"It means a great deal to me," said Russell of taking the lead in offensive preparations for the 2011 edition of the Battle for the Golden Egg. "I'm fortunate to be able to start a couple of games now so I'm used to it. I'm getting more mature with everything and knowing how to take care of business and handle situations being the starting quarterback."
It needs clarifying that at no point did Russell come right out and label himself the sure starter for Saturday. First, because it would out of character. But second and more to the point, the weekly competition continues between he and Chris Relf right up to the last practice snap. Then grades will be given and somebody gets the first snap after Saturday's 6:02 kickoff.
Mullen did attempt last Saturday to set a tone for the week as, follow the Arkansas game, he said Russell was the starter before the question even arose. That hasn't kept it from coming up all week anyway, bringing affirmations Mississippi State will stick to the system set in place after Russell took over for the seventh game. Since then the younger quarterback has started four times and Relf again once, against Alabama, though it was just for a series. The first one.
The key is that this ongoing evaluation hasn't flustered Russell. Changes over the course of a game has not been an issue either, though like any honest competitor the soph displayed some frustrations during the second Alabama quarter as in-series shuffles were made. Otherwise, he's learned the positives of this approach.
"I think it works great for all of us," Russell said. ‘All' not including the opponent, he added. "You think one person is going to start, and so they gameplan and stuff for Chris or me or Dylan (Favre). Then you come in and play, and then put somebody else in and the defense they've been practicing all week they can't do it. So it helps out everybody."
The quarterback question might not be as much a matter by now if this weren't the Egg Bowl. Especially so because this has become Relf's big game. In 2009, as the alternate, he took over from senior Tyson Lee late in the second quarter and then played the whole last half with two passing and one rushing touchdown in the 41-27 upset win. That effort established Relf as lead Dog going into 2010, and he delivered with a nine-win season and another Egg Bowl victory where he threw three touchdowns.
In two meetings, Relf has completed 16 of 25 passes against Ole Miss defenses for 331 yards and five touchdowns, along with 197 rushing yards. No wonder then that despite an often-struggling senior season, most expect Relf to get a third shot at beating the Rebels. Including Russell.
"He's going to have a big game when he gets in," Russell said. "We're hyped up for the game, I feel we'll do everything right that we're supposed to do."
Which to the quarterback means win, nothing more or less. Though, there will be something more to come with victory than the Golden Egg. While Mullen mandates an attitude of focus on this single game and nothing else Russell can be excused—as a quarterback—for thinking a bit bigger picture.
"Just knowing we need one more win to get a bowl game is the biggest thing. We've just got to take care of business, it's another game on our schedule and another stepping stone we've got to take to finish off the season right."
INCHING CLOSER: A season that has not gone exactly to Bulldog plan on offense. It does need noting that this '11 unit is not too terribly far off the 2010 pace for points, 25.0 so far this year compared to 29.0 last fall. In quite a few categories this ought to be another top-ten season for yards, plays, and so on.
None of which really impresses those responsible for the numbers. Russell, who served as Relf's understudy during the wide-open '10 season, knows why the general feeling of letdown.
"Last year we made some big plays," he said. Lots of big plays actually, for major gains and short—in snaps that is—drives. Russell recalls the big hits on passes early in a possession, or rush plays that broke open after a broken tackle. "It would get everybody and the crowd fired-up, then the defense comes in and makes a big play and get the ball again and score another touchdown."
"This year it has been more drive the ball all the way down the field and score. When you do that you've got to do everything right, you can't have any mistakes on that drive." Which is asking a lot of even the most efficient offense, something State has not been. Mullen has commented often on all the three-and-outs this season, or series halting after just one move of the chains. Not that the coach has anything inherently against grinding down the field, which grinds down defenses too.
But offenses that operate on fine margins need ‘hits' as Mullen calls the runs and throws that turn everything around. "I think that's the biggest thing that was the downfall for this year versus last year," Russell said. "Last year we'd just go out and make a big play. We haven't been able to make the big play this year."
This doesn't mean Mississippi State won't keep swinging for the football-fences though. Or as Russell would put it, practice for it. The plays are there to be made, he said, having viewed and re-viewed all the many missed opportunities dating back to September. It isn't fun to watch again, but does prove the Bulldogs have the right idea how to attack other teams. They just must keep working at it against the scout squad and come this Saturday, put it into production.
And not lose faith in the plan, per Russell.
"It's just a grind in the SEC and we have to keep getting better. We're getting better definitely, it's tough losing close games like that but it lets you know you're close and you have to keep grinding and keep getting better. You know, all you do is go out there and do what the coaches ask you to do. And everything else will take care of itself."
SETTING A STAGE: As noted, Relf's feats in 2009 game secured his stature as the accepted starter in 2010. Though he is already a starter now, could Russell lock up the '12 job with a success Egg Bowl showing of his own? Even his head coach talks about this game being the one remembered in all sorts of program aspects.
Russell isn't thinking along those lines, not yet. "You can't worry about next year. You have to take care of this year first," he said.
"That's the thing Coach Mullen does a good job with, is take care of this season first and when you get in off-season you can worry about everything."
The other underclassman quarterback in this mix, second-year freshman Favre, has had an increasing role in November of his own. While he took over as the short-yard/goal-line man for last week while Relf was sidelined by a concussion, the youngest quarterback has shown progress as a full-field triggerman too. For now, though, he accepts the rotation role.
Which does not mean sitting back in this system. Just the opposite, Favre said.
"You have to stay ready. As soon as you think you might not be going in, or you get out of the game, Coach may tell you to run in there. So for all three of us we have to stay ready at all times."
Russell did not play in the '10 Egg Bowl as Relf took all offensive snaps. Favre almost certainly won't have to wait two years for his initial rivalry experience, if for no other reason than he also serves on the punt protect-and-cover team.
Favre admits he is a latecomer to the State-Ole Miss matter. Growing up on the coast, "I obviously knew about the game, but from a family standpoint we weren't big on the Egg Bowl. Obviously now that I'm a Bulldog it's a real big game. Last year as a redshirt I saw the intensity of practice. Everything you do the week of the Egg Bowl is amplified, so you catch on for sure."