October 22, 2012 10:46:41 AM
Matthew Stevens - email@example.com
STARKVILLE -- It's not as if Tyler Russell and Chris Smith haven't combined for touchdowns.
The Mississippi State University quarterback and wide receiver have been doing their pitch-and-catch routine since Russell threw a pass to Smith in middle school. The only problem is Russell was playing for Northwest Junior High near Meridian and Smith was playing for Kate Griffin Junior High.
MSU is benefiting from having Russell and Smith on the same side this season. That relationship took another step Saturday when Smith caught a career-high seven passes for 66 yards and two touchdowns in then-No. 15 MSU's 45-3 victory against Middle Tennessee State University at Davis Wade Stadium.
"It's about comfort, and ever since high school we've been together, so that's just always been there for me," Smith said.
Nobody was happier about Smith's performance than Russell, who threw to him at Meridian High School. Russell, who was 17 of 21 for 191 yards and three touchdowns, said Smith's performance was a testament to his hard work and perseverance, especially considering he entered the game with zero touchdowns and had suffered two embarrassing fumbles earlier this 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."
Russell, a junior, and Smith, a senior, have connected for four touchdowns at MSU, but Smith was a consistent target for Russell early Saturday. Russell found Smith for all three of his completions on a 14-play opening drive that ended with a 4-yard touchdown pass.
The pre-snap look Russell gave to Smith may have been developed in high school, where the highlight to their career came in 2008 when Meridian defeated South Panola in the 2008 Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A championship game in Jackson.
"We're still learning from each other," Smith said. "We learn how to play each and every day, and it's not about one player getting the spotlight over somebody else."
Smith was one of 10 receivers to catch a pass Saturday. That balance allowed Smith to have a couple of quiet weeks and then emerge against MTSU to reflect the versatility in MSU's passing game.
"The balance of our receivers allows you to do some great things," MSU coach Dan Mullen said. "I know I keep saying this, but some weeks the defense is going to give you some things. Other weeks, they're not going to."
Four years ago, in between the forced resignation of MSU coach Sylvester Croom and the hiring of Mullen, Russell and Smith considered going to the University Alabama. By signing day in February 2009, both players decided to continue their careers at MSU. Those choices will come full circle at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPN) when No. 13 MSU (7-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) plays No. 1 Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Both rankings reflect The Associated Press poll. MSU is No. 12 in the USA Today Top 25 and No. 11 in the Bowl Championship Series standings. Alabama is No. 1 in all of the rankings.
The last time the schools met, Smith caught five passes for 42 yards, including a touchdown on a 12-yard strike from Russell, in a 24-7 loss to then-No. 4 Alabama in Starkville.
It was one of the few positive moments for MSU offense on a night Russell called "really frustrating." In a backup role, Russell went 13-for-25 for 110 yards against the eventual national champions.
"We were so close, but (we) had things like false starts and sacks that shouldn't have been taken," Russell said after the loss. "We can't make mistakes like that. My job as the quarterback is to manage the offense, and I need to be more consistent."
This season, Russell is one of three Football Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks to have thrown for more than 15 touchdowns and to have less than two interceptions. Alabama's A.J. McCarron is in that category, too.
"(Russell) does a great job managing the game for us (and) has made very good decisions," Mullen said Sunday. "When we've needed him to step up and make plays, he's made plays. He's playing as I expected my quarterbacks to play, which is that guy that goes and runs the show on the field for you."