players touched the ball -- and tasted pay-dirt -- should give everyone a boost entering the SEC opener.
"The rotation is real good," Elliott said. "We know we''re not going to be taking lumps on a lot of plays and we''re going to be rotating, so when we are out there we want to be executing our jobs at 100 percent."
Fresh running backs means defenses will have to be wary of Relf, the option element of Mullen''s two-quarterback system, and his backfield mates.
Playmakers on both edges means defense -- even SEC ones -- won''t be able to load up the box, like Memphis tried to do.
"We''re going to need balance because we can''t come out every game and just run the ball and pound the ball," Elliott said. "We want to be balanced and throw the ball, too. We have great backs and great receivers."
Elliott said a year in Mullen''s system has given everyone the confidence to know they can make their coach''s spread a thing to be feared. Realizing that confidence against Memphis and doing it consistently in the SEC is another thing. But a first step shows promise entering Thursday''s test.
"We played to the best of our abilities," Berry said. "The coaches said come out and play at a championship level, and that''s what we did in the second half. The first half was kind of slow, but the second half we came out and played at a championship level."
It would be naive to think MSU is ready to challenge for a SEC title. There are other teams in the league that are far more talented and experienced. But sometimes youth is an equalizer. Inexperienced players don''t know any better. Their comments are a little more unguarded and carry a swagger to them that dares people to knock them down a peg, especially when they are, like Heavens said, "trying to make a name" for themselves.
"I think we are really good," Berry said. "We have a lot of people coming back this year, and people expect our offense to be real good this year, so we''re trying to prove it to everybody."
Berry said, ''Yes sir" immediately when asked if the Bulldogs could duplicate their offensive effort in five days against Auburn.
Balance will be a key to coming close against Auburn. Credit the stout play of Derek Sherrod, Tobias Smith, and the rest of the offensive line. Relf and Russell were hardly touched Saturday night. They likely won''t be as lucky against SEC opponents, but that''s OK because the Bulldogs'' variety of weapons can make a hurried quarterback a little calmer.
"I think every skill position player we have is talented," Heavens said. "I think anybody can play on this team and everybody can contribute. I think we''re going to be good this year. I think we''re going to be real good."
When asked what that means for the immediate future -- against Auburn -- Heavens said, "Look out."
Heavens said the Bulldogs won''t allow youth or inexperience to define them. That could be a very intriguing prospect to watch unfold.
"I know we''re young, but we play ball and we have to get after it," Heavens said.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. Contact him at: [email protected]
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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