October 21, 2012 1:15:46 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- This is where Mississippi State University football coach Dan Mullen thought his program would be after seven weeks.
After No. 15 MSU easily dispatched Middle Tennessee State University 45-3 on Saturday evening, Mullen reflected on what is staring at his team next weekend. For the first time since Oct. 3, 1942, MSU and the University of Alabama, the nation's top-ranked team and defending national champion, will face each other as unbeaten teams.
"It's huge," Mullen said about next week's matchup. "When I took the job here, these are the type of games that we wanted to play in."
MSU (7-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) sleep-walked through the first half then dominated MTSU, which defeated Georgia Tech earlier this season in Atlanta, in the second half.
"(Mullen) basically told us we were playing terrible at halftime and then left us to figure it out for ourselves," MSU junior quarterback Tyler Russell said. "We started talking about how we would fix it at halftime."
Russell is one of just three Football Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks with more than 15 passing touchdowns and less than two interceptions. Louisiana Tech University's Colby Cameron and the University of Alabama's A.J. McCarron are the others.
Russell tied Chris Relf, who he backed up for two years, for fifth-most career passing touchdowns in school history with 28. He also passed Omarr Conner for ninth on the school's all-time list for most career passing yards with 3,266.
"He has done a great job preparing," Mullen said. "Tyler holds the ball sometimes, but he holds the ball for the right reasons to make sure he is taking the opportunities he wants. I think he is getting more and more comfortable in our offense. He made some tough reads tonight, and I thought he played very well."
Russell was 17 of 21 for 191 yards and three touchdowns. Russell spread the ball to 10 receivers and helped former Meridian High School teammate Chris Smith have a breakout performance.
"Tyler is going to spread the love to all of us, and that's what he always does," Smith said. "You know at one time you're going to have a big game, and tonight was just my night."
After suffering through two embarrassing fumbles in SEC play, Smith led the Bulldogs with seven catches for 66 yards and his first two touchdowns of the season.
"Chris is one to never get down on himself," Russell said. "This goes back to high school. He always wants to practice harder and get better."
In its first real blowout since the season-opening 56-9 victory against Jackson State University on Sept. 1, MSU 25 points or more in its seventh-consecutive game for the first time in school history. Its 257 points are also the most through seven games in school history.
After losing Benny Cunningham, its standout tailback and the nation's third-leading scorer, to an injury last week, MTSU couldn't establish a tempo early but trailed only 10-3 at halftime.
In the classic trap game Mullen and his coaches feared all week in practice, the Blue Raiders (4-3) didn't find the end zone for the first time this season.
"I told the guys afterwards I thought they competed their tails off to the very end," MTSU coach Rick Stockstill said. "We were just outmanned at times."
Mullen improved to 27-0 when leading after three quarters. MSU won its 15th-straight non-conference game. It's the second-longest streak in school history, trailing only MSU's school-record 18-game streak against non-league foes from 1941-47.
Alabama is next for a MSU team that wants to take the next step under Mullen. The Bulldogs will get a chance they have been waiting for since the SEC schedule came out last December.
"Here it is in the last week in October playing the number one ranked team in the country," Mullen said. "More importantly, this game is for first place in the Western Division of the Southeastern Conference. We're going to be excited."