Which the quarterback and club did, and for much more than just a first down. Russell exceeded Mullen's best expectations with a 25-yard touchdown throw that became Mississippi State's margin of 30-24 victory. The Bulldogs may have cut things awfully close in their first road test, and Russell said Monday much can be learned and corrected during practices this week.
"But a win's a win and that's what you got to take from it. You've got to keep focusing and get better at the things we did wrong."
The win not only kept State undefeated at 3-0 but boosted them into the polls, at #23. The ranking comes an exact year after the 2011 team dropped out, having begun that season as #20. A nice recognition for a successful start, yet Russell does not see a team—including many who recall breaking into the polls in 2010—jumping for joy just yet.
"It comes up every now and then. But you've got to keep playing. That's not where we want to be, we want to be in the top half of that. So we know we've got to keep winning and keep playing."
This week means playing South Alabama, in a 6:00 home game. What with the Jaguars so new to top-Division play, and visiting a SEC venue for their first time to boot, Russell does expect to see their best shot. Which is something the Bulldogs are getting used to in fact, having survived Troy's serious bid at a significant upset. Or they had best be used to it by now, Russell said, saying the Troy trip was "a wake-up call."
Fortunately State did wake up, and that counts for something to the quarterback. "In recent years, we probably would have found a way to lose that game. So I think overall, we're doing good. We've just got to stay focused."
Focus is the word of the week in fact. Most obviously to a bunch of Bulldogs who could have made the road trip far, far less stressful had they held on to a series of superb Russell shots. Mullen counted eight true drops, with four that could and even should have gone for touchdowns…all by different receivers at that. So the blame was spread all around this lineup.
Except today Russell was blaming no one for any one thing. Maybe a bit of temper showed through Saturday but it was kept under control since, he said, the receivers could not get down. It certainly showed with the game on the line in that fourth quarter drive to expand a two-point lead.
"Like I tell the guys, you never know what play is going to be the play that can win the game. We had a crucial drive at the end where we capitalized with a score. And I really think that was the drive, if we didn't capitalize they were going to go back down and score and we probably would have lost that game. So everybody for the most part stayed focus and we were able to win that game."
The drive produced Russell's clutch touchdown throw, but it began way back on the Bulldog end of the field with another sort of call by the quarterback. As in his own number, with a keeper around the open left end when Troy flowed the whole defense the other way. It wasn't a sideline call per se, Russell said.
"We ran that play a couple of times during the game and I didn't pull it. I felt like I was going to get the pull-read, and it turned out that I did so I was able to get some yards." Twenty of them to get the drive going. Still it will be the concluding throw-and-catch remembered from this win. As Russell noted, failing to pad the lead would likely have been fatal given how Troy was moving the ball almost at-will. For that matter a field goal would have been of minimal use, and on top of that State's placekicking has been more miss than hit anyway. As coordinator Les Koenning admitted Monday, when 3rd-and-2 turned into 4th-and-4 there was a brief thought of kicking…but not very long.
At the same time State was not looking to go for the end zone at the 25-yard line either. First down would move the chains and the clock and even Mullen expected a short pass play to either side. Russell was thinking long as soon as the ball was snapped though, and looking for Bumphis breaking behind the middle.
"We had that route all day long, I think we ran it three times. Chad did a good job of sticking the guy and I looked at Chad and the guy didn't know where he was at, so I took a chance on 4th down and it paid off."
A chance for sure, as failure would have given Troy four minutes to set up a go-ahead field goal at the least. They did get a kick after all but only enough to pull within the final score, as State ran out the clock. Maybe Russell would have gone that direction in 2011 as the alternate quarterback, or maybe not. The '12 version has embraced his ‘the guy' status though, and even better has played up to it. Just as he did a week ago when Auburn grabbed a brief 10-7 lead to open the second half. Russell and Co. calmly marched the field for go-ahead points, on a pass play also, then expanded to the 28-10 final.
So yes, Russell has honest confidence in self and squad. "Just experience being in those situations at times during my career, just going out there and trying to make plays. Doing what you're coached to do and everything else will fall into place."
Speaking of falling…about those inexplicable drops? "Yeah, sometimes that happens," Russell said. What he takes from how it happened though is instructive. The receivers were open, the throws on time and on target. It was the simplest part of the process that broke down.
"You go back, look at film and you try to correct it. I mean, that's something easy to correct. It's not anything scheme wise. It's just me putting the ball in the right place and the guys catching it. That's something we can correct." Better yet, something State expects to keep doing, with the balls caught of course.
So much else has been going right for the offense through three wins. Such as Russell's 58% completion rate, which obviously would be a lot higher had the open throws been completed. He has eight touchdowns against zero interceptions, nor as Russell lost a fumble. For that matter Mississippi State boasts a 12-to-1 rate of total turnovers. Nor did the Dogs succumb to road-trip tensions and earn many pre-snap penalties at Troy. And while he took hits, the quarterback was never officially sacked Saturday. He said that the ice-bag on his throwing hand while exiting the locker room was nothing of concern, just soreness.
"From that standpoint everything was good," Russell said. "We just had drops, some miscues here and there, some bad throws. But other than that, everything was solid." Especially a running game which produced six yards a carry and a 179 net yards for LaDarius Perkins. It was no coincidence that after most of the drops, which typically came on first downs, the second snap was handed to the halfback.
"I told LaDarius at halftime we can't really complete anything right now so you've got to step up and he did that in the second half and made some big plays for us," said Russell.
Big plays are fine but consistency is what Mississippi State will spend this practice week working on. A steady performance this weekend would make for a 4-0 September before the open date. It might even bump the Bulldogs further up the rankings before resuming SEC season in October. Well and good, said Russell, if not a surprise.
"We expect to be up there and ranked so you're not seeing a lot of guys saying 'Oh, we're ranked.' and stuff like that. A lot of guys are staying focused and know the main goal and what we're trying to achieve this year."