JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – For the coaching staff of the Mississippi State football team, success is a two-step process.
“We went from average to good, and now we want the ability to go from good to great,” MSU head coach Dan Mullen said.
What gives Mullen and the rest of the staff hope of accomplishing that goal of being a great football program in the long-term after a memorable 9-4 season is many of the big plays in the Bulldogs’ dominating 52-14 win over Michigan in the 2011 Gator Bowl were made by players with eligibility left.
Redshirt junior quarterback Chris Relf, the player who got to lift up the game’s Most Valuable Player Trophy, accounted for 311 total yards and four touchdowns with most of them coming via the passing game finishing 18-of-23 for 281 yards.
Relf, who struggled to find his way at the quarterback position his first three seasons on the Starkville, has now played the best two games of his college career at the end of the season leaving fans to wonder what exactly can he accomplish the following year.
“I just took last year's game and built on this for this year,” Relf said. “I think I had a pretty good season overall. This game, I just wanted to go out there and execute plays.”
Relf ended the game with the highest completion percentage ever for a quarterback against Michigan in a bowl game (78.2 percent) topping the pervious mark of 76.5 set by Tennessee’s Casey Clausen in a 2002 Citrus Bowl victory over the Wolverines.
“I told Chris, I have a feeling you're going to play your best game of the season, and he went out there and did it,” Mullen said.
Mississippi State’s primary tailback Vick Ballard will be back in Starkville next season after rushing for 968 yards in his first season of Division 1 football. The transfer from Gulf Coast Community College had three more touchdowns in the 2011 Gator Bowl Saturday giving him the school record for rushing scores in a single season with 19 that was last set by Jackie Parker in 1952. Ballard, a Pascagoula native, also tied Parker’s record for points scored in a season with 120.
“My goal coming into the season was around 12 so I guess I overachieved even what I thought I could do,” Ballard said.
Ballard will again have help in the backfield with LaDarius Perkins as the redshirt freshman had the longest play from scrimmage of the 2010 season on the 81-yard run late in the third quarter.
“I think you saw the maturity that Chris has starting to come along, how he's starting to mature by managing the game, checking that long play to Perkins,” Mullen said.
Perkins, who had a career day in the regular season finale at Ole Miss, ended his first-ever bowl game with 119 total yards.
“It’s hard to replace Vick because he’s such a good back but I think I can come in, help the team in whatever I need to do and help us win as a team,” Perkins said. “If I can make some plays along the way – great.”
On the outside, Relf didn’t have a single receiver older than a sophomore that was active for the 2010 Gator Bowl but yet seven different players caught a pass including freshman wide receiver Michael Carr, a former four-star recruit from nearby West Point High School.
Carr came in with just one catch for 9 yards before Saturday but totaled three catches for 65 yards along with a 31-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of the Gator Bowl.
“This was the first bowl game to get me ready for more in the years to come,” Carr said. “Our program is a great program that I can’t do anything but brag on right now.”
The Bulldogs were even without its leading receiver Chad Bumphis after the sophomore broke his clavicle in this year’s Egg Bowl win at Oxford but was seen during bowl practices in Jacksonville without the protective sling for the first time in weeks.
“You know, when you have Chad Bumphis hurt and (senior wide receiver) Leon Berry out for the season, the young players have to step up…and they did that,” Mullen said. “It wasn't just one of them that stepped up. I told them that as a group, they all needed to step up, and to see a balance amongst those guys from stepping up and doing their job, filling a role that was left empty by Chad.”
On defense, Bulldogs defensive coordinator Manny Diaz had to bench his cornerback Johnthan Banks for a series after Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson picked on the local East Webster High School product early in the Gator Bowl but the sophomore rebounded with a key interception that led to a momentum-shifting touchdown.
“His interception there on that third down, to me you could really see the game turning at that point,” Diaz said. “And then the play he made on the pass break up there I believe in the fourth quarter, that's as good a play as I've ever seen them make in game or practice. The credit goes to John Banks.”
Sophomore Corey Broomfield, Banks’ cornerback teammate on the other side of the field, ended the afternoon with 1.5 tackles for a loss and a forced fumble that would be recovered near the end of the first half.
Banks would eventually end the game with 3.5 tackles, two pass breakups and that interception in the third quarter.
With the Bulldogs losing only seven starters on both of sides the ball to graduation, they are likely to not only be a preseason Top 20 selection in all 2011 preseason rankings but could challenge for the first back-to-back New Year’s Day bowl games in school history.
“What’s in store for our future is greatness,” Carr said. “All of our coaches expect greatness out of us and Coach Mullen is like a father to me so he’s not going to let us slip.”
The next time State fans will get to see their favorite football team will be the 2010 spring practices and Mullen is already counting the days until the new season arrives.
“Spring ball is going to be open, so you can come watch spring ball,” Mullen said. “If we can bring a huge crowd like this today, I expect no less than 40,000 at our spring game (on) April 9. We expect 40,000 Bulldog fans in the stands.”