Taking over after halftime with his team trailing 3-0, Russell literally took over the afternoon. He accounted for all Mississippi State scoring with just three strong throws for touchdowns, each to different teammates, as the Bulldogs avoided a mid-season upset.
“He came in and stepped up and played real good,” said WR Chad Bumphis, recipient of one touchdown toss. “We needed that, we needed somebody to give us a spark and he did it.”
In a single half under-center, the sophomore quarterback got just about a full day’s work. He was 11-of-13 for 166 yards and the three touchdowns—a season-most for the Bulldog offense—and didn’t come close to an intercepted pass or turnover of any sort. Russell even ran the ball three times for a net gain. That reminded just how much difference Russell--still wearing a brace on a sprained left knee--really made.
“I knew we were down, I knew we had to get something going,” said Russell. “I just had to move the offense.” An offense which had mustered 118 yards and no points at all in the whole first half, too. Only 46 of that was in the air, despite a 6-of-10 showing by starter Chris Relf. The ground game wasn’t getting much more done either despite no lack of trying to push the Blazer defense around.
“We kind of were flat, everybody looking around for somebody else to make the play or looking for that spark in the first half,” Coach Dan Mullen said. And while Relf had, according to the coach, managed the game well to then with no turnovers, something else was lacking. So at intermission the offensive staff made the change.
“He just said he was going to give me a shot to start off the second half,” Russell said. “He told Chris be ready, Dillon (Favre) be ready because you never know what’s going to happen. and we just went with that.” And stuck with it, too. Russell didn’t immediately produce points on the first series but did drive the Dogs 48 yards with four caught balls along the way.
Talking about making a difference… “I threw that little out (route) the very first play and once I got that first completion I calmed down a little bit, and just went out there and played football,” Russell said. Definitely so on the second series which this time went the (89 yard) distance. Pinned at their 11-yard line it was alternate TB LaDarius Perkins digging his offense out with runs worth 25 yards, and Russell finding WR Ricco Sanders for 22 yards with 15 tacked on after Blazer Marvin Burdette hit the Bulldog wideout out of bounds.
Spotted at the UAB 18, Russell play-actioned and found an unexpected pair of Blazers in his facemask. “I thought they were going to blitz from the other side. They ended up blitzing from where the protection was sliding the other way so we couldn’t pick that up. But I knew Marcus was out there and I decided to give him a shot and see if he could make a play for us.”
Marcus, as in TE Green, did. Russell was falling backwards on the unload and his high throw barely cleared UAB linebacker Lemanski Ware. Green came down with it at the three-yard line and stepped inside the right pylon at 5:35 for State’s first lead all day.
“I knew he was going to get it or no one was going to get it,” Green said. “I threw it up there and he made a play.”
More plays would be needed though as UAB responded with a strong drive that reached State’s 20-yard line. On 2nd-and-10 tailback and Starkville native Pat Shed ran a draw-left and was met, sort of, by LB Brandon Wilson. “I saw the draw and wanted to run through the tackle,” Wilson said. “I may have slid, and knocked it out with my left hand.”
No, he definitely stripped the football and even better recovered it at the 23. “I actually thought the play was dead, I just dove for the ball. I’m glad it turned our way.”
Sitting on their 43-yard line as the fourth quarter began Russell and Bumphis really established control on a play that hadn’t worked so far. “We’d ran it a couple of times in the first half but couldn’t get anything going,” Bumphis said. “We ran it again in the second half and they adjusted to it. We came back to it one more time and it was open.”
Was it ever, as Russell faked, waiting until a Blazer safety had vacated the middle zone and Bumphis had angled in. Bumphis made the catch around the 40-yard line and was gone for a 57-yard touchdown at 14:50.
UAB’s only chance to keep it a game ended on the Bulldog 28 as CB Johnthan Banks picked Jonathan Perry’s pass. Eleven snaps later Russell scored the trifecta, this time finding TE Malcolm Johnson open at the goal line 20 yards away with five minutes left to run out. Before it did the Bulldogs broke the 400 yard mark, finishing with 416 on their 66 offensive snaps. Considering how the stat sheet looked at halftime it was a remarkable difference.
“When your quarterback is hot you’re going to be pretty smooth on offense,” Mullen said. “And Tyler was hot, he took some shots with pressure coming after him and made some tough throws.”
Bumphis and Arceto Clark were the hottest receivers, with 99 combined yards on four catches apiece. Four other Dogs had two grabs each as Russell and Relf before him spread the ball around nicely. Starting TB Vick Ballard didn’t get to the end zone but dominated the ground game with 101 yards on 19 attempts. Perkins was good for 43 yards on eight rushes, and the two tailbacks were almost identical in gains-per-carry.
“Tyler helped us out a lot,” Ballard said. “He opened up the run game and they had to respect him as a passer not as a runner. That kind of softened the defense up.”
It was a far cry from the first half though, as Mullen noted, what with State looking shaky and needing somebody, anybody to strike that spark. “The second half there wasn’t that case at all, everybody was making the plays.
“I’m really pleased with the way our guys stepped it up in the second half. Tyler came in and was on fire and took the reins and went with it and created spark for the team.”
UAB did muster 340 yards, on 71 snaps. In his second college start Perry was 18-of-36 for 195 yards and the one pick, but the Blazers streak of not throwing a touchdown pass continued for a fifth game. Shed had 73 yards on 16 rushes and Perry scrambled for 44 more. The Blazers hurt their own cause with the two ill-timed turnovers in MSU territory though. And they were assessed with seven penalties for 79 yards, including the late-hit on State’s first touchdown drive and a pass interference setting up the third score.
The Bulldogs earned just two flags all day, one each in the third and fourth quarters. They did not give the ball away either, make it what Mullen likes to call a ‘clean’ game. And after three frustrating weekends State cashed in on two of their three red-zone situations for touchdowns and got the longer strike in-between.
“It definitely felt different,” said LT James Carmon, who himself returned to the field after halftime having missed the first periods with a sore knee. “Because we’ve been struggling the last couple of games getting touchdowns, being in the red zone and not scoring. But once we got in the red zone I took it on my shoulders to come in block, keep people off Relf and Tyler, and said we had to score. And that’s what we did.”
Mississippi State evened their record at 3-3 at mid-point of the season, while UAB remained winless at 0-5.