They want teammates coaching each other on finer points of the game as it plays out. Russell welcomes the opportunity, too. "So when I'm in that situation I'm trying to win; so I'm going to tell Chris the best opportunity, the things he needs to do. We're teammates and we just want to win." To his credit fourth-year junior Relf listens to his younger cohort; and will offer his own observations when Russell has taken turns on the field.
Mullen said the exclusive use of Relf against Georgia developed because the starter was "in a flow" and making the plays; but that Russell was ready to roll as usual each week. "He takes I'd say 40% of the reps at practice still, if I had to add it up. So Tyler is getting a lot of reps at practice, he's not going to lose any focus. And he expected to play this year."
Russell corrects the coach's calculations. "It's even at practice," he said Tuesday. "We get the same ratio of reps with the ones, and at the end of team (work) ones go against the twos on defense. So I'm getting prepared. Chris is the starter but I'm still getting prepared like I'm going to play."
And realistically it is still more a matter of ‘when' than ‘if' though Mullen does reserve the right to follow the game's feel in how he rotates the quarterbacks. Or, not. Whereas in the opening game there was a script for the first half, and then Russell ran the show almost all the second half against Memphis, the freshman says now that State is into SEC action there isn't a true plan per se.
"It's no particular time, like Tyler is going in series three or anything like that. That's why I always have to be prepared in any situation because I never know when I'm going to get my chance. That makes me prepare that much harder." Not just prepare, but stay involved with the live action and offer Relf advice as suits the situation. That includes game week work in the film room, too, where both coach each other up.
"I just have to see the things Chris did right and might not have done right," Russell said. "It's better if you get a chance to watch the game and see how it plays out." Speaking of playing out a rotation…there has been speculation that State will come up with a scheme putting both Relf, who is the team's top running threat, and Russell on the field together. The younger quarterback was asked just that Tuesday: is State practicing such a set?
"Nah, I don't think so!" though the denial wasn't exactly said stoutly. And Russell might have tipped the hand a bit with his smiling, and hesitant, follow-up "That would be…that would work, though."
SEC VS. SWAC, ROUND II: Another notion going into this week's non-conference game, against a lower-Division opponent, is that State will try getting the starters off the field early as possible and playing a lot more of the dress roster. Russell downplays this angle, aggressively. And especially in his case.
"It's not that we play Alcorn so Tyler you're going to play. We're preparing to win."
That is the sort of midweek motivation MSU is applying. Mullen stresses how potent the Brave offense has been, and emphasizes the rivalry aspect…even if these programs have never met. "We're very excited about this week's game, to play an in-state rival, a team from the SWAC. It's only the second time a SEC school has played a SWAC team so there is the historical impact, especially in our state."
Of course State made history last fall, when Mullen made his MSU debut coaching against Jackson State in the first-ever SEC vs. SWAC match. The result was a 45-7 romp. So the Bulldogs have to find other added incentives for the weekend. It probably won't be personal for many, either, since few players currently in purple and gold were recruited by MSU.
"We had a couple of players form Meridian that went there, but they don't play football any more," Russell said. "I played with a guy who I thought was on the team, but I guess he graduated," said OC J.C. Brignone. So there is little familiarity with either the players or the program State is hosting. But the Bulldogs vow they are taking the same practice approach this week as any SEC week. Because they have watched enough TV games to see what is possible on any Saturday.
"Yeah, a couple of times this year you've seen teams go in and beat some top-ranked teams and stuff like that," Russell said. "So you have to go in like it is a top 25 team and play like you can play, and we'll be fine."
Brignone is even more blunt. "We have nothing to take for granted. We're not the team that is walking in and everybody saying oh my god this is Mississippi State…not yet! We're going to be. And it starts with us, the offensive line has to dominate like we did in the Georgia game. But we can't overlook them because they're Alcorn State. They're not D-III, they're D-I. I've watched film on them and they have guys that can play. I'm not overlooking anything."
In the final analysis, though, Mullen is providing his own sort of incentive for this game. Any game, in fact. Beating Georgia was a great SEC statement and presumably can become a turning point event, but only if the team stays on that turned-track. So, Mullen said today, keep at the task.
"There's a lot of little things we need to improve on. But we need to capture that momentum and carry it into this week, and hopefully the rest of the season."
DON'T PUSH YOUR LUCK: Mississippi State is the SEC's least-penalized team after four games, and opponents have drawn almost twice as many (assessed) flags so far. It's been well-reported how crucial several of Georgia's penalties were in setting the game's course, but one flag has not drawn as much attention as it might merit.
That would be the offsides call on the Georgia defense, on a play that Relf continued by hurling the ball downfield for anyone to catch. It was intercepted, and though the turnover was negated Mullen was not thrilled with the risk his starting quarterback took. Yet he was less happy with another aspect of the play: the pressure Relf got after the flag flew.
"I didn't even bring the interception up with him," Mullen said today. "I'm more concerned we missed a protection on the play." Still the coach is making a private point to his passer this week about making such assumptions. "I'm not big into just throwing the ball up for grabs and hoping it's an offsides. That can lead to bad habits."
MR. TOUCHDOWN? Through three games State's offense had split the tailback carries almost evenly, albeit with Relf still leading the team in totes. But after the Georgia stats were tallied, Vick Ballard moved out in front by a worthwhile margin. He now has 36 rushes to 25 each for Robert Elliott and LaDarius Perkins. After starting Elliott three times, Mullen put Ballard in the opening lineup this week too.
Ballard also jumped ahead in average gains, and his 4.6 rate is best of all backs including Relf. It's the sort of progress Coach Greg Knox hoped for. "He's getting better each week. That's why you're seeing his production slowly increase because now he's starting to figure this out and get better at it."
Now the most noticeable number on Ballard's line is 5; as in his rushing touchdowns. In fact the only other offensive Dog to score via the ground this year has been guard Gabe Jackson when he fell on a Relf fumble in the end zone against Auburn. So does this mean Ballard is Mr. Touchdown of the Bulldog backfield this season, the guy called on to get that ball over that line?
"Not really, I'm just trying to do my job," said Ballard, adding, "It kind of seems like that! It just goes back to trying to do my job, you know. I'm not perfect but I try to do the best I can for this team."
His best has been pretty good, too. But Mullen and Knox don't seem to think, or say there is, any pecking order among the tailbacks. "I think they've done nice job of it," Mullen said. "I've been pleased with their performances. They've graded well and run the ball hard, so I'm pleased."
Pleased enough that State is expanding the offensive repertoire this year. Not having a single big-back like Anthony Dixon is one obvious reason. "It's unfair to even compare them to an Anthony Dixon, they're their own players," Mullen said today. "We're a different team than we were with Anthony last year." Then again, different can be as good and in some ways maybe, better? Certainly Knox has to make more use of his varied personnel and after a month playing them the coach has a feel for what each brings to the gameplan.
"We're starting to see our kids mature in the offense," said Knox. "And the more they mature the more we can input, install, and run."
Such as, that option-sweep in the first quarter Saturday that turned into a last-second flip by Relf. Ballard scored it untouched, then was later told it was a pass reception and not a rushing touchdown. "It didn't bother me, it's still on the books! And we got the win."