October 7, 2012 1:16:09 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The Mississippi State University football team's coaches knew the University of Kentucky would have an agenda.
Kentucky arrived at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday with the nation's 99th-best run defense (13th in the 14-team Southeastern Conference), so it was determined not to let MSU have success running the football.
MSU coach Dan Mullen and the Bulldogs obliged early in a 27-14 victory by allowing quarterback Tyler Russell to challenge Kentucky's inexperienced secondary. The junior responded, going 17 of 29 in the first half and helping MSU (5-0, 2-0 SEC) build a 20-7 halftime lead. Russell's 10-yard touchdown pass to walk-on fullback Adrian Marcus helped give the Bulldogs an early cushion. At halftime, he was one attempt from tying his career-high (29 vs. Auburn University earlier this season and vs. the University of South Carolina in 2011).
"I think we threw for a bunch of yards today (269)," Mullen said. "We were able to throw, especially on third down, and once we started getting that confidence it really gives you time and patience in the run game. Even though they're crowding the line of scrimmage, it gives you patience in the run game to be able to do that."
The results were negative on both sides for Kentucky (1-5, 0-3). LaDarius Perkins (career-high 25 carries, 110 yards) also moved the ball on the ground and gashed the middle of the defense for a 31-yard touchdown in the first quarter. The junior running back is one of four players in the Football Bowl Subdivision with a rushing touchdown in each of his first five games.
Russell found it even easier to get open receivers the football after senior cornerback Martavious Neloms left the game with what Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said was pulled hamstring. Kentucky went the rest of the game with freshman cornerbacks Cody Quinn and J.D. Harmon.
Russell picked on the newcomers without mercy. MSU had 14 passing plays of 10 yards or more against a defense that crowded the line of scrimmage and dared Russell to move the chains with his right arm.
"It goes back to what I told you guys the other day, just taking what the defense gave me," Russell said. "I made some plays downfield, and I was able to check it down. We were able to get a lot of yards off that. Just taking the ball down and finding guys open like (senior receiver Chad) Bumphis."
Russell's first touchdown target was about as unlikely as it gets. The former Parade All-American from Meridian High School found junior fullback Adrian Marcus on a throwback screen on the other side of the field. The 10-yard touchdown reception, which included a clear-out block by junior guard Gabe Jackson, was the first career reception by the walk-on from Alabaster, Ala.
"(MSU fullback Sylvester) Hemphill was mad because I saw (MSU running backs coach) Greg Knox took Hemphill out and put Adrian Marcus in for the play," Mullen said. "There will be some discussions, I'm sure, in the running back meeting room this week. Those guys don't get the ball very often, so when one is about to come their way, it's a pretty rough fight to get that football."
The throw to Hemphill, which was a dangerous attempt across Russell's body from the right to the left side of the field, was one of many examples Saturday when Russell (23 of 39 for a career-high 269 yards, two touchdowns) went to his third, fourth or fifth options to find an open receiver. Instead of having a predetermined location for the pass before the ball is snapped, MSU coaches proved Saturday they have confidence in Russell to go through his reads in the pocket. Russell made that patience work by hitting seven receivers.
"It really just depends on the play call," MSU senior receiver Chad Bumphis said. "We got so much confidence in our receivers that it really doesn't matter who gets it and makes the play."
Some of those completions were on throws Russell fit in between
double coverage in Kentucky's zone secondary. He also had a perfectly thrown pass on a wheel route to Perkins out of the backfield.
"I was laughing at him when I said coming into the locker room today, 'You missed some throws,' " Mullen said. "He said, 'Yeah, I missed some of the easy ones and I made the hard ones today.' I guess that's what you want out of your quarterback. He's not patting himself on the back at all with the great throws that he made today. He's looking at hey, how can I get better at making these throws."
Russell's 23 completions were the most completions by a MSU quarterback since Mullen took the job in Starkville. Russell also tied Rockey Felker for eighth all-time in school history with 23 touchdown passes.
After one of his better games against an SEC opponent, Russell joked with his Mullen that holes remain in his play that need to be addressed before MSU plays host to the University of Tennessee at 8 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2).
"When you miss the little (throws) they kind of get under your skin, and you're like, 'Man, I'm too good of a quarterback, and our team is
too good, to miss those little throws like that,' " Russell said.