"I told Chris during warm-ups I have a feeling you're going to play your best game of the season," Mullen said, before scanning the stat sheet. "18-of-23, 281 (yards) and three touchdowns." Numbers that were more than enough to earn Relf the Bowl's Most Valuable Player award and a trophy much larger than the one give to the team for their victory. "He threw an interception on a ‘hail mary' on the last play of the half." A play that only mattered in the books, not on the scoreboard where Relf directed an offense that blew away a stunned Wolverine defense.
A defense that may well have felt at times they really were playing twelve men at times. Again, Relf was convinced he had a bonus Bulldog in the huddle this time, and on the day he was honoring the deceased teammate by wearing Bell's #36. "It meant a lot to me," he said, before going into some eerie background.
"The night before the Arkansas game I had a dream Nick Bell shook my hand, said I was going to be OK," Relf related. Which the junior triggerman was with a 224-yard effort that at the time was his career-high. A week later Relf was even better with 288 yards and three scores in whipping Ole Miss. Then came his first series of New Years Day, taking the field with State already down 7-0 after a fast Wolverine debut drive.
"Today I felt he was with me when I was out there making those big plays," he said. "I went out there and had a great game, and here I felt he was behind me all the way."
Eleven plays later the score was tied as Relf hit wideout Arceto Clark for a four-yard touchdown. The drive saw longer passes, a 10-yarder to Chris Smith to open it and a clutch 13-yard hookup with Brandon Heavens on third down. That set a tone in fact as State's offense moved the chains on 9 of 17 third downs…
…not to mention on all five fourth-down attempts. One of those, a 4th-and-10 at the Wolverine 31, provided the last Bulldog touchdown as Relf found Michael Carr on a smart slant pattern. It was Relf's last snap of the day and a fitting finish indeed.
"I felt real good throwing the ball today," Relf shrugged in his low-key way. Mullen was more effusive and not just about the passing production. "He did a great job of managing the game. I think you saw the maturing Chris has coming along by managing the game."
Maturity was indeed displayed from start-to-finish. It was one thing to answer Michigan's first scoring drive; it was another to do it again after the Wolverines went up 14-10 at the end of the first quarter with a fast-strike approach. Instead of getting caught-up in the big bowl emotions, a cool Relf read Michigan's defense at the line of scrimmage and called accordingly. In that series' case mostly runs, by himself or the tailback tandem of Vick Ballard and LaDarius Perkins. But when State had 3rd-and-2 on the Michigan 34 this matured MSU man saw something in the defense, sucked everybody up to the line with a play-fake, and found Arceto Clark for 29 yards.
After Relf pushed the ball three yards closer, Ballard did the scoring honors to put State ahead…a lead that would not just hold but expand to the most points scored against a Division-I foe since 1996.
Relf also utilized the receiving skill of seven targets, all who finished with multiple catches at that. The biggest though came on perhaps his shortest throw. Already comfortably ahead 38-14 in the third quarter, the Bulldog defense forced much-more-touted triggerman Denard Robinson to throw wildly on fourth down at State's 12-yard line. On the first snap Relf dropped back, looked long as planned, and saw nothing.
Or not quite nothing, other than Perkins slipping around right end and spotting-up after giving some blocking help. "I saw the ‘backers drop," Relf said, "and Coach (Greg) Knox is always telling me the check-down is a good investment. I saw Perk coming out of the backfield and didn't see anybody open, so I just checked it down and he made a big run."
Really big. Taking the ball maybe, maybe four yards from the thrower Perkins was able to scamper downfield—aided by a murderous block from receiver Brandon Heavens—81 yards before running out of steam. Ballard got the other seven yards for the touchdown before the quarter concluded. Of all Relf's plays, that little flip and huge gain might have delighted his head coach most. That, and Relf's new willingness to toss the ball away when nothing at all was available.
"Now I have it on film, we tried to throw it deep on that play and I officially have it on film that if you check the ball down good things will happen!" Mullen grinned. More seriously, the coach concurred that in his two seasons with State it is Relf who has blossomed most under Mullen's management. Maybe, most of any quarterback he's coached?
"Maybe Alex Smith, he went from a non-starter, no-name to first pick in the NFL draft," mused Mullen. "He did pretty good in that two year period! I guess I didn't screw Timmy Tebow up, he was pretty good! But it just shows if you believe in the system and work really hard and trust what is going on around you…don't worry about other things, just improve yourself, good things will happen."
Relf did good things afoot as well, rushing for 30 net yards and a touchdown. Michigan clearly expected more than 15 carries from State's hard-charging quarterback and that obviously opened up some downfield opportunities. Then again, when he did run Relf did not seem to have the ‘burst' shown in September. A hamstring issue nagged him through November and likely contributed to his improved passing as he simply had to throw more often than run. His giddy coach tried to say it was the extra pounds packed on by holiday and bowl week meals.
"I don't think I was 100%. I'd say I was 98%!" Relf tried claiming, unconvincingly. "I started running the ball and got a little nicked, I hadn't got hit in five weeks and it was hard for me. So I tried to use my arm and throwing ability." Which worked out so well it was he who took the midfield stage to be handed that big MVP trophy.
Given the chance, though, Relf probably would have rather had another teammate holding it high. Addressing the crowd this soft-spoken Dog turned vocal, and a bit emotional. "I want to thank all the fans that came to Jacksonville, I want to thank all my teammates, I want to thank Coach Mullen and staff for giving me the chance to play quarterback this year," Relf said before pausing. "And I want to thank Nick Bell's mom for letting me wear 36."
Mullen could see what it meant for Relf to pull on the very special jersey, and on this stage at that. "I know for him it's a special honor to wear #36. And when the team got together we thought it would be a special thing for Chris to wear it today. It stands out maybe more than other players even wearing it, And I'm sure he had an angel on his shoulder winning the MVP."
Or if not an angel, an extra teammate urging him and Mississippi State on to Gator Bowl victory. As the coach said, it was a little different having a quarterback wearing those digits…but Relf liked the look. "I don't feel like putting 14 back on," he said.
"It just meant everything to me."