October 27, 2010 9:38:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State football coaches and players agree quarterback Chris Relf can handle his workload.
At 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, there''s no doubt Relf looks the part of a bruising, option quarterback. He has shown it this season as the team''s leader with 107 rushing attempts.
In his first year as a starting quarterback, Relf isn''t showing signs of slowing down. In four of the Bulldogs'' past five games, he has carried the ball 18 times or more in three games and led the team in carries four times.
There also have been close calls.
Relf took a hit to the head against LSU and the University of Florida -- both of which forced Relf out of the game for at least a play. Those instances and Relf''s down-field running style keep teammates'' fingers crossed every time he gets going upfield.
"All the time in my head I''m like, ''Just get down, just get down,'' " wideout Chad Bumphis said, "but you constantly see him running over people. He''s a big, tough kid, but I''m telling him to get down because Lord knows we don''t want him out. But he''s tough and he''s continuing to get better."
No. 23 MSU (6-2, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) will face four league opponents to finish the regular season, starting with the University of Kentucky (4-4, 1-4) at 6 p.m. Saturday (ESPNU) at Davis Wade Stadium.
MSU finishes its schedule against top-25 teams Alabama and Arkansas and at the University of Mississippi -- a stretch in which MSU needs the catalyst of its running game.
The Bulldogs are also looking to improve their postseason stock after becoming bowl eligible Saturday thanks to a 29-24 win against the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Relf has gained the coaches'' confidence to scale back their planned quarterback rotation with backup Tyler Russell. Even as the passing game has produced mixed results with Relf as the primary quarterback, coaches feel the team''s best option is to run the ball and to win possession.
In that approach, Relf is showing signs as a reliable centerpiece of the rushing attack, offensive coordinator Les Koenning said.
"He''s been beat up, he''s pretty sore," Koenning said. "Like I said earlier, this isn''t volleyball, this isn''t tennis; You gotta play with some aches and pains, you gotta play with some bruises. He''s done that."
Any thoughts of limiting Relf''s participation in the rushing attack would limit the effectiveness of MSU''s offense, despite Relf''s lagging passing stats. Relf has completed 43 percent of his passes in the past two games and passed for more than 57 yards just once in the past three games. But he has led an offense that has been turnover-free for the past three weeks.
While Koenning lauded Relf''s ability to hang in the pocket, he wants the quarterback to run whenever yards can be gained. He noted Relf''s conversion of a fourth-and-5 situation against UAB, where he went through his pass reads and ran for the first down once the middle of the pocked opened up.
"We''re really happy he did because we had a receiver in the wrong spot," Koenning said. "We had a busted route, so he pulled it down and ran for the first down, which I was very proud of. We don''t ever want to take that ability away from him."
Becoming more efficient and explosive in the passing game is the next step in the evolution of MSU''s offense, which has lost starting tight end Marcus Green and senior wideout Leon Berry to season-ending injuries.
Koenning and Mullen haven''t lost confidence in the passing game, but they want the receivers to limit busted plays and missed assignments, which they''ve noted after each of the team''s past two wins.
"There''s a couple of times now when we went back through film we had receivers in the wrong spot," Koenning said. "It''s hard to throw the ball if they''re not in the right spots. They''re young. They''re gonna make mistakes."
Since the start of the season, Relf has made it clear he''s just as confident in his arm as he is his legs.
"Confidence has always been up," Relf said in September. "I always thought I was a great passer."
Bumphis, who has just one catch in the past two games, said the Bulldogs need to throw the football more to re-ignite the passing game.
"We still got it, but we run the ball so good there''s really not been much of a need to pass the ball," he said. "As receivers, we don''t mind as long as we''re winning. We''ll pick back up where we left off once we get back throwing the ball."
As teams continue searching for ways to stop MSU''s rushing game, its passing attack will need to grow. To do that, Mullen said Relf will need to improve shaky mechanics he saw against UAB. It isn''t enough to alter the playcalling to protect Relf for the long haul, or to get the passing game going.
"The tough thing about it is not so much the hits but the guys giving the hits," Koenning said. "Florida got after him (Relf) pretty good, banged him up pretty good. But he held on to the ball, moved the chains, and did some things to help us win. I think that was critical. I wish I could sit here and tell you I wish we could limit (how much Relf carries the ball) or not limit it. Last year, we had Boobie (Anthony Dixon) that could carry it. Chris has done a good job of carrying it for us."