"It's just get back to basics," said Russell. "We did a lot of individual stuff, getting some of the young guys in there and getting them reps. The older guys are kind of taking a little break." Note: just a little break more in the form of minimal hitting and maximum brush-up. Almost, Russell agreed, as if they were going back to August mode instead of October mindset.
"Yeah, it's not as physical as preseason. But as far as all the reads and stuff like that we're going back to day-one installation."
If the offense is reverting to a day-one mindset, it would seem they are doing so with a different Dog in charge. Third-fall sophomore Russell is coming off his first Mississippi State start, for that matter his first complete game. He replaced senior and two-year starter Chris Relf for the South Carolina game, first snap to last pass.
The final result wasn't any different than the previous three SEC games, though the Bulldogs—offense, defense, and kicking squads—did take South Carolina down to two deciding series. Another frustrating league loss leaves State 3-4 overall and 0-4 SEC…yet still in control of their own post-season opportunity with five games left.
Whether Russell continues calling cadence in all or any of those contests remains a week-to-week matter, insists both head coach and the coordinator. Just as in this week, Les Koenning said. "We practice the same as we always have. It hasn't changed one bit; it's three and three and three all the way through, and we grade them at the end of the week and see how they all do." The ‘threes' being how many snaps all quarterbacks get per practiced situation, and that there really are three men in the mix. Despite a spectacularly unsuccessful gimmick pass play last Saturday, freshman Dylan Favre makes his own case for more playing time.
For the moment though it is Russell who has, at least publicly, assumed the label of number one. Not that the public gets to make this call of course. Neither will Russell, and he's comfortable with continued competition. "Oh definitely. We all get reps with the ones, whoever has the best week at practice in the end Coach makes the final decision."
Anyone familiar with Russell is not surprised at all how low-key he is about the situation. Excited to get the first start, sure; but assuming nothing after it. Instead Russell has evaluated his effort and execution in nigh-clinical fashion.
"I think I did some things good. I think I did some things that I need to work on, most definitely. You always can be better and that's what you've got to take from the game. You've got to take the things you did good, but you have to take the things you did bad as well and work on them."
Very well then; what are some things Russell is working on this week after less-than-satisfactory results? "A couple of deep balls that I threw, I think the timing was off a little bit there. You know, you have to get that in practice, and in the summer." But summer is long-past, as this week's change of weather reminds. And as Relf agrees, "In the summer you're throwing one-on-ones, basically you're throwing on air.
"It's different against a press man-to-man; the timing is different, it's something you have to work on week by week gameplanning. You only have two or three days, now we have a bye-week and that's something we can work on and correct so it doesn't happen again."
Now, what does he believe he handled well for the first start? "I think I managed the game pretty well. I don't think my stats reflected that but I think I kept the offense in situations and times that put us in good situations." Russell is right about the numbers: 11-of-29 completions with a pair of interceptions, including on State's last play of the day. On that one Russell admitted he just didn't pick up a safety coming over to join wideout Arceto Clark and a covering cornerback. He won't use the shadow falling on that end of the field, or the hard right-side rush coming through a guard's missed block, as excuses. The throw was caught by the wrong side and that's an end of it in this quarterback's mind.
Just the same as some earlier attempts to strike deep where the ball was a bit beyond his target's reach. These were instances State had been striving for for weeks, wideouts getting separation downfield, so that was some progress at least. Getting closer, as Mullen has called it, but not close enough.
"Those are plays you have to hit," Russell said. "Unfortunately we couldn't hit a play like that. Those are some of our strong plays that we put in in practice and we hit them in practice. And we were expecting to hit them in the game and it just didn't happen."
What State might not have expected going into the game was the ratio of runs to passes, which broke down a 55/45 officially. But accounting for sacks or scrambles and it was closer to 50/50. This despite South Carolina boasting the SEC's top passing defense, and State's standard reliance on the ground game. Were the Bulldogs looking to ‘balance' out the attack for that and future games?
Koenning downplays the impression. "You talk about balance, sometimes you come into a game and do something really good and you're unbalanced! It's hard to say we're balanced. Last year we weren't real balanced, we ran the ball pretty well at all times. This year we're a little more balanced than we were in the past. We just need to make the plays when the time comes around."
And exactly who will be on the calling end of those plays? Mullen is serious about week-to-week grading of quarterbacks and picking starters off practice results. But as the UAB game or for that matter the last few series and LSU showed, this staff is quicker to make moves in 2011 than last year when Relf and company were pounding the ground productively. Speaking of whom, how has Relf handled not playing for the first time since he was sidelined for the 2009 Houston game?
"It's been good," Koenning said. "He was great during the game, Coach Mullen told him to be prepared to go in any time, any situation. And we've worked him still again a lot this week too." Presumably leaning towards to Relf's running talents, as suggestions the senior is less than 100% healthy linger. Despite work to upgrade the air game State remains at heart committed to rushing the ball, moving the chains, and hopefully now producing in red-zone settings.
Though, as Russell said, "You try to take some shots when you've got man-to-man coverage. That's some things we did." They just must do it better, he agreed, especially when in striking distance. The red-zone efficiency was technically perfect, two-of-two, but only once was a touchdown scored; that on Russell's smart strike to WR Chris Smith from eight yards out. The Bulldogs had to settle for a field goal the other time after a four-yard line spot on pass interference. The three points weren't enough as it turned out.
"We just have to keep hacking away," Russell said. "I mean, we're so close like Coach Mullen said. And that's the frustrating thing, to be so close and yet so far. He says the next step is the hardest step and it definitely is, but we're going to get there. And we're just going to keep working hard." Working to get the offensive ‘rhythm' that has escaped State in all but the second half at UAB, and of course opening night against hapless Memphis.
"But you have to get it in practice. There's no excuse for me to miss some of the throws I missed in the game. There's no excuse, I have to make those throws just like I do in practice." And, Russell said, correct a few technical aspects such as footwork. Whether it was excitement of starting, or more likely the pressure forced by a stout Gamecock pass rush, he noticed on the screen how his feet weren't always in proper position.
Just another item for open-week work, he called it. Maybe the larger question is, does Russell see himself any differently now that he has started a SEC game at last? Does he carry himself any differently on the practice field, in the locker room, whatever?
"Oh, it's the same Tyler. The only difference is I have one start under my belt against a really good SEC defense. But you have to go out there and practice and work hard, if anything it makes me work harder. Because I see the things I did good and I see the things I did wrong and I know my potential is there. I just have to keep working."
The Bulldogs have their third and final practice of this week today, then return Sunday to begin actual game preparations for Kentucky. A game that is now that much more fundamental--or is it basic?--to Mississippi State's bowling ambitions in 2011.