"It's evolving," receivers coach Tim Brewster said. "The passing game is a progress, and work throughout the course of the season. There is a really high level of confidence between the quarterback and the wide receivers. Each day in practice we build that trust and we build that confidence."
The quarterback being of course Tyler Russell, who is re-writing program passing records almost weekly here late in his first season as sole starter. Even in a three-loss streak the junior has continued producing and he now holds the season standard with 19 touchdown passes. The yardage mark is only 183 yards away, or an average afternoon's work. And Russell already ranks first in season percentage at 60.5%.
No wonder then, "The passing game has really picked up," Koenning said. "Tyler can throw the football." So well that barring injury or interruption he'll leave as the most prolific passer ever to wear a Bulldog uniform. But then the thrower is only one part in the plan. Russell is benefitting from a core group of senior receivers playing at improved paces themselves.
In fact Chris Smith has already surpassed last season's 35 catches and 330 yards, accumulated in 13 games; through ten contests he has caught 40 balls for 482 yards. Arceto Clark is not far off his 2011 totals of 30 catches and 442 yards as he now has 27 for 355. Though, Clark has yet to receiver for a touchdown as a senior.
That's probably because Chad Bumphis has come to the fore much as he did in 2010. The slot-receiver already has 43 balls for 676 yards, and more impressively eight touchdowns. That's tied for the second-best season in MSU annals and only one shy of the record. Best of all, where in the past Bumphis dominated non-conference clubs and struggled against SEC defenses, he is proving himself a true conference catcher.
Bumphis followed up a four-grab, 50-yard day against Texas A&M with nine balls and 140 yards at LSU. Put another way, he had as many receptions this time against a Tiger defense as in all three previous games against LSU before, and almost three-times as many yards.
"We really challenged Chad to compete on Saturday night," Brewster said. "I didn't feel like he had a good of game as we would have liked against Alabama. It was a tremendous challenge to play against those types of players LSU's secondary has. He took it as a personal challenge to go out and compete. Probably played as fine a game as he has played here at Mississippi State."
The same was true for Russell, with career-highs of 26 completions and 295 yards. True, he'd tossed for 269 yards against Kentucky and 291 more against Tennessee. Those were not defenses in the same class as LSU. Still Koenning and staff planned to pass, just with less emphasis on long looks and deep strikes. In that way State built on the second-half successes against Texas A&M.
"Our plan was we felt like we could throw the football," said Koenning. "We threw for over 300 yards and moved the ball down the field." Those other yards came on Dak Prescott's play-fake toss for touchdown to Marcus Green, his only throw all night. No others were needed. "We felt like Tyler was on, he was accurate, the receivers were open and we got rid of the ball quick. We didn't hold onto the ball for a very long time. The ball was out of Tyler's hand. We timed all his passes and they were really, really good."
As was the catching. Brewster said Russell is playing "at an extremely high level" because the confidence factor is there between thrower and catchers. "He believes they're going to be where they are supposed to be and that's so critical. Quarterback and wide receiver relationship of having trust that they are going to be where they are supposed to be and once they are there they are going to catch the ball. We are catching the ball very well."
No one more so than Bumphis…or is it Smith, or Clark? Because each week or so one of these comes to the forefront depending on matchups and coverages.
"We try to have a standard as a group that we are going to play at a very high level consistently day in and day out," Brewster said. "Those three seniors played an outstanding football game Saturday night in Baton Rouge." As did the rising younger star of the bunch, sophomore Robert Johnson. There aren't a lot of balls left over by the senior trio but ‘RoJo' is finding a way, with nine catches in the last four games and two touchdowns.
Brewster takes particular proud in this pup's progress. "I recruited RoJo, at Minnesota," the former Big Ten head coach said. Now Brewster gets to coach Johnson anyway and the cooperation is showing.
"I'm really pleased, he has just blossomed. It was a matter of confidence and a matter of him feeling good about himself. He is a hard of working guy at the wide receiver position. If he doesn't have the ball he's blocking somebody. He takes great pride in his work. He understands work ethic. He has made some plays in the game. I think he has a very bright future."
Though State typically gets catches from eight to ten Dogs each week that includes tight ends and fullbacks. Running backs? They aren't targeted nearly as often in 2012; the passing plans have moved away from the sorts of short dumps and screens that suited a running quarterback like Chris Relf, and towards Russell's superior downfield skills. This contributes to increased catches by Bumphis and Co., too.
But going into the season it was other underclassmen expected to break-out. Instead Joe Morrow has been limited by minor ailments and simply getting up to SEC speed; while Jameon Lewis still is accepting the necessity of playing within a system rather than high school free-lancing. Brewster isn't worried about their futures.
"They are very, very fortunate that they have got senior leadership. I have always said that the best coaches are players. They are not coaches they are players. Jameon is learning from a guy Chad Bumphis that really does a great job in teaching him how to do things.
"Jameon is a very talented young guy, his time is going to come. What he has to do is be prepared right now if Chad were to go down he has to step in and play. He's really showed some good things. Joe Morrow is another guy who needs to learn how to play the receiver position. He's extremely raw but he has talent. I am really looking forward to coaching him in spring practice and teaching him the fundamentals of wide receiver play."
So the aerial attack is making significant strides this season. But is this coming at the expense of State's trademark ground game? Not really. Mullen said falling behind so soon in two losses forced more passing; and the LSU defense almost dictated it. "We felt like with LSU, throwing the football was an advantage for us and that's what we tried to exploit," said Koenning. Interestingly though, the coordinator added the absence of LaDarius Perkins with a muscle pull did not alter any plans or plays last week.
For Arkansas it may be more of the same scheming since the Razorbacks are allowing 276 yards passing in SEC games, compared to 122 ground yards. Still with Perkins expected back this week, and even Russell showing some footwork as well lately, the Bulldogs will attempt establishing the run as usual. Nor does Koenning count on an easy afternoon regardless of team trends.
Arkansas might be down for reasons beyond their control, but the Razorbacks aren't out just yet. "John L. (Smith) and them are in a tough situation but they are doing a good job. They are keeping their guys together, they are running to the football and you watch them on film, they are playing hard."