And second, there was the matchup to consider. While South Carolina had the SEC's best passing defense there was some room to run with, Relf specialty. But by Friday evening the choice was made and the two quarterbacks told.
"He just graded out slightly higher than the other two guys in practice," said Mullen, who started Tyson Lee all 12 games of 2009 and then Relf all of '10 and the first six games this season. It turned out the starting job today meant full-time because there was no rotating. Though, Mullen said, it was in the package.
"We had some stuff, we were going to put Chris in for some different things. But just within the flow of the game it never got to that. Chris was ready to go. We script series, we never got to it. That's about the only reason why."
Well, that and competent work by Russell. "Before the game you always get a little nervous, then you get settled in," Russell said. "I settled in pretty quick. At times I thought I was high, and sometimes I was down. I just have to be more consistent. South Carolina had a great defensive line and played man-to-man pretty much the whole game."
Russell was 11-of-29 for 165 yards with a touchdown, on a flawless eight-yard shot to WR Chris Smith cutting across field and to the goal line on State's third series. His own third series as a starter, that is. "I think I managed the game pretty well throughout. The first half there were a couple I should have threw away and didn't, I got sacked. The second half I settled in."
He did take one charged sack and lots of other licks. Mullen thought it was contact late in the motion that led to a little under-throw, though Russell didn't recall any that time. There was enough contact to keep him occupied anyway.
"I was getting hit pretty much the whole game. But our offensive line did a great job, and it's my job to get the ball out quick." The other interception was on a tipped ball at the line by a long-armed defensive tackle when Russell was trying to go down the middle. Russell also thought he should have done a better job on State's fourth-quarter drive to the four-yard line, especially after heroic catches from TE Malcolm Johnson and WR Chris Smith. He got away with one shot into double-coverage as WR Chad Bumphis was hit too early.
But settling for a field goal left the Dogs vulnerable to S.C.'s game-winning chance. "I felt that was the drive, we had a lot of guys making plays," said Russell. "Chris made a fantastic catch, Malcolm made a good play on a ball. My job is to get the ball to playmakers and at times I felt I did that. And at times I didn't, that's my fault." Including, he said, the sealing interception where he just did not see a supporting safety coming over.
"But you have to make a decision and go with it," Russell said. As had his coach with handing the ball to the backup for his first time at MSU. "He'll learn, he'll get better. He made some great throws and that's a good learning experience for him to be in that situation again of making that throw. I see us making that play as we continue to move forward."
As for how he approached a first-time starter, "We weren't conservative at all with him, when we made the decisions putting in the gameplan it wasn't with one or the other quarterback in mind," Mullen said. "It was put in the gameplan we thought we could do well against these guys. In the course of the game I had no hesitation with letting Tyler do everything we had in the gameplay even though it was his first start. He got an opportunity last week and seized it, we'll grade the film to see how he played today but he's never done anything but prepare himself. We didn't feel we had to hold anything back."
By the same token, one start does not a permanent #1 man make. Mississippi State has an open date ahead so this coming short week will offer extra evaluation time for all quarterbacks. Then the competition for starting status resumes next week. Along with the search for that first SEC win of 2011.
"We were so close to being a really good football team and that's what you've got to take out of a game like this," Russell said. "The game is over now. All you can do is get better from it."
ROLE REVERSALS: TB Vick Ballard is much better known for his work with the ball in his hands. But when a Bulldog pass ended up in the wrong man's hands, the senior tailback showed he could play some pretty good defense.
In the second quarter Russell had his first interception, on the pass deflected and caught by Gamecock Reginald Bowen at the MSU 30-yard line. The linebacker had a head of steam and was 19 yards into the return when Ballard arrived and, well, reversed roles with the Gamecocks. He tackled Bowen at the 11.
"I just want to win," Ballard said. "I got the tackle and the defense got a stop. I was happy about that, I could have let it go but when you want to win you stuff like that."
Ballard's extra work was rewarded when CB Johnthan Banks matched one turnovers with another, picking off Connor Shaw in the end zone.
COUNT ANOTHER ONE: That pick was Banks' fifth of this season, and 12th of his career. This ties the junior cornerback for second-most in Mississippi State history, even now with four-year players Derek Pegues and Izell McGill. The record is 16 by Walt Harris, also in four seasons.
His five interceptions leave Banks #2 in the latest NCAA rankings behind a North Carolina State player. No wonder a postgame question was why Banks, the taller and stronger jumper, was not matched on big S.C. wideout Ashlon Jeffrey for what became the winning Gamecock touchdown toss.
Banks did not report to the post-game press room, but MLB Brandon Wilson gladly spoke for him. "I'd definitely say he's been playing lights out, I don't know how many interceptions he has on the year but he's a ballplayer. You kind of expect that out of those guys."
And Banks almost had a second pick, this one at the goal line as he got in front of the receiver right at the left pylon. Both Bulldog and Gamecock had to jump for the ball and with hands wrapping around him from behind Banks couldn't cleanly catch it. Instead, he ‘pushed' it much like a volleyball pass to S Nickoe Whitley for the tag-team pick.
It was sophomore Whitley's third interception this season, in the last four games, and sixth career. Though given the circumstances perhaps this ought to be scored like a sack; half-credit to Banks and the other to Whitley
FOOT WORK: P Baker Swedenburg had a career sort of day, with a season-best 45.0 yard average on his five punts. And twice he had to dig his team out of a bad field position hole, doing so with kicks that went from end zone to well across midfield.
"I was pretty proud, he some good get-off times, some solid hang-time," Mullen said. "He had a 45 yard average and was pretty consistent throughout the day. When you start to boom the ball like he was the key is you don't out-kick the coverage, but he had some good hang-times with it and I was pleased with his performance."
All wasn't well with the kicking game though, as PK Derek DePasquale missed a 40-yarder and 52-yarder in the third and fourth quarters respectively. Interestingly, Mullen said the decision to go for the long kick on the first play of the last period was influenced by the first miss.
"The quarter changed, we had the wind at our backs. It was probably a little out of Derek's range from where we feel really comfortable with him going." DePasquale's career long make is 48 yards against Ole Miss in 2009, and this year he hasn't hit from longer than 42 yards. "But we got the wind, Derek came up and said Coach I feel great in making that kick. He's a senior that we have a lot of faith in. I don't have any thoughts or regrets making that decision. He had plenty distance on the one earlier going into the wind so I felt pretty good about it. I think he just got underneath the ball."
DePasquale stuck the go-ahead 22 yard kick in the fourth period, snapping a three-miss streak going back to last weekend at UAB. He went into the game the most accurate placekicker in program history at 82.4%, but is now second at 78.4%.
*The crowd of 55,418 was the ninth-largest in Davis Wade Stadium history. And mid-morning the Ticket Office was able to officially call this a sellout, the 13th-straight dating back to October 2009.
*LB Cameron Lawrence recorded his third double-digit tackles game with 11 stops. He has averaged over ten tackles in his four SEC games