When Mississippi State quarterback Chris Relf drops back to pass, anything can happen.
There might be a pass down the sideline for a big gain. The next play could be an easy screen pass inexplicably spiked into the ground, far from the receiver's reach.
So far, Relf's inconsistent play hasn't hurt Mississippi State. The 23rd-ranked Bulldogs (6-2, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) are on a five-game winning streak heading into Saturday's game against Kentucky (4-4, 1-4).
While the Wildcats have had their issues on this season, they've consistently put points on the scoreboard, averaging 34.8 points per game. And if the Bulldogs get caught in a shootout, MSU coach Dan Mullen wants Relf at his best.
Kentucky "can score in a hurry," Mullen said. "With all their great athletes, they can put points up on the board, so they're never really out of a game. They've battled back, they've won some tough games. Their kids have some confidence."
Relf's completed 55.3 percent of his passes this season for 815 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions. He's made up for those pedestrian passing numbers by making good decisions when the Bulldogs run option plays, and is the team's second-leading rusher with 420 yards gained and two touchdowns.
But Mullen said Relf doesn't have to be known as a run-first quarterback. He said when the 6-foot-4, 240-pound junior sets his feet and reads his progressions properly, he's got the arm strength to make almost any throw on the field.
"We've just got to get him cleaned up," Mullen said. "Once we get him settled down fundamentally, he's going to be fine ... He's made some great throws."
While Relf will probably never be considered a true pocket passer, Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said his secondary will have to respect his throwing ability.
"He's made some throws," Phillips said. "He's made some throws and he throws it adequate enough to where he's completed 55 percent of his passes so you have to cover down on receivers."
Mississippi State's sudden urgency to see Relf improve is directly correlated to Kentucky, which has been one of the hardest teams to figure out in the SEC.
For a while, it looked like they would be one of the conference doormats after consecutive losses to Florida, Mississippi and Auburn. But then came a stunning victory over then-No. 10 South Carolina, and suddenly the Wildcats are generating a little more respect.
Receiver Randall Cobb and running back Derrick Locke have long been Kentucky's respected playmakers but it's quarterback Mike Hartline who has caught the eye of Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. Hartline's completing more than 67 percent of his passes, while his 2,144 passing yards and 17 touchdowns lead the SEC.
"I think their quarterback has really, really improved over his career there and I think he's become — and the statistics agree — one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC," Diaz said.
Even though Mississippi State is ranked among the league's best on defense, it's not out of the question that Kentucky could force the Bulldogs to come back from a deficit. And Relf will likely need to make a few throws to do that.
MSU offensive coordinator Les Koenning attributed some of Relf's issues to small injuries that have hobbled him throughout the season, but also said it couldn't be an excuse for poor play.
"This isn't volleyball, this isn't tennis," Koenning said. "This is football. You got to play with some aches and pains. You've got to play with some bruises and get out there and play. He's done that — he just needs to keep progressing and keep coming on."
Source: AP News