With 10 seconds left in last week’s nail-biter at Auburn, Mississippi State faced a a second-and-goal from the 2 and was out of timeouts.
If he called a pass play, State coach Dan Mullen almost certainly would have given the Bulldogs two shots at a touchdown. If he called a run, he knew the game would likely be won or lost on the ensuing snap.
Mullen put the decision in the hands of senior quarterback Chris Relf, who chose to run.
“I think we made the right call,” Mullen said.
Even though Auburn defender Ryan Smith stopped Relf inches from the goal line, time ran out and Auburn escaped with a 41-34 victory, it’s not hard to see why Relf and the Bulldogs were comfortable taking their chances on the ground.
No. 25 State enters Thursday night’s showdown against No. 3 LSU in Starkville, Miss., as the Southeastern Conference leader at 321.0 rushing yards per game, well ahead of Florida at 248.5 rushing yards per game.
Senior running back Vick Ballard is tops in the league with 301 yards on 31 carries with four touchdowns. Relf ranks ninth among SEC ball-carriers with 148 yards on 39 tries.
They may operate out of a new-school spread offense, but the Bulldogs employ the kind of blue-collar, between-the-tackles running game Bear Bryant would have loved.
“I think our guys are going to have to take the line of scrimmage,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “The nature of that offense is a physical brand.”
Therein lies the most intriguing aspect of Thursday’s matchup: the State running game against LSU’s rush defense.
In their opening 40-27 victory over Oregon in Arlington, Texas, the Tigers bottled up Oregon’s speedy zone-read option, holding Darron Thomas, LaMichael James & Co. to 95 yards rushing. In their 49-3 rout of Northwestern State to start the home schedule, they held the Demons to minus-4 yards on 27 carries, marking the first time in 29 years LSU kept an opponent to negative yards rushing.
Asked about the LSU defense, Mullen rattled off a list of adjectives - “big, fast, physical, strong, great.”
“They’re a team loaded with NFL players,” he said. “I’m sure they’d win the NFC East this year.”
But if the Tigers plan to find a fast start in the SEC, they will have to deal with a State spread that resembles Oregon’s in name alone. The Ducks win with speed. The Bulldogs go straight ahead.
State ran off 309 yards against Memphis in its opener, scoring six of its eight touchdowns on the ground. Ballard and Relf both went for more than 100 yards against Auburn, running for 135 and 106 yards respectively.
In addition to leading the SEC in rushing, State also ranks first in total offense at 588.0 yards per game.
A key to its success Thursday could be the health of senior center Quentin Saulsberry and senior left tackle James Carmon.
Saulsberry, who has made 39 straight starts, left Saturday’s game with a knee sprain. Carmon, a converted defensive lineman in his first season as a starter, was carted off the field after suffering a leg injury.
“We hope they’re going to play in the game,” Mullen said, “but when you go out there and practice, you get young in a hurry. We’ve got a lot of freshmen backing up on the offensive line.”
Either way, expect Mullen to hang his hat on Ballard, Relf and the running game.
Even if the Bulldogs happen to fall behind. Even if it’s second-and-goal with 10 seconds to play.
“If we get the defense to slow down because they’re not sure what’s going on with the option and we get our offensive line rolling, we can knock some people off the ball, we can hit some gaps and we’re ready to run,” Mullen said.