October 10, 2012 9:46:04 AM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State University football coach Dan Mullen wasn't going to start the postgame media conference Saturday without a statistics sheet.
Mullen had an idea what he was going to see following a 27-14 victory at the University of Kentucky. He believed the Bulldogs had balanced the pass vs. run, and his thoughts were proven correct once he saw MSU had thrown 39 passes (for 269 yards, an average of 6.9 yards per attempt, 11.7 yards per completion) and had rushed the football 39 times (158 yards, an average of 4.1 yards).
"There 'ya go, we're balanced," Mullen said. "(MSU radio play-by-play broadcaster) Jim (Ellis), on my radio show, we can talk about it. ... That's a pretty good balance."
According to cfbstats.com, MSU is more balanced than its has been under Mullen in his four seasons at the school. This season, No. 19 MSU (5-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) has 185 rushes and 151 passes. Those numbers include a fourth quarter against Jackson
State University in which MSU didn't attempt a pass en route to a 56-9 victory.
In 2011, MSU was closest to the "50/50" scenario Mullen professes he wants his program to have when it ran the ball 59.5 percent of the time. That number has decreased from 68.3 percent in 2010 and 67.6 percent in Mullen's first year of 2009.
Part of the equation depends on personnel. In the past three years, MSU has relied on all-time rushing yardage leader Anthony Dixon and Vick Ballard, the record holder rushing touchdowns in a season. Without those two this season, MSU talked in the offseason and in fall camp about opening the playbook for Parade All-America quarterback Tyler Russell.
"(Our balance) is all about Tyler being able to throw the football," MSU offensive coordinator Les Koenning said. "That's critical in what you recruit. The one misconception people have is assigning a label to a school for doing this. You do what your players can do each season."
Even with the emergence of junior tailback LaDarius Perkins, MSU has found more ways to find the 50-50 balance in the running and passing games. Mullen, who prides himself on being a statistical junkie, said Monday he's pleased with the performance this season.
"Our two SEC games we've been pretty balanced, and that's the way you want to be," Mullen said. "We're going to do both (run and pass) and take some shots down field. What we like to do is throw some stuff underneath and run it inside and run it outside on the perimeter."
MSU is 10th in the SEC in rushing attempts per game. That is a dramatic drop from Mullen's first two seasons when the Bulldogs led the league. MSU also was last in the SEC in passing attempts per game in that time.
This season, MSU is sixth in the SEC in passing attempts per game (30.2), which is higher than the traditionally pass-happy offenses of the University of Georgia, the University of South Carolina, and the University of Florida, Mullen's former school.
"We do have a really good running back in LaDarius and some younger guys behind him, but we just feel like we can pretty much call anything and it'll work," Russell said.
In the first half against Kentucky, Russell was 17 of 29 for 177 yards to help MSU build a 20-7 halftime lead. Russell hit walk-on fullback Adrian Marcus with a 10-yard touchdown pass to help build the lead.
"I really feel like I haven't done anything special this season yet," Russell said. "I know a lot of people are talking about my 10 touchdowns and one interception, but there's a lot more that I can do and this offense can do in the future. I'm excited people are talking about our offense, but we have a long way to go."
Russell is one of seven Football Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks with more than 10 passing touchdowns and less than two interceptions. West Virginia University's Geno Smith, Louisiana Tech University's Colby Cameron, the University of Alabama's A.J. McCarron, and the University of Texas' David Ash are the only quarterbacks in the country with more touchdown passes.
"(Russell) manages the game really well and philosophically with what they do on offense, it plays into his hands," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. "They don't put him in a lot of positions to make bad decisions, and then he just waits for somebody to have a breakdown and they hit a big play. He is a good, accurate thrower. He manages the game really well and they are running the ball good."
Russell is on pace to break the school single-season records for completions, attempts, passing yardage, and touchdowns. He also is one of three SEC quarterbacks to throw for three touchdowns in a league game this season.
"I can't analyze people, but I think (Russell) is damn good," MSU sophomore center Dillon Day said.
Even though its percentage of running plays has decreased, MSU is still winning the time of possession. It ranks third in that category in the SEC (31 minutes, 38 seconds) behind Florida and Alabama.
"The big issue when you start getting into SEC play is changing the field position," Koenning said. "If we can sustain those long drives and get in the end zone, that's the goal. Do we want big plays? Yes, but we have to put in our guys hands and make sure they can do something positive with it."
Mullen believes a balanced offense will be critical for his team as it prepares to face Tennessee at 8 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2) at Davis Wade Stadium and gears up for a stretch run that will include games against Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU, the University of Arkansas, and the University of Mississippi.
"I love to be 50-50," Mullen said. "I'd love to be a 50-50 team that's hard to defend that way, and this year we can throw it and run it."