Nowhere to run

STARKVILLE, Miss. - Against its third set of Tigers, the Mississippi State offense explored a jungle it couldn’t handle.

The Southeastern Conference’s top rushing team saw its top players shut down and managed just 52 yards on the ground against the SEC’s No. 1 rushing defense.

In a 19-6 win on Thursday, LSU dominated a Bulldogs team that had its way with Memphis and Auburn, rushing for 642 yards in those games.

“We got our butts kicked out there tonight. That’s about the bottom line right there,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said.

So defeated was Mullen’s offense that he pulled his quarterback, Chris Relf, a powerful runner, whose passing has improved to the point that he’s been compared to former Auburn star Cam Newton.

LSU did a number on the Bulldogs’ other notable offensive star, running back Vick Ballard.

Against Memphis and Auburn, Ballard, a 5-foot-11, 245-pound senior from Pascagoula, had amassed 301 and four touchdowns.

He’d run for an impressive 9.7 yards a carry and began the night as the SEC’s leading rusher with 150.5 yards a game.

Thursday night he had 10 carries for 38 yards. He also caught three passes for 32 yards.

Relf hurt the Tigers in the first quarter, his 14-yard run a key play on a 57-yard drive that ended in a 26-yard field goal by Derek DePasquale. That tied the game at 3 with 5 minutes, 33 seconds left in the first quarter.

The Bulldogs, though, were unable to sustain offense throughout the game even when gifted with great field position.

MSU’s first two possessions of the third quarter started at its 40 then at mid-field, but the Bulldogs got only another DePasquale field goal out of the deal.

The first possession ended after one play when Relf’s throw to the deep middle of the field was picked off by LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne.

DePasquale’s 42-yard field goal capped a 25-yard drive that included a roughing the passer call against the Tigers and tied the game at 6 with 5:26 left in the third.

Relf, who pounded Auburn with tough inside running and 106 yards, carried 16 times for 38 yards - until the negative yardage from four sacks was added in. Relf totaled 10 net rushing yards.

After hitting nine of his first 11 passes, Relf finished 11-for-17 for 96 yards with an interception.

Mullen said he thought Relf held the ball too long on some plays.

“We never got into a rhythm on offense, and Chris is much better when we do that,” Mullen said. “He did hold the ball, but they’re a talented team, and they can really cover.”

LSU went ahead 16-6 on Jarrett Lee’s 19-yard pass to Rueben Randle with 11:56 left in the game.

That’s when Mullen turned to backup quarterback Tyler Russell, a true pocket passer unlike the dual threat Relf.

“I just wanted to give it up a change-up,” Mullen said. “We weren’t going to just throw the ball. We were still going to run out offense.”

The Bulldogs were also playing without two starters on their offensive line.

Left tackle James Carmon was injured at Auburn, and right guard Tobias Smith went out on the first series of the game.

Mullen inserted two redshirt freshmen to compensate.

“That’s life in this conference. Those guys have to step up,” Mullen said.

Instead, it was the LSU defensive front that stood up. Tackles Bennie Logan and Michael Brockers had a field day, Logan with five tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss, Brockers with four tackles and three tackles for loss.

The Bulldogs’ 588 yards a game over their first games had them atop the league in total offense, but LSU held them to 193 total yards, 3.3 yards per play.

“That’s a very fast defense. They’re very fast up front, and they run to the ball. They don’t miss tackles in the open field,” Mullen said. “The first guy there gets you on the ground.”