Relf Favors Underdog Identity For Ranked Team

He lends no credence to what those calculating types who set odds say. Or fans and media either, for that matter, as they proclaim Mississippi State favorites for this weekend's matchup. Nope, Chris Relf prefers the much more familiar role of underdog. "I still use it as us against the world!"

Understandably so. After all, since his own activation on the Mississippi State varsity Relf has gotten used to approaching Southeastern Conference games as underdogs. Especially road games here in the Western Division. So even as the Bulldogs are suddenly labeled overdogs against host Auburn the senior quarterback isn't taking any chip off his shoulder. Not yet.

Maybe not ever. Relf has to keep that edge on his attitude.

"It's very important to go on the road and win," he said. "We're always kind of the underdog on the road, and we just want to go out and execute more on offense and defense."

Relf does have some practical reasons for keying things low this week. As impressive as Mississippi State's 59-14 romp at Memphis was in most aspects, an old Dog like Relf was already noticing some items to address for week-two. Not just by the backups either; he saw some miscues and mistakes by the starting offense.

So much like his disregard of odds-laying, don't waste his time asking opinions of a record-setting offensive evening. Most everyone else has shouted praises for the 645-yard output. Not Relf.

"I don't really look at that, because there's a lot of work we've got to do. We had a lot of mental mistakes, off-sides penalties. So we're just trying to work hard and come out and execute on Saturday."

If this seems unnecessarily objective, even a bit stubborn, well, that is exactly why Relf is the right man in charge of this offense. Because he is on the same page with his head coach after a weekend to review first game results. Dan Mullen might be prouder of how the Bulldogs have responded to the game than of the win itself.

"One thing is clear with our team, we have high expectations of ourselves," Mullen said. "Talk to guys and they're not patting themselves on the back because we set a school record. It's how can we get better. How can we be cleaner and more efficient. We had four three-and-outs, how can we control the ball better."

The Dog in control on-field is Relf, and he foresees the need to really grind things out against a whole ‘nother variety of Tigers. The Memphis defense had a few respectable players up front and a couple of athletes backing them up. But they were hardly in Auburn's league, even if these Tigers might not have the headliners and first-rounders of 2010. Everything has to be cleaner and crisper this second time out, starting with the quarterback.

An interesting part of Relf's play last Thursday was the quicker pace of play-calling and –snapping. Perhaps not a true hurry-up approach, but certainly the tempo was pushed often as possible. While it was partly taking advantage of an overmatched Memphis defense, the larger fact is this is how Mississippi State spent preseason practicing.

"It's just going fast," said Relf. Fast enough that on opening night the quarterback did not delay implementing plays quite as much as last season. Or for that matter give the sidelines as many second looks. Relf downplayed impressions he was ignoring coach's input—"No, we're looking for the play," he said. "It depends on what play we're running."

And, how the called play meshes with what an experienced quarterback can now see for himself across the line of scrimmage. Maybe Relf needed a tighter leash as a junior, in his first season as the starter. Now, while nobody will ever accuse Mullen of completely loosening the offensive reins, it is clear Relf has earned the respect and the right to assert his own on-field authority. Long as it works, of course.

"I feel comfortable out there," agreed Relf. "And I can get myself out of a bad play." Ahhh, that too needs expounding. Once upon a time ‘getting himself out' merely meant pulling the ball down after the called snap was underway and running somewhere. Then in 2010 all saw how Relf matured into a confident play-caller and defense-reader, albeit with more sideline restrictions.

Today? There is a degree of earned trust between those calling the plays and the signals. It isn't so much that Relf can adjust; he is expected to.

"It's all about managing a play, whichever play is called. If coach puts me in the wrong play I've got to manage it, that's my job at quarterback."

A job growing even more demanding this week. This may well be the second game of a long season but it already sets up as absolutely pivotal for both Western Division teams. Ironically so was last year's meeting at Scott Field, even if nobody knew at the time just how big Auburn's 17-14 survival was in the eventual national picture. Three times in the fourth quarter State had possession. The first was three-and-out with backup Tyler Russell at the trigger.

The other series were directed by Relf with three first downs produced, but they still fell short at the MSU 45 and then Tiger 41 as a 4th-and-ten throw missed. Relf was 12-of-25 for 110 yards and sacked three times, though none of his passes were picked. It was just a good, physical, typical West brawl that the tougher team won.

Interestingly, Relf shrugs off the what-ifs of '10 as easily as he does the oddsmakers' ideas of '11.

"I just put that game behind me, I'm ready to play this year," he said. "I studied the film but I'm more worried about going to play this year." Even while watching the Tigers rally past Utah State the Bulldog quarterback wasn't thinking like a fan either way, further evidence how Relf has matured.

"Basically I was just studying their defense and get a feel of what they're going to do this weekend." OK, so what did he notice on telecast that Relf could apply during real game-prep? He wasn't tipping the hand too much but did mention some of the seams seen in the quartered coverages, and a few zone looks. None of which matter of course if A) Relf does not read such things rightly at field level and B) his offensive line doesn't do a better job of protections than the last time around.

However, don't get the idea Relf approaches this particular game entirely without emotion. Remember, this is a Montgomery native, an alumnus of Carver High School, overlooked by the local SEC school and everyone else for that matter…save a Mississippi State coaching staff willing to invest a scholarship in an obviously gifted athlete without a lot of preparation for a real ‘college type' offense. Even now Relf doesn't begrudge Auburn's evaluation of him back in 2006.

He does agree how it was great good fortune he received an offer from State, and that even greater luck a coaching change brought Mullen—and more to the point his spread offensive attack—that suited his skills just fine. That does not diminish his desire to score something big on his personal record book in this final shot at a Tiger team.

"It means a lot to me. I haven't won since I played Auburn." True, because he was redshirting in 2007 when the Bulldogs scored their last victory in the series. "I haven't won a game yet. So I'm going to go down there and play like it's my last game."

With his own cheering section at Jordon-Hare, too. Though, Relf grinned, odds are he won't be able to meet demand of family and friends. "I don't think they're all going to be able to come, because I only get four tickets!"

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