By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – No matter how tightly Dan Mullen closes ranks, the question will be asked over and over again this week: Is Tyler Russell the new starting quarterback for Mississippi State?
After the way he played Saturday in relief of starter Chris Relf, it’s a question with some meat to it. Russell, who entered after halftime, passed for 166 yards and three touchdowns to rally MSU past UAB, 21-3, at Legion Field.
The third-year sophomore breathed life into an offense that hadn’t scored a touchdown in the previous eight quarters of regulation.
Russell was 11 of 13 and put MSU on top to stay, at 7-3, with an 18-yard touchdown pass to tight end Marcus Green at the 5-minute, 35-second mark of the third quarter.
“It wasn’t (that) Chris was playing poorly, it was I thought we needed a spark,” Mullen said. “I guess that was the best thing I could do to create a spark. Tyler came in and played exceptionally well. Came in, was on fire. Took the reins and went with it and had a lot of energy and created a spark for the team.”
Relf, a fifth-year senior, was 6 of 10 for 46 yards in the first half and did not play again after Russell entered. Mullen tried to downplay any talk of a change at QB, saying he would “decide that in practice this week.”
The Bulldogs (3-3) play host to South Carolina this weekend.
Asked how all the questions might affect his quarterbacks, Mullen said, “We’ll direct them at me. I’ll make the rule right now: Quarterbacks are not available (to the media) this week. You can talk to me. That will limit the talk.”
When Mullen announced the change to his players at halftime, he said Relf helped the team get pumped up for the second half.
“Chris just told me to go out there and get something going,” Russell said. “I really do believe he could’ve put anybody in that situation, and they would’ve did the same thing.”
Russell last played against LSU three weeks earlier, then had a knee injury that still bothers him, but obviously not much. At one point he completed eight consecutive passes.
After the game, Relf had nothing but praise for Russell, but he was clearly frustrated with how things went in the first half.
“I just think we’ve got to throw the ball down the field. I didn’t have that chance, and Tyler had that chance to throw the ball down the field in the second half,” Relf said. “He made the big plays, and I’m just happy with the win.”
Mullen and Russell both said they don’t expect this week’s practices to be any different as far as how the quarterbacks prepare or how many snaps they get with the first team. And according to Relf, he’s still No. 1.
“Coach Mullen said I’m still going to be the starting quarterback, it’s just a matter of me going out there, working hard, and a matter of them believing in me to throw the ball in the game.”
MSU gained 298 of its 416 total yards in the second half, including 132 rushing. Vick Ballard, held to 139 yards over his last three games, rushed for 101 on 19 carries against UAB (0-5).
After the Green touchdown, the Bulldogs looked like a different team on both sides of the ball. A fumble recovery by Brandon Wilson set up a 57-yard TD pass from Russell to Chad Bumphis, and Johnthan Banks’ fourth interception of the season preceded a 20-yard scoring strike from Russell Malcolm Johnson with 5:05 to go in the game.
“Once we scored, you could feel there was a little bit swing in confidence,” Mullen said. “If you looked after that first score, everybody made a play. We didn’t drop another pass after that, we didn’t miss a lot of blocks, we finished runs strong. That was a big deal for us.”
MSU’s first half drives ended in five punts and a missed 32-yard field goal by Derek DePasquale. UAB was better than State at moving the ball but only got a 47-yard Ty Long field.
That was enough, however, to give the Blazers their first lead of the season, and it was 3-0 at halftime. It was only the third time under Mullen that the Bulldogs have been shut out in the first half.
UAB had 181 total yards at halftime and finished with 340. Sophomore quarterback Jonathan Perry was 18 of 36 for 195 yards, while tailback Pat Shed – a Starkville native – rushed 16 times for 73 yards.
“It’s a tough loss when you know you played your heart out,” Shed said.
For MSU, the win provided a sense of relief. The Bulldogs, who’d lost two of three coming in, are halfway to bowl eligibility but can’t enjoy this one too long as they get ready for South Carolina.
Whether it’s Relf or Russell under center this week doesn’t matter to Bumphis, who had four catches for 66 yards.
“I think we’ll be fine either way,” he said. “You can’t say one’s better than the other.”