November 17, 2010 8:31:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- As Mississippi State''s offense faces each new hurdle, the common theme in the learning curve is youth.
From the Bulldogs'' first-year starting quarterback to the six freshmen and sophomore receivers on the two-deep depth chart, there''s plenty of inexperience the team has overcome in its breakout season.
The fact the No. 22 Bulldogs (7-3, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) have been ranked for five weeks and will play in its first bowl game since 2007 is notable considering their lack of a passing game.
MSU rushes the ball 67 percent of its offensive snaps -- not surprising because of the team''s strength in its offensive line -- though coaches started the season looking to develop the passing game and balance the offense after struggling through the air in 2009.
Backup quarterback Tyler Russell threw four touchdowns in the season-opening win over Memphis before showing his youth with turnovers against Auburn and LSU. Coaches have since scaled back plans to rotate Russell with starter Chris Relf, limiting the redshirt freshman to second-half duty when the game is in the bag or out of reach.
Relf, who went 17 quarters without a turnover before throwing an interception last week against Alabama, has seen his rushing average drop from 6.6 yards per carry as Tyson Lee''s backup in 2009 to 3.8 as the full-time starter this season. He leads the team with 136 carries.
Though not spectacular through the air, Relf has avoided costly turnovers with just five thus far. After fumbling the ball six times and losing one through MSU''s first five games, Relf hasn''t coughed the ball since, guiding the offense through four straight turnover-free games.
"When you deal with young quarterbacks, a lot of them have to learn during the process," MSU offensive coordinator Koenning said. "He''s done a really good job for us all year taking care of the football, and we put him in a lot of good positions where he could take care of the football."
Relf''s interception against Alabama came on MSU''s first drive when he forced a deep throw into double coverage. The vertical throw was his only shot down the field against the Crimson Tide.
"I saw Chad get open," Relf said. "I should have thrown it more outside anyway, but I just tried to make a play. I just made a wrong read."
When it comes to the passing game, the Bulldogs'' method operation of capitalizing on play-action passes hasn''t produced the big gains normally derived from a dominate running game.
Head coach Dan Mullen admitted the play-calling was conservative in a 10-7 win at Florida, highlighting the team''s "safety-first" mentality on offense this season. The Bulldogs had just 33 passing yards against the Gators, but earned the win that launched them into the top 25 polls for the first time in nine years.
Staying focused and in sync in the passing game is a challenge when few pass plays are called and when the quarterback and receivers are learning at the same pace. Chemistry and timing are bound to be affected, Koenning said.
"You just gotta stay in rhythm, and I think it''s important for the guys to understand it," Koenning added. "The frustrating part of it was, there were four to five plays in that game (against Alabama) that made the difference. They made the play, we didn''t make the play."
Relf wasn''t alone in Saturday''s five-sack, 10-point performance in Tuscaloosa, as the senior-led offensive line''s admitted poor performance and three dropped passes contributed to lost drives.
The normally sure-handed receivers have caught the few passes thrown their way this season and are hungry for more touches, receivers coach Mark Hudspeth said.
"And rightfully so," Hudspeth added. "They''ve caught the ball except for the other night when they had a couple on the ground."
MSU looks to control the clock Saturday when it hosts No. 13 Arkansas (8-2, 4-2) at 6 p.m. (ESPN). The Razorbacks lead the SEC in passing yards (343.6) and are second in scoring offense (37.9). Keeping the ball away from the Razorbacks rather than trying to keep pace will be the Bulldogs'' approach. As a result, the receivers'' immediate impact, at least in the near future, will be in the running game.
Hudspeth wasn''t pleased with his group''s blocking against the Crimson Tide and stressed their play without the ball is just as vital to offensive success.
"And that''s being a great downfield blocker, and springing those 15 and 18 yard runs into big runs," Hudspeth said. "That''s where our guys come into play. We got to improve in our perimeter blocking. Our guys, like Brandon, are not real big but they''ve got to be tougher. They got to get in there and fight a little bit more. We hope we have a good week of practice to clean some of that up and continue to improve."
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