By JAMES CARSKADON
For Starkville Daily News
ATHENS, Ga. – The attitude of Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen has taken a noticeable turn.
After his team’s 0-3 start to Southeastern Conference play, Mullen now faces a harsher reality following his team’s 24-10 loss to Georgia (3-2, 2-1 SEC) on Saturday.
“We’re trying to get six wins, get ourselves into a bowl game and build this program into the future,” Mullen said.
Quite the change from what we heard from Mullen all offseason, when he held reaching the SEC Championship in Atlanta as a team goal.
Saturday’s 24-10 loss saw many of the same offensive line struggles that have caused quarterback Chris Relf to be under pressure from opposing defensive lineman much of the season.
The Bulldogs allowed five sacks in the game while the offense limped to 213 total yards and only 56 rushing yards.
Senior Quentin Saulsberry, who lined up at center today, places the blame for the stagnant offense on himself.
“You had to put it on yourself as an o-line,” Saulsberry said. “That’s our responsibility. But at the same time, all 11 have to do their job. I can’t blame James (Carmon), I can’t blame Blaine (Clausell). All 11 have to do their job.”
Georgia got out to an early lead, taking advantage of two short field opportunities.
After Brandon Boykin returned a punt to the MSU 33-yard line, quarterback Aaron Murray found tight end Orson Charles for a 19-yard touchdown strike.
State responded with a 42-yard field goal from Derek DePasquale to cut Georgia’s lead to 7-3, but shortly after, an 11-yard punt off the side of Baker Swedenburg’s foot gave Georgia the ball at the MSU 22.
Murray completed the short scoring drive with a 6-yard touchdown pass to receiver Malcolm Mitchell, extending the Georgia lead to 14-3.
In the second quarter, MSU appeared ready to recapture the momentum it had lost after junior linebacker Cameron Lawrence picked off a Murray pass and returned it to the Georgia 28-yard line.
Knocking on the door to the end zone, Relf threw a slant pass to Arceto Clark that went through his hands and landed in the arms of Georgia’s Sanders Commings. The scoring opportunity was the best one MSU had on Saturday, but Georgia’s interception and touchdown on the following drive made the game feel out of reach at 21-3 in the second quarter.
“Chris makes a good pass, great read, guy’s open,” Mullen said. “We don’t make the catch, turn the ball over. It’s those little things that have to get cleaned up. You can’t execute sometimes. You can’t have 10 guys execute. You need 11 on every snap to get the job done.”
Defensively, State struggled to contain freshman running back Isaiah Crowell in the first half, when he ran for 90 of his 109 yards. Murray, widely considered one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC was held to 160 yards passing, three more than Relf’s 157 yards.
Defensive coordinator Chris Wilson made key adjustments at halftime, and the Bulldogs responded by only allowing 78 yards of offense to Georgia in the second half.
“You saw that there’s enough talent there to be a really solid defense in the SEC,” Wilson said.
One bright spot for MSU in the game was the play of junior defensive back Darius Slay, a transfer from Itawamba Community College. Slay entered the game for Corey Broomfield, who’s hand is still in a cast and played the majority of the snaps at cornerback.
Slay had three tackles, including one tackle for a loss and returned an interception 72 yards for a touchdown, showcasing his speed as he sprinted down the sideline to the end zone.
“I just saw nothing but touchdown,” Slay said. “I wasn’t looking at anything else.”
Slay’s touchdown was MSU’s only touchdown of the day and gave the game its final score of 24-10. This marks the second time in three SEC games that State failed to score an offensive touchdown, the other coming against LSU.
Mullen raised a few eyebrows in the third quarter when he put redshirt freshman Dylan Favre in the game for a few plays. Favre has been itching for playing time in 2011, but was welcomed to the SEC by being sacked on the first play.
Mullen said he decided to put Favre in when Relf was slow to get up after a run, and also added that Tyler Russell is still not 100 percent healthy.
“I wanted to keep momentum so I threw Dylan out there so (Relf) could catch his breath,” Mullen said. “The positive of that, Dylan now has his experience. Tyler is still not 100 percent with his knee. It’s good now that Dylan has taken a snap in case we have to go that direction.”
After expectations were sky high in the offseason, MSU has been brought back to reality in the SEC. The Bulldogs will play UAB next Saturday before returning to conference play Oct. 14 when they host South Carolina.
For now, Mullen is still left trying to get his team to take the next step.
“We aren’t too far from where we want to be this year,” Mullen said. “We have to clean up some mistakes. We see where we want to be, but this last step is the hardest to take.”