It is also the culmination of what Coach Dan Mullen began when he inherited a throwing-and-catching corps which he immediately proclaimed not anywhere near SEC caliber. Four falls later and even participants are amazed at how much has changed. "Yes, yes, yes!" said WR Chris Smith, one of those Bulldogs who got in on the ground floor in 2009. "Some people just don't know!"
They'd better figure it out soon. Russell, in conjunction with a trio of other 2009 signees, have transformed Mississippi State's offense to a truly balanced operation now. Or even slightly tipped towards throwing the ball lately, to the benefit of Smith, Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark, and others. Each Saturday one of these, or a rising underclassman like Robert Johnson, comes to the forefront with a big receiving game.
Or more than one as happened at LSU when Bumphis notched a personal-record 140 yards on nine catches; while Smith had seven balls himself. The previous week it was Clark setting the pace with five catches. And so on it goes. The result is Russell is three caught passes from tying the all-time season record at State and in just ten games.
And, of course, a bunch of targets are taking turns in this expanded offense. "That's nice, because everybody gets to see what we have," Smith said. "And see all the other people contributing to the program. That's really a blessing, and we're proving to everybody what we've got. As people look at stats and on TV, you'll see what we've got."
Looking at the latest SEC statistics implies those fans at Scott Field this Saturday or the TV audience should see a lot of what State receivers have got. Arkansas is giving up 276 passing yards a game and 66% completions, and that is in conference games only. Safe to suggest the Razorback defense sees a lot of passes coming their way.
Not that Russell takes anything for granted at this stage. The junior has seen games where stat-trends held true…and others where numbers mislead. Besides, Russell said, "They've got some guys on that side of the ball that can make plays. And they have some guys on offense that can make plays as well. So we're going to have to score, have to put up some points."
"I think every week you have to go out and play. I mean, it's SEC football; any team can beat any team any given Saturday. So we just have to go out there and as long as we execute and do the things we need to do we'll be fine."
Smith is counting on it. "It's just about execution, who can execute the most. I mean I feel real confident about this game, as I do about every game. We have to have a different approach every game and this game I feel we're going to end it with a bang."
GROUND GAMING: While the passing numbers have risen steadily over the season, State's trademark rushing attack is trending the other direction of late. This is not by design; it is by defenses the Bulldogs have faced in the three-loss streak as well as falling behind so far, so fast in two of the defeats. So some drop-off was to be expected.
Just not continued, Russell said. "It's slowed-down. But we've worked hard in practice and those guys are getting back on blocking assignments to open up the run." Most obviously to open things back up for LaDarius Perkins and give the junior back the same sorts of openings he enjoyed during a seven-win stretch.
Perkins was sidelined at LSU by a practice injury, a quadriceps pull, and when it still hampered him pre-game Mullen and Coach Greg Knox went with younger runners. Though practices are closed and no first-hand info available, Russell is talking up Perkins' potential against Arkansas. "He's a great leader, it's good to have him back. He's worked hard these last few days at practice."
Not just hard but well according to Mullen. "He had a great practice yesterday so we expect him to play Saturday," the head coach reported Wednesday morning.
This doesn't necessarily mean Perkins will resume the same role of taking 80% of all SEC-game carries as before though. Even had the junior stayed healthy, Mullen and Knox were working Nick Griffin, Josh Robinson, and Derrick Milton into conference series. Not to rest the starter but because they've earned this opportunity by performing when given chances.
"Perkins is our guy," Mullen agreed. "But look at Nick and how he's played, Josh has done some nice things. There is a lot more confidence going in there. I don't know if there will be a set plan going in but I know we're more comfortable putting them in in rotation. They've seen the improvement our young backs have made and seen the talent those guys have.
"But when you get your starter in, it boosts you more."
POTENT PUP: Speaking of starting, with Perkins out last Saturday the first carry went to sophomore Griffin. For five yards no less, though admittedly State's first two plays were passes to loosen the Tigers up. Still for the night Griffin got to haul the ball eleven times for 38 yards with a long run of nine yards.
And by Griffin's own admission, he was almost running a little lighter than his listed weight. Those pre-game butterflies hit him harder than the Tigers. "Because I know going into the game I was so nervous that I might actually start the game. Y'all seen ‘Any Given Sunday'? I really almost threw up, I was so nervous!"
"But after that first play I was like I can do this, I'm good." Good enough to have fans asking should the long-striding back get a larger share of rushes, whether open field or red zone? Mullen isn't tipping any cards on this topic. But Griffin will be ready for his next chance.
Not to mention much less nervous. "I'd say that was huge for me," he said of getting the first college, and SEC, start. "I can improve, just read things faster and going through them faster. But I think I'm alright at it."
IN THE ZONE: Run, throw, and/or catch, there is a specific area of the field Mississippi State must upgrade its game. The Bulldogs are struggling to score touchdowns inside SEC opponents' 20-yard lines. Out of 23 chances only 13 have reached the end zone. And more instructively, of those touchdowns ten have come via passing. Not running it in, as has been the Bulldog calling-card before under Mullen.
There's no quick fix or single tweak that will turn things around automatically…other than perhaps playing defenses not as stout in the red zone in both remaining regular season games. Arkansas checks in this week #10 while Ole Miss is #12. So the opportunity should be there, as long as the Bulldogs keep getting there.
"It's just you've got to make plays when you get down there," Russell said, showing hints of his own frustrations. "I've said that a lot of times to you guys the past couple of weeks. You score in the red zone, that's the plan to win. Score in the red zone and take care of the ball and you're probably in that game with a chance to win it at the end. So we just have to go back to the basics and keep preparing on third down and in the red zone. And just try not to make the same mistake twice."
END TO END: Mississippi State remains one of the least-sacked squads in the SEC, with only eight given up in the six league games so far. Russell has picked up his own pace of passing before the rush arrives in recent games to be sure.
Yet among other somewhat-overlooked items from Baton Rouge, was how the two sacks allowed only came on the last Dog drive when State got into the red zone and was clearly going to throw. For the rest of the evening the quarterback absorbed a lot less contact than he had against A&M, or Alabama, or even Tennessee for that matter. And Mullen said today some of the credit must go to better play by offensive tackles Blaine Clausell and Charles Siddoway.
"I thought they actually did an excellent job against LSU," the coach said. "They got beat once in the game for sacks, and they were critical sacks. But against the talent in that game I thought they held up pretty well in the course of that game."