"Not a good night, overall," was Russell's summary of the 44-17 loss to #6-ranked Arkansas. The sophomore was getting his fifth start in the last six games, though his return to status this week was at least partly due to a concussion former starter Chris Relf suffered before halftime in the Alabama game.
"Chris didn't practice Monday or Tuesday, he came in Wednesday and was certainly in the plan to play today," said Mullen. "As the game shook out I didn't get him I there." Instead Favre assumed the role of run-first quarterback and red-zone triggerman, while Russell ran the full offense. The starter had a tough day, 7-of-15 passing for 55 yards and one official sack. He also ran four times, a couple of them called, but netted just a yard.
Favre came out with more numbers; 8-of-16 passing for 72 yards and a 13-yard scoring strike with 15 seconds left to TE Malcolm Johnson. It was his first TD pass as a Bulldog. He also accounted for the other Bulldog touchdown with a five-yard squirm through the left side in the second quarter. That was after two previous runs set up the goal-line opportunity.
"It's a good package," Favre said. "The design of the plays are great, the offensive line blocked well. Jameon Lewis coming on a sweep held a lot of guys and I just had to find a hole." A two-touchdown outing could have given the redshirt frosh something to enjoy, but… ""I felt OK, but I'd rather not play a single down and us come out with a win than me get experience and us lose."
Mullen reminded that the rushing score was not something designed specifically for Favre. "Everybody is used to seeing Chris do that stuff. We practiced it a bunch this week, we put Dylan in with that short-yardage type package, a single-wing package. He did a nice job. He's a tough kid, he's got to learn to make sure of ball security running inside there, but I thought he ran the ball well."
Whether he played well enough to alter the quarterbacking order, now, Mullen seemed to want to squelch such speculation going into Egg Bowl week by declaring Russell the starter. Though, asked if he'd been told so in the locker room, "No," shrugged Russell. Nor did he seem concerned either way.
"We work good together, me Chris and Dylan. Whoever is in the game has to be prepared and lead the team to victory."
Relf has one complete-game victory over Ole Miss to his credit last year, and in '09 he entered before halftime and went the rest of the way in a 41-27 upset of the Rebels. No wonder Mullen didn't want to risk aggravating anything and keep Relf on recovery track. "In the end I want to make sure he's 100% healthy. Because we need him week," the coach said.
"And I expect Chris to play for us next week as well. And maybe Dylan as well, we'll see how it goes in practice."
CALCULATED RISK: Russell was taking the snap on what proved Mississippi State's most talked-about play of the day. Down 14-3 late in the first period and feeling the pressure to put up points, Mullen chose to go for a 4th-and-short at the Bulldog 29-yard line.
Not only didn't Mullen hesitate, he had a quick call and snap. But the handoff took far too long to develop and TB Vick Ballard was swarmed for a three-yard loss.
"We're an aggressive team," said Mullen. "I want to have an aggressive mindset, I want our players to have an aggressive mindset. And you know, you think you should be able to get a foot." But they didn't. And Mullen accepted responsibility.
"Looking back I don't like my play call there, I don't mind my decision to go for it right there. And I called that play, talking to Les (Koenning) there was probably a little better play I could have gone with in that situation." Which seemed to imply second-guessing the choice of a short-yardage handoff in the deep quarterback set.
This was not Mullen's issue though. "We're always in the shotgun. If I'd done a different play we'd still have been in the shotgun."
BREEZING ALONG: No pilot landing or leaving Little Rock today paid closer attention to conditions than Baker Swedenburg. "I kept checking the weather report," the Bulldog punter said. "It was for 30 mile per hour gusts." Which was not what any punter wanted even in the confines of a bowled stadium. And, as it turned out, "Of course most of my punts were against the wind!"
That wasn't obvious by his 47.4-yard average on his seven punts, the best rate for Swedenburg all season regardless of wind conditions. His longest effort was a 55-yarder that had to be hit out of State's end zone. Swedenburg admitted shaking with tensions resembling buck fever afterwards.
"Once I got that one out of the way I felt good about everything." He should have, because Arkansas' NCAA-best punt return game mustered all of 25 yards on the four balls they did return. Joe Adams was held to a best runback of nine yards, less than half his average.
"There really wasn't a plan to kick away from him, we just did our same thing," said Swedenburg. "I'm definitely proud, most of the time Arkansas was in a hold-up trying to get a big return. I'm glad I did my job, Reed (Gordon) had some great snaps and everybody got down there and covered well."
Besides his own efforts, the punter shared in the good feelings for a kicking comrade. PK Derek DePasquale had been in the slump of his career, missing five of his last six field goals. But the senior knocked a 35-yarder through in the first quarter without a hitch, and out of Swedenburg's hold at that.
"Oh yeah. I remember hearing the ball when he kicked his field goal," said Swedenburg. "I looked up and he was excited. And I was excited for him, for sure."
Mullen counted special teams among the few positive points Saturday. "I think our kicking game was solid at times. They have the top returner in the country and his longest return was nine yards. Our coverage unit was good, Baker punted the ball well. Our kickoff coverage was solid. The opening kickoff we had one guy get out of position but the rest of the night we did a decent job of that. We got a field goal. Hopefully that will get Derek back on track."
ROAD BLOCK: The kickers and coverers weren't alone in making a big special teams play. DT Fletcher Cox recorded the third blocked field goal as a Bulldog when he came through the middle to stuff a 32-yard Arkansas attempt in the second quarter.
Cox credited study for figuring how to get at the ball this time. "I don't just watch offense or defense. I also watch the kicking, especially the field goal team. Special teams are important and blocking a field goal is real important." And something he's done before, with blocks at Houston in 2009 and against Auburn in 2010. The junior also stuffed an Ole Miss PAT try in the Egg Bowl last year.
That wasn't the biggest moment for Cox, either. Earlier in the same quarter CB Johnthan Banks scored State's only sack of Tyler Wilson on a back-side blitz, forcing the ball loose. Cox was coming up in support and had the ball roll right into his hands with momentum the other way. The 290-pound tackle rumbled up the Arkansas sideline, chased by tailback Dennis Johnson—running out of bounds at that most of the way—until a saving tackle at the UA 28-yard line.
Thing is, running 52 yards wasn't unexpected for Cox, who was a trackman in high school "100 meters!" he bragged. "Nah, it wasn't a big deal. I started running out of gas later on down the field but I tried to get in and score!" He didn't, but four plays later the offense did it for him.
"I turned the momentum big time and the offense capitalized on it. we always talk about the defense setting up the offense to score, that's what we did."
"We need a lot of guys to play like Fletcher Cox does," Mullen said. "He practices that way, he plays that way. And he's starting to lead that way now."
STEPPING IN: In the second quarter State replaced starting LT James Carmon with Blaine Clausell for the rest of the game. "He had a couple of mistakes early in the game that cost us, some missed assignments, he went the wrong way a couple of times," Mullen said. "So we'll see how practice goes this week."
*In ten games Mississippi State had surrendered just 29 third-quarter points; never more than a touchdown in those periods, and only to Tennessee-Martin and Louisiana Tech. Arkansas' offense became the first to breach the barrier, scoring a touchdown on their first turn of the third quarter and a field goal on the last.
*WR Chad Bumphis' third-quarter reception extended his game-catches string to 15. He has caught a ball in every game but one of his college career.