Offense Picking Up Its Pace For A&M Matchups

He doesn't have quite the same reputation for fancy footwork as does his weekend counterpart. Still Tyler Russell insists, he is no statue stuck in the passing pocket either. "I know I'm capable of making plays with my legs when I need to, get two or three yards. But I'm more deadly with my arm."

That's a fact. Here in his first year as the full-time starter, Russell is racing up the records list for passing performance. After just 25 games, and only eleven of them starts, the junior has 3,411 yards to already rank 8th all-time among Mississippi State quarterbacks. More impressive is already standing 5th in touchdown passes with 28, tied with his former teammate Chris Relf. There aren't many marks out of Russell's reach before he's done with the Bulldogs…or even done with the 2012 season. What demarks Russell most from his predecessors though is a knack for the long game.

And the Bulldogs are taking advantage. "We needed to have a deep downfield threat," Russell said. "We've had it in a couple of games so it's worked out good for us."

Not always of course, as the season's first setback showed. Alabama's top-ranked defense made life hard on Russell and for that matter everyone else on State's offense. They also scored the second interception of the entire season off Russell, and that on a goal-line throw to foil the best overall drive of the MSU evening.

Yet while Russell was only 15-of-30 throwing at Alabama with the pick, it wasn't as unproductive as might have appeared. For instance, those completions netted 169 yards meaning Russell kept up the double-digit gain typical of his tosses. He even found time, and targets, for some solid strikes. WR Chris Smith was the main MSU beneficiary with catches of 31, 28, and 14 yards; all over on the right sideline at that.

"There were some opportunities for him," said coordinator Les Koenning of Smith's night. "I was pleased with his performance, he went up and made some catches. He wanted to show them what he could do and I thought he did a nice job."

Never more so than on the 14-yard connection which was the most unusual of the evening. With Russell flushed to the left Smith ran his original play, then defaulted as State wideouts are taught. "If he's scrambling, we've got scrambling rules: just come back to the ball," Smith said. "I try to find the open area so he can see me, bam! that's a big play."

"It was a Z-corner, I had to run a corner route; Tyler was getting pressure and ran out of the pocket, somebody tried to hit him and he got rid of it real quick. I had to come back to it, it wasn't a great throw but it was good enough for me to catch the ball."

Not great technically but pretty impressive all the same as Russell showed his arm strength throwing back across the field at least 30 yards, and downfield about 15 more. That's a tough throw even standing still, much less with rushers in the face. Smith's work stood out too as he came back from the end zone, shielding off his defender at the same time, for the reception.

All in a Dog's work, Smith said. Yes, there is the old connection of high school teammates between he and Russell that often makes their feats "really unexplainable". But the real key? "It's just effort, that's what Coach Mullen always preaches to us. It's about effort all the time. If I can go down the field and do what I have to do, do my play; and all of a sudden Tyler is scrambling make an effort to get back to the ball and try to make a great catch. It builds his confidence up."

At the same time Russell already shows plenty confidence. Such as willingness to wait for big plays to develop and not default to the easy openings. This comes with a price; Russell has not been technically sacked a lot this season but he suffers hits every game that make fans wince. And wonder, how much contact should the Bulldog quarterback take?

"Oh, playing quarterback in the SEC is going to be a punishing deal, you have to be able to do it," said Koenning. "I was very pleased with him getting rid of the football (at Alabama). We timed all his throws and they were out quick enough. That's what counts."

Texas A&M has been clocking Russell too, and they see someone not throwing quickly enough to suit their defensive tastes. The Aggies would rather have the ball thrown quickly and ease long-term coverage. Russell has other ideas.

"Stay in the pocket until the last minute, and let things develop. I trust my offensive line, they've done an outstanding job this year. So everything works together."

Which isn't to say everything works every time. That remarkable throw-and-catch put State in touchdown position, only to come up sort on two rushes…though Koenning said the score was there on a second-down rush by LaDarius Perkins. "We were close, we ran the iso and if you watch it; Chris gets his guy, (FB Sylvester) Hemphill cleans it up, and we had a double-team on the three-technique. He (the defensive tackle) came off the double-team and made a good play, if he doesn't we score."

More painful was Russell's third-down naked rollout-right with TE Malcolm Johnson breaking just open enough in the end zone for a throw. Russell left it low for the interception. "That was the only really glaring thing," Koenning said. "And the frustrating thing was it was third down. But he's trying to make a play, he wasn't shy, he pulled the trigger. And that's part of being successful."

Meaning, State won't muzzle the quarterback's confidence. And Russell knows what is expected of him this weekend on the home field. This meeting of maroon-clad clubs shapes up statistically as a shootout. "You definitely know you have to go out there and put up points," Russell said. "They have an outstanding offense and their defense is good, too. So we know we have to put up points."

There is a precedent this season, too. Three weeks ago it was a high-flying Tennessee attack visiting Scott Field; the Bulldog offense did exactly as needed with a season-high 80 snaps, 449 yards, and 41 points. Oh, and a 13-minute advantage in possession time built in the first half.

"Against Tennessee we did a good job staying on the field, and that's what we have to do," said Russell. "Our offense has to stay on the field and keep their offense off the field. You do that by executing the plays you have and continuing to move the chains."

Koenning, who himself coached in College Station once upon a time, says this is a must. Not only because the Aggie defense is better than many realize—not to mention free with blitzes which mandate some strict assignments by blockers. But because their offense is a defense of sorts, too, by seizing on opponent's missed chances. "You miss a turn, and all of a sudden your defense is out on the field a pretty long time," Koenneing said. And, "They take risky things on defense to get the ball back for their offense."

So part of this week's practices are speeding-up the snap pace for both sides, where against an Alabama a more deliberate approach was preferable. It's up to Russell to read and react rightly, while the ten teammates take care of their own scripts.

"We have to execute," Koenning said. "That is where the concentration has been."

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