Realistically though Mullen and coordinator Les Koenning are planning to start Dak Prescott against the Braves. The third-year sophomore got tested and for the most part passed as a situation substitute in 2012, and since spring practices has been preparing for a much larger role this season. Russell in fact has insisted Prescott be referred to as the ‘other quarterback' rather than simply the backup.
Now Prescott expects to have such responsibility when the Bulldogs take to Scott Field this Saturday. Meaning, Mullen said, that the younger quarterback will direct the same offense as Mississippi State installed in spring with Russell's skills in mind. Fans and foes can look for some stylistic differences, Mullen indicated today.
But asked if using Prescott meant Mississippi State is back to the run-option quarterback style of 2009-11, the coach didn't agree. "Dak is going to run it with a little more flavor than Tyler, he's a more athletic runner. But schematically we're not going to change a whole lot."
The change, Mullen figures, is not so much in using Prescott but to Prescott himself after being thrust into the top job with no warning at Houston. The stats weren't eye-opening on paper; the review looked more encouraging.
"I thought Dak did a good job. He's a young guy who came in and did a good job, made some plays. Obviously (there's) a couple of things he can learn from, he missed a couple of reads on the field. But he also made some really good throws and some good decisions with the ball in his hand." Now Mullen said the job is taking those examples and applying them. Experience is the best teacher both on the field and in the film room.
"He can see himself rather than watching somebody else."
Barring quick clearance and a rush to get ready for Alcorn, it will be Russell watching this one as an extra quarterback coach working with Prescott, true freshman Damian Williams, and walk-ons like Sam Cowart and Josh Hand depending on who Mullen chooses to dress for a non-conference home game. Russell's concussion came late in the third quarter when, as he was tackled from behind, his helmet hit an Oklahoma State linebacker's knee. It was not an intentional contact in that case so no flag was thrown.
Neither was any penalty assessed in the first quarter when Russell absorbed another hit to the head. Having gone to the turf after a rush, Russell had a Cowboy dive into his facemask. In retrospect questions have been raised whether A) the quarterback was rattled by that play the rest of the day and B) if a flag should have been thrown. Mullen did not second-guess the Big Ten officiating crew after the game, nor did he today despite the NCAA's increased emphasis on helmet hits and concussions.
"There's so many judgment calls in all of it," Mullen said of the rule's enforcement. "We have to see how the rule plays out this year first before we look at any changes in the future."
The Bulldog coach's more immediate concerns regard getting this offense going. For a quarter the Bulldogs set the tone, moving the ball and making first downs and extending drives. Only three points were produced yet keeping possession—or rather denying it to the Cowboy offense—was as big a part of the gameplan.
"For me the biggest thing is we have to finish. I thought we opened really well, we played great on defense, really kind of slowed them down, got them out of their gameplan early on. We gave up some big plays as the game went on. We drove the ball between the 20s well, we didn't finish drives."
So, Mullen said, there are "A lot of little things can learn about finishing drives and finishing plays. That is a huge thing we can use to step forward. Our guys can see there's a lot of things they could have done to put themselves in position to win the game." Not just this game, which Mississippi State is obviously supposed to. "And weeks to come."
There are some areas that will be adjusted this and future games though. Mullen admitted not taking enough downfield ‘shots' against Oklahoma State, implying that the Dogs went a little too much towards power running at mid-game. How much of it was called and how much checked-off into at the line of scrimmage the coach is not saying. What he is clear about, "We've got to stay balanced or people load-up and stop one thing for us."
But balancing the attack depends on more than just who is reading, rolling, and throwing the ball. Mississippi State expected it would take some real-season time before a receiver corps featuring so many new or less-experienced players got up to speed. And where fans may look at replay and see an ‘open' receiver they have no way of knowing if said receiver ran the right route or was breaking open in time to be recognized before the quarterback had to do something else instantly. The quarterback and coordinator still take the criticism of course.
Regardless, trying to do it against a hostile defense is the best teaching tool possible. "The great thing is now those young receivers, they say you see improvement week one and week two, I don't know if that's true every player," said Mullen. "But for the young players it is. They got to see what a big game is like and we expect a lot of improvement from those young wideouts from last week's game to this week's game."
Mississippi State had a few hundred tickets left for the home opener, and Mullen was counting on late sales to extend the program's record sellout streak to #23. "I know our guys are ready to play in front of their home fans," he said. "Its should be a really neat game, a lot of fun. They're a team that put up a lot of points last week. So we have our hands full and have to get ready to play."