"I think it's just a matter of all of us clicking, the wide receivers and quarterback," said Relf Tuesday, after a heavy practice meant to address some of their September shortcomings. "Sometimes I might overthrow them a little bit, sometimes they might just drop the ball. It's just a matter of them running the right routes and me hitting them."
This oughtn't be confused with spreading blame around. No piece in the Bulldog passing plans operate in isolation…though that word itself has been a frequent sore point so far with receivers not getting the sort of separation to offer easy targets. At the same time Relf takes a passer's share of responsibility.
Responsibility for fixing things, that is.
"Just staying confident," Relf said. "I just have to be confident. You're going to go through struggles, you're going to have your ups and downs. My point is me, I can't get down, I just have to keep going out there and executing."
If Relf was due for getting down on himself, it would have been four quarters into Saturday's struggles against Louisiana Tech. He was 13-of-28 in regulation, his first sub-.500 passing evening since last October at Kentucky, with a third-period interception that didn't need to be. But in overtime, and after his defense got the ball back on a goal-line pick, Relf rose to the occasion as a senior leader should.
On 2nd-and-2 he play-faked and dropped a step, looking to hit WR Chris Smith down the middle. His arm was even starting forward motion… "But I saw him getting covered. I saw (LaDarius) Perkins in man-to-man and just threw it." Relf makes it sound so simple, but this was far from easy. He had a 330-pound lineman bearing down fast.
Plus, Perkins was all the way over on the left sideline in a wheel-route. So not only did Relf have to re-cock the right arm but shift his body towards the oncoming Tech rusher and, leaning backwards, let fly. "It was just my arm-strength!" he grinned. And a perfect lob that Perkins caught in stride and in the end zone for the 26-20 victory.
Relf isn't much into comparing pass quality. But "I had to say it was my best throw, it won the game!" That speaks volumes to why Dan Mullen and Les Koenning place their faith in Relf to get the job done at crunch time. It might work (Louisiana Tech) or not (Auburn) but this is the man Mississippi State trusts with the offense.
Through September Relf was 58% even, a tiny bit ahead of ‘10's four-game pace. His touchdown-to-intercept rate is 4-to-3, compared to 3-3. But yardage, now, that has seen significant progress. The four-game total of '10 was 409; Relf's completions have gone for 657 yards this year.
But there is almost always a ‘but' and the stat which has State concerned is yards-per-catch; down from 12.4 to 11.3. Not a huge drop, yet indicative that Relf is throwing shorter balls this senior year. The obvious reason is seen in who are his top two targets: Perkins and fellow TB Vick Ballard are tied for the team lead with eight catches apiece. Getting the ball out to these runner/receivers is not a bad option at all and does keep defenses spread.
At the same time the downfield passing game hasn't produced as hoped. Or not yet, if Relf has anything to say about it. Which he literally does, constantly conversing with the slot- and split-ends. "I talk to them, say run a little faster and do the best you can to get open and catch the ball. It all starts with me talking to the guys."
Besides, his coaches are not quite as obsessed with throwing the ball long as they are throwing it better when the field gets short. Mullen pointed out Sunday (see Dawghouse) that by his calculations State has left 42 points unscored in red zone situations. Having a reliable field goal guy producing three points is fine, of course…but Mullen would rather Derek DePasquale enter to boot a PAT.
The coach isn't telling his quarterback anything Relf does not know already. "We practice the red zone so much, it's just a matter of executing," Relf said. "We haven't been executing like we should have. That's what we're going to work on and go out there and make big plays, all eleven of us have to be on the same page."
It would greatly aid execution to have the same eleven on the field all the time, or at least the same front five. None deny that injuries on the offensive line have done as much or more to disrupt the overall attack than any other factor. State was generally fortunate last fall to have only one injury, and survived it without losing any games. But three different setbacks in the first three games, one of them putting OG Tobias Smith out for the season, have had more than three times the impact.
For that matter Mullen has opened the entire line up for re-alignment this week, not just to fit James Carmon back in after recovery from knee injury but to get the most cohesive five-man front on the field. What that will be, the coach won't show until Saturday. For his part Relf accepts responsibility to read defenses and react at the line and give them the best blocking assignments practical.
Relf also downplays suggestions that in the last two games he has seemed somewhat hesitant after the snap. That he is taking an extra tick to respond to how the play is, or isn't, developing, with the result a short gain or no progress at all on a keeper. Appearances deceive.
"It's no hesitation, it's just a matter of me making the big play," Relf said. "Like I said, the guys up front have got to protect, my wide receivers have to catch the ball; and me being the quarterback I have to lead. So it's just a matter of me going through my reads and executing."
A matter that is all the more meaningful here in month-two of the season as State heads to Georgia. Both Bulldog teams collide at an early October crossroads with matching overall records and winless SEC slates. True, Mississippi State was 2-2 after September 2010 as well, but one of those wins was over…Georgia. The respective Dog teams waged a physical fight for three-plus quarters until MSU made the big play, a touchdown toss from Relf to Arceto Clark. Exactly the kind of big play Relf wants to repeat regularly this senior season.
"It's kinda disappointing," he admits of the current record. "Right now we're 2-2, hopefully we can go 10-2. I'm just going to keep playing hard on Saturday and hopefully everything works out right."