Relf honors Bell with impressive showing
Published 12:20 am Sunday, January 2, 2011
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Junior quarterback Chris Relf was all smiles on the postgame awards podium at midfield in EverBank Stadium.
As he hoisted the copper Gator Bowl MVP trophy, there was no doubt who was the best signal caller on the field after Mississippi State’s 52-14 thrashing of Michigan.
Considering who he was matched up against, it was high praise indeed.
Relf outplayed an early-season Heisman Trophy contender, Michigan’s Denard Robinson, in the Bulldogs’ best offensive output against a BCS Conference foe in the Dan Mullen era.
But the thing that made the performance special was the number he wore. He traded in his normal No. 14 for deceased teammate Nick Bell’s No. 36. Bell died of cancer in November.
“Wearing Nick Bell’s jersey meant a lot to me,” Relf said. “Tonight, I felt like he was with me when I was making those big plays.”
Relf honored his fallen teammate with his best performance in a Mississippi State uniform. He completed 18 of 23 passes for 281 yards and three touchdowns. He rushed for 30 yards and another score.
The key for MSU coach Dan Mullen was Relf’s ability to check down to second and third reads in the passing game and prevent costly turnovers. Relf’s only turnover was on a hail mary pass at the end of the first half.
The embodiment of that approach was on the 81-yard hookup with running back LaDarius Perkins that set up Vick Ballard’s 1-yard run in the third quarter. Relf scanned the field, saw all of his deep routes were well-covered and went with the safe throw to the speedy Perkins out of the backfield.
“They all want to throw that deep ball,” Mullen said of quarterbacks generally. “But he (Relf) kept his poise, stayed in the pocket and checked down. We’ve told him all year long that when you check it down, good things can happen and now, I have the film to prove it.”
Relf adjusted to not having top receiver Chad Bumphis in the lineup and spread the ball around to seven different receivers.
On the other side of the coin, Robinson was electric on Michigan’s opening drive, looking like the Heisman candidate of September with 46 yards rushing.
But the Mississippi State defense did a good job of containing him in the pocket. While he completed 27 of 41 passes for 254 yards and two touchdowns, he was definitely out of his element as he rushed for only 23 yards after the opening drive. He was not sacked, but took plenty of punishment and finished with a season-low 59 rushing yards.
The key was not overrushing lanes and keeping outside containment by the front seven.
“The guys did a great job and it was the same thing we had to do against (Jeremiah) Masoli,” MSU defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “You have to be disciplined. We sort of kept him in the pocket and I thought we did a great job of dictating where the game was going to be played. I thought our guys won that battle.”
Robinson said Michigan’s offensive struggles were self-inflicted and not a function of SEC speed on defense.
“We just didn’t execute,” the sophomore quarterback said. “We didn’t play Michigan football. We didn’t have our tempo going. They were out there running with us and playing with us. They were no different than a Big Ten team.”