Russell Hunting For A Gator Bowl Victory

Bulldogs aren't the only breed excited about their pending departure for Jacksonville and a week at the Gator Bowl. The deer population of east-central Mississippi is likely celebrating Tyler Russell's tight Christmas holiday schedule. "I might get one or two hunts in, but that's probably about it."

Then again ‘one or two' trips into the woods often suffice for Russell, if he is as adept with a firearm as with his right arm. Lots of Tigers and Wildcats and Jaguars and Razorbacks will attest to his accuracy in operating Mississippi State's offense. Russell's 2012 achievements already rank as the most productive regular season passing in program history, and next Tuesday he can expand those standards.

If, of course, the starting quarterback is healthy and cleared for post-season action. When Gator Bowl camp concluded last Thursday, Russell was certainly expecting a New Years Day start. The right ankle sprained late in the Egg Bowl on November 24 didn't seem much of an issue, beyond a heavier taping than usual maybe. The heavy ‘wrap' brace worn in some earlier campus camp practices had been discarded.

"They rested me the last few weeks so I was able to go pretty good, and the ankle feels really good. I think, come bowl game, I'll be 100%."

And even if not, look for Russell to play anyway. Remember, a year ago at this time the then-sophomore was sidelined by a knee procedure. Russell needed some minor clean-up work done to repair damage from a Music City Bowl practice. He might not have played much at Nashville anyway since 2011 was Chris Relf's to finish, and the Bulldogs did come out victorious.

But now a year later it is Russell's offense to run and team to lead, and no sore ankle should stop him. In four seasons so-far with Mississippi State, his post-season resume consists of seven fourth-quarter handoffs and one keeper (for a two-yard loss) in the 2010 Gator Bowl.

"It really is a new experience for me, and I'm excited and ready to get out there and play."

Not just play but to win, again. This holiday date extends Bulldog post-seasoning to three-straight years, matching the program record set in 1998-2000. But these Dogs can make their own history by winning all three trips, never yet done here. For that matter State owns a scattered but impressive bowling win streak of five victories from 1999-2011.

Then, Russell said, there is the simple fun factor, albeit kept in perspective by players. Though he served reserve duty the first time and had to watch last year, this quarterback understands Mullen's mix of business and pleasure. "You've got to be able to go out there, execute the game plan, and stay focused," said Russell, on the one hand.

On the other? "Bowl games are supposed to be fun, and you can have fun when you're not doing football stuff. But when its time for the game you've got to be ready and focused to play," Russell said. Just, he added, with the slightly altered approach that comes with extending the regular schedule into the holidays.

"If you don't do good during the regular season you're not guaranteed a bowl game. We had a good year and we're going to try to finish off on a high note."

Russell assuredly had his high notes in 2012. His 2,791 passing yards smashed the record set all the way back in 1978 by Dave Marler, though elder Dogs will remind how that season saw Marler turn into a pure tosser midway of the campaign after the backfield was wiped-out by injuries. A better measure of Rus'ell's prowess is where it counts most. His 22 touchdown passes are double what Marler managed, and six-ahead of Derrick Taite's 16 which was the record…before Russell obliterated it. Even more impressive is the ratio of touchdowns to just six interceptions out of 366 passes thrown this year.

To be sure, and be fair, this quarterback is quick to credit those catching all the balls. Russell freely agrees his statistics benefitted greatly from the presence of four senior standouts running routes. For a leading example, Chad Bumphis caught 11 of his record-setting 12 touchdown receptions on balls from Russell, the most productive pairing in program history. Old high school teammate Chris Smith scored twice as a senior with Russell's help, and tight end Marcus Green made most of his biggest '12 plays in tandem with the starter.

So it takes two, or three and four and five in rotations, for a quarterback to bust standards the way Russell did this fall. "Oh, man, those guys have helped me out a lot. I really didn't have to worry about them running the right route or anything like that. We were always on the same page.

"If it wasn't for those guys I wouldn't have had the year I've had. We've all done good, the offensive line and everybody. As an offensive group we did the things we needed to do to improve from last year. And we've got to keep improving."

Notice the ‘keep improving' part. That ought to encourage Mississippi State fans about the 2013 prospectus. Though the top four downfield targets are departing there is some now-seasoned talent returning to run the routes and make the plays. As long, that is, as Russell plays his part. And given the inevitable transition he is required to be even better as a senior.

"After this game I'll sit back and watch the film and have a meeting with Coach Mullen. He'll tell me the things I did good and the things I need to work on. I can work on a lot of stuff to get better and to improve for next year." Things like, most obviously, not holding the ball quite so long and taking the hits Russell absorbed in the regular season. His ankle-injuring incident at Oxford wasn't one of those ironically, and Russell impressed teammates—the only audience that really matters—with his ability to absorb shots, bounce back up and get everyone in the huddle as if nothing had happened.

Good…but it will be even better to find and fire ahead of the rush. Or even to pull the ball down more quickly and pick up some tough ground yards at times. All that will be 100% clear on tape for review at Russell's leisure this off-season.

"You've just got to take the good and the bad. I like to take the bad, because those are the things I can work on and improve. I feel like I've gotten better every year and I've got to continue to do that."

Russell really does mean that, for two very clear reasons. First, the 2013 schedule looks tougher than '12 with South Carolina replacing Tennessee in the East rotation; and with a made-for-media opening weekend against Oklahoma State in Houston. So what was good enough for eight regular-season wins this fall won't suffice next year.

Secondly, much as Russell gave Relf a good push to improve, there's an impressive young quarterback working his way up here. In fact Dak Prescott is not an ordinary backup, any more than Russell was in 2011. Nor is the second-year freshman just a package quarterback by now. Prescott has shown enough ability, running and throwing, to contend for the job in spring. That a record-setting passer has to battle for his starting status is rather unique in Mississippi State's history. But it is also a good thing for both quarterbacks and their continued development.

Nor does Russell mind helping groom a guy who wants his job. The pair has struck a bond, he said. "Me and Dak are really close. I'm probably closer to him than anybody else on the football team," Russell said. "We talk about a lot of stuff you don't just get to talk about with anybody." In this particular case, talk always comes around to the pressures Prescott feels about his mother and her ongoing battle with cancer. With media, Prescott doesn't show concern; with his friend and peer he's more open.

"The things he's going through, he's tough," Russell said. "He works hard. That just shows you the kind of person he is. You don't have to worry about Dak. He's going to take care of his business and do the things he needs to do."

What Russell and Prescott and team need do beginning Wednesday again is attend to Gator Bowl business after Wednesday arrival. Needless to note, Russell has kept up his own scouting even after campus camp broke, and Northwestern is well-worth the watching.

"Defensively they don't mess up a whole lot. They're really smart, everybody is going to fit their gap and everybody is going to cover their man. You're not really going to catch them out of coverage. They don't make mistakes like that. They've got some really athletic corners and safeties, their d-line is pretty good too. We've just got to go out there and execute."

Spoken like a cautious quarterback for media consumption. This is not a guy to go to for bulletin board material after all. Now, for a trophy to put on his own wall? That's another matter, whether it is gun season (Russell favors a 7 m.m. ‘short mag') or bow season. In fact he said he will probably stick to bowing them down from now on out this winter.

"I've got a few places around here, a place in Ackerman. But really just back home, in Clarke County where we have land. It's fun to go back out there with my brothers and Dad and hunt with them." Well it must be fun since Russell's top take to-date is an 11-point that scored 135.

But then, records are made to be broken…whether in the woods or on the field.

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