For fifth-year senior Russell, the teammate's loss is something felt by everyone. Especially for a friend and position-competitor, who the older quarterback watched cope with a mother's struggles. "We talk a lot and it was hard for me just to see how upset and sad he was. So right now for me it's just to be there for him as much as I can," Russell said.
"What Dak is going through is pretty rough. I can't imagine it. But he's strong and he's going to be fine and come back and be ready to play. I talked to him, he told me just make sure everybody is ready to play and keep those guys up. That's one thing I'm trying to do this week."
This is indeed where an older Dog, lots of them in fact, are needed, as Mississippi State (4-3, 1-3 SEC) continues its stretch of three games against top-15 opposition and two of them consecutively on the road. This week takes the Bulldogs to #11 Texas A&M (7-2, 3-2) with a 2:30 kickoff from Kyle Field. The last game at the current Kyle Field in fact, as the Aggies wrap up their home schedule and another renovation of the facility begins immediately. Mississippi State has not played on this specific field in any form, as the only Bulldog visit to Aggieland was 90 years ago.
But State did take on A&M last season at Scott Field, and took a 38-13 loss. Russell recalls it well, if not fondly. "Last year they jumped out 21-0," he said. Actually the Aggies, who were just beginning to realize what sort of offense they really had, led 24-0 at halftime and 31-0 before Mississippi State got on its own scoreboard, with a Russell touchdown tossed to Chad Bumphis.
The second half, at least statistically, was a draw in touchdown terms (State failed on meaningless two-point attempt). Emotionally? "I felt like we ran out of time, and we started moving the ball a lot better in the second half," said Russell, who threw for 212 yards, passed for the one score and rushed for the other. None of it impacted the outcome because the Aggies compiled a crushing 693 offensive yards, 311 off the arm of Johnny Manziel as his dash to an unexpected Heisman Trophy season accelerated. He also ran for 129 yards.
Russell leaves defensive scheming (see Tuesday story) to Coach Geoff Collins. His duty is on offense, and avoiding the slow start or even non-start of last November. It's something of a Dog dilemma, Russell says, handling the pressures to produce at a pace matching the best offense in the SEC.
"We know they're going to score, they're going to make their plays. But for us it's not getting worried, ‘oh they just scored a touchdown and now we have to do it'. It's about playing our football and go down the field and do what we do best and not worry about them. Worry about us."
Prescott's personal crisis has rightly kept him out of the week's main practices which began Sunday afternoon. Coach Dan Mullen is not concerned the sophomore and six-game starter will be able to get up to speed quickly. Prescott saw situational action last season against A&M, rushing twice for 14 yards without throwing any passes.
Russell has taken all first-team snaps this week so far, with freshman Damian Williams working in backup. An ankle sprained on his only series against Kentucky kept Russell on the sidelines at South Carolina. He was cleared by doctors to play, but Mullen said afterwards it had not been worth aggravating the left ankle further that day. Or even taking the numbing shot needed to play without too much pain.
This, Russell agreed, has allowed him to be ready for A&M. "Definitely. My ankle feels a lot better this week than it did last week. I didn't really practice that much last week so it was expected. He told me if we can afford not to play you we're not going to do it. So that's what happened there."
Regardless who starts this Saturday, both Bulldog quarterbacks are expected to play. And make plays. As prolific as Texas A&M is on offense, they sit on the other end of most SEC statistical categories defensively; 14th in yardage, 11th against the pass, 13th against the rush, 11th in scoring. But since in their case the best defense truly is an offense that scores early, often, and quickly, the Aggie defense only needs make the occasional stop to suffice.
This also allows A&M to gamble in ways unlike anyone else in this defense-obsessed conference. Russell saw some of it last year first-hand; this season it's even more apparent on scouting video.
"They do a lot of different things. But like I said we'll be prepared for them and have a gameplan that will go hand-in-hand with what they're trying to do to us."
Mississippi State is now in a make-or-break stretch of the schedule. At 4-4 the Bulldogs need two more wins for bowl eligibility, the bottom-line for seeing 2013 as a successful season. A year ago at this time the '12 team had already locked-up a place in the postseason. That was also when a three-loss streak took lots of bloom off the proverbial rose, with A&M in the middle.
Russell saw how that slump developed and stuck. It's another year and in many ways another team, he said. "I think everything is different this year. So far we've done some good things, we've done some bad things and the outcome of some games has not been great.
"So for me it's just being a leader, trying to keep everybody focused and just continue to play football. And go out there and have fun and do what we do and we'll be fine."
Using ‘fun' is interesting in context of Russell's erratic senior season. A third-quarter concussion on opening day cost him two whole games, the ankle another, and Prescott's accelerated maturing in the offense has pushed the younger quarterback ahead. For a veteran with pages of program passing records to his credit already, this has been a true challenge to cope with.
"For me the senior year hasn't gone I would have liked it," Russell said. "But for me it's just continuing to not get frustrated or anything like that, just do what I can do when I get out there. That's my job, when my number is called go out there just like you're the starter. Or if you're down by two touchdowns, just go out with the confidence that I am that guy when I'm on the field. And when I'm not on the field help the guy that's out there or do what I can to help the team. And that's what I've been doing."
Now, every Bulldog has to do nearly everything better if this team is to score the program's fourth-consecutive bowl berth, a MSU record. Odds aren't favorable this week, or the next against #1 Alabama for that matter. But these are equally opportunities for the Bulldogs, offense and defense both, to continue figuring out who they really are, what they do best, and how to get that done before November ends.
"The thing right now is we know what we need to do to go to a bowl game," Russell said. "Everybody wants to go to a bowl game so you take it one game at a time. But in the back of your mind you know what you've got to do. So I think everybody is ready to play these last few games and give it all they've got."