No wonder the coordinator and quarterback coach was hit by a fresh round of queries Monday. Not that he was going to offer a definitive answer as to the primary question.
"I've been asked a thousand times who is going to start," Koenning said. "And my patented answer is buy a ticket and show up, and find out! Because obviously we want to hold that to the last minute for us so that we'll be able to create different things."
This puts in perspective Mullen's immediate post-game comment at Little Rock when, before the subject was raised, he announced Tyler Russell as starter for Saturday's showdown with Ole Miss. Russell, who opened the Arkansas game, said he hadn't been told that himself, nor did it seem to matter. Because coach and player and for that matter everyone covering the club knew a new week would bring renewed competition for both starting and rotation status.
Koenning confirmed this expectation Monday. "Obviously all of them will get reps and go through it, get graded, and find out at the end."
By ‘all' the coordinator meant ‘all three'. Because it is a true trio of contestants here at the end of the regular season. Russell and senior Chris Relf will continue their competition to start, which Relf won a week ago for the Alabama game. He only ran a few series and the last, just before halftime, ended his night and sidelined Relf for Arkansas with a concussion. Relf was cleared to play but with limited practice was held out both to insure his health…and as Mullen said to have him ready for another Egg Bowl.
Nothing surprising about that, given Relf's remarkable success in two tests against Rebel teams. In 2009 he entered late in the second quarter, played the whole second half, and led State to the 41-27 upset that really kick-started Mullen's career here. Relf threw two touchdown passes and ran for another in that win. A year later, he went the full game with 13-of-20 passing, 268 yards, and three more touchdowns.
Relf also accounted for perhaps the game's key play. With State sputtering a bit early, he pulled the ball down and took off on a 71-yard ramble that put some spark in the offense. Moreover, Relf did it all on a bad hamstring, which was guarded inside information leading up to the rivalry game. Nor did he ever complain about the pain. In fact…
"A funny story," Koenning said. "During the game he ran the ball to the left and I got on the headsets and said Chris, what's wrong? He said well my hamstring is hurt. I said why didn't you tell me; he said well I did tell the weight coach. I said well how about telling the trainer or me!"
Not that the coach is now going to tell anyone how Relf factors into the three-peat plans for his last meeting with Ole Miss. "It's a big deal," said Koenning. "He played well the last two Egg Bowls and has done a good job for us."
At the same time Russell has earned his top Dog status in the second half of this season both by consistent practice performance and some positive production in many games. Not all games, of course. The third-fall sophomore has had his struggles as a first-time starter, to be expected against the sort of SEC competition Russell has faced. Though, all agree, the Bulldogs ought to have produced more, maybe much more against Arkansas.
Mullen noted a number of missed checks and progressions where Russell took the ball the wrong way, among other issues. "He was a little off last week," the head coach said. "But the maturity factor he has, that doesn't shake him. He sits next to me on the plane so we talked on the ride home about getting back in the right frame of mind, the confidence side of it. As a young player he can get frazzled, but he's showed some maturity."
One way was telling his coach, without having reviewed tape, what he missed from memory. That impresses the State staff. "The great thing is when a quarterback knows you made a mistake, they're not confused," Mullen said. "So that's easy to correct."
Not that there is much time for fixes here in the last week of the regular schedule. Game-planning ought to be completed by today and most major installations finished in the Tuesday practice, with two more days for specific working. And now Koenning has an added responsibility of sufficiently working three quarterbacks for one scheme. Freshman Dylan Favre is winning an increasing role of his own.
In fact, Favre accounted for both Bulldog touchdowns at Arkansas. He ran for a five-yard score as part of the red-zone package that usually belongs to a healthy Relf; then in mop-up duty threw a touchdown pass with 15 ticks left for some morale points. Naturally some fans shoved the aggressive younger kid to the top of their depth charts.
Koenning isn't tipping any hands though, no matter how pushed for an answer. "Y'all are trying to word this for me to say something, but I'm not going to say it!" he laughed. "Again they're all experienced guys, they've played. So it's an advantage for us."
Mullen credits Favre's work last Saturday to the extra snaps he got in red-zone and short-yard packages due to Relf's absence. In fact this encouraged the staff to let Relf rest one more week. Favre will remain in the mix, Mullen said Monday, but the prior pecking order will apparently return.
"It is going to change the reps some more. I think Dylan's reps will get cut down a little bit this week, though we'll still have him in the package. And getting him ready has certainly been a big help."
It's safe to expect either, or both, Relf and Favre can count on game snaps no matter how the practice competition turns out. The quarterback run game is very much in MSU minds for this matchup because it works. But as it showed last year, when that Rebel defense focused on hemming-in either Relf or Vick Ballard or LaDarius Perkins, the Bulldogs were able to either get one-on-one matchups downfield with Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark, Chris Smith and others. And Relf delivered the ball. Those same patterns suit Russell's 2011 deep-strike style well, too.
One thing Koenning isn't taking granted this time around, though, is that a Rebel defense abused much of the season is going to be any pushover for the last game of their season. And there is better talent on that side of the Ole Miss line than results and records show, the coach believes.
"No doubt, when you watch them on film they'll show you some looks and different things. It will be a good game, I really think it will be because this is a great in-state rivalry and that's what these games come down to." So says a veteran aide with experience in other such family feuds as Alabama-Auburn and Texas A&M-Texas.
"In-state rivalries are absolutely tremendous. You get your traditions and stuff like that and it means a lot to us to win this game. It's important for us in recruiting and many different areas." Not to mention earning bowl eligibility for another season, which is this Egg Bowl's bonus prize for the home team. The key for Koenning is accomplishing on offense what State hasn't been able to do in the last two outings.
"We've got to make plays. We've got to make plays in all facets of the game. Running, throwing, we've got to make plays." Not just plays, but those that move the ball and put up points in more dramatic fashion. The biggest missing factor in '11 compared to last year's successes are the big plays, the greater gains after a catch or after the first contact. In 2010 the Bulldogs got the extra yardage, Koenning said.
"What you look for is people making plays by breaking long runs. And we haven't had that. Or breaking long passes. That's what the difference is between last year and this year."
Another difference is last year's Dog team went to Oxford already assured of a holiday trip. This season comes down to the last game and last chance for bowl qualification. Without exactly pinning more responsibility to any area than another, head coach and coordinator agree: earning a bowl berth and retaining the Golden Egg is up to the best quarterback play Mississippi State can muster.
So, in that light, it must be tried once again: who will be the Bulldog in the shotgun?
"I'm pleading the Fifth!" Koenning repeats.