By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Tyler Russell’s steady hand has taken Mississippi State’s offense to new heights, and he’s guided the Bulldogs through some rough patches, too.
The junior quarterback was in top form Saturday night, recording a career-high 291 passing yards in MSU’s 41-31 win over Tennessee. The win moved State to 6-0 overall, 3-0 in the SEC, and up four spots to No. 15 in the latest Associated Press poll.
Russell completed 23 of 37 passes and tossed two touchdowns. He and the MSU offense started off hot, and he had 199 yards by halftime, when the Bulldogs held a 27-14 lead.
Then MSU hit a dry spell, punting on five consecutive possessions, not counting a kneel-down just before halftime. But the defense maintained the lead and forced a big turnover, and MSU scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to seal victory.
“Even when we were kind of slipping, even when we weren’t performing on offense, (Russell) was calm, collected and made the plays he needed to make, especially in that fourth quarter right there at the end,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said.
His biggest plays came in the fourth quarter.
MSU took over with 5 minutes, 22 seconds left in the fourth and clinging to a 34-31 lead. It needed to run some clock, because Tennessee’s offense had been moving the ball well in the second half.
On a third-and-7, Russell found Chad Bumphis over the middle for a 10-yard gain. Russell said that wasn’t the play that was called.
“Me and Chad just were on the same page. He gave it to me, and I trusted it,” he said.
Said Mullen about that play, “We have so much confidence in him to put the game on his shoulders.”
MSU reached Tennessee’s 9-yard line with 14 seconds left, and Mullen had a choice: Try a field goal, or go for it and run a few more seconds off the clock.
He took a timeout, then sent the offense back out on the field. Mullen didn’t want to risk something bad happening on a field goal, and he didn’t want to kick off again to Cordarrelle Patterson, who had returned a kick 98 yards for a touchdown earlier in the game.
‘Let’s take a shot’
“I told Tyler, I said, ‘Hey, you know what, instead of just handing the ball up the middle, let’s take a shot at the end zone. Just put it where our guy or nobody’s going to catch it, and I think that’ll take up as much time as running the ball up the middle.’
“If it’s incomplete, then they’ve got the ball with nine seconds, 91 yards away from our end zone.”
Russell lobbed a pass to the back of the end zone, where tight end Malcolm Johnson made a splendid one-handed catch and got one foot down in bounds. Ballgame.
Johnson was one of three tight ends to make at least one catch Saturday. Russell completed passes to eight different players, including tailback LaDarius Perkins and fullback Sylvester Hemphill.
MSU finished with 450 total yards, and the 41 points marked the first time since the season opener that State exceeded 30 points. Saturday was a big step forward for the offense.
“Tyler is a big-time quarterback,” right guard Tobias Smith said. “With that we’re going to grow as an offense around him.”