January 2, 2013 5:05:41 AM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- After the way his quarterback started the 2013 TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, the only thing Mississippi State University football coach Dan Mullen knew to do was hit the reset button.
After junior quarterback Tyler Russell threw his third interception in the first half, Mullen told him to go into the locker room and re-do his pregame routine, including the way he put his uniform on.
"I said, 'Go into the locker room, splash some water on your face, re-tie your shoes, readjust your pads, and forget you came out to start the game,' " Mullen said. "Get in the tunnel, start jumping up and down again, get yourself tight, and run out of the tunnel again."
None of that worked as No. 21 Northwestern University intercepted Russell four times en route to a 34-20 victory on New Year's Day.
"I think he was shaken and I just wanted to calm him down and say, 'Hey, get a blank slate, clear it, go in the locker room, and come out and start this one from scratch,' " Mullen said.
Even after Russell mentally regrouped, he never looked like the quarterback who threw only six interceptions this season and broke nearly all of the school's single-season passing records.
"I was talking to Tyler, he was telling me I got to get going because he said he was struggling a little bit," MSU junior tailback LaDarius Perkins said. "He was like, 'Get the guys going' and we'd try to keep moving (and) pick it up some."
Russell, who wasn't made available to the media following the game, had a stretch where he went 137 attempts without an interception this season, but he went 6-for-14 for 45 yards with three interceptions, including one senior defensive end Quentin Williams returned for a touchdown. He also threw a touchdown to senior receiver Arceto Clark.
"He was losing a little bit of confidence," Mullen said. "That's why I told him get into the locker room (that) we're still going to stick with it and throw the ball, so get in there, get ready to go, come out again, get refreshed, and go make plays."
Russell's four interceptions were the most by an MSU quarterback since Wesley Carroll threw against the University of Arkansas in a 2007 loss. Russell, a former Parade All-American from Meridian, doubled the previous school record for interceptions by a MSU player in a bowl game.
Despite Russell's troubles, MSU (8-5) scored 10 points in the final 4 minutes, 48 seconds in first half and trailed 13-10 at halftime.
"I told them in the locker room guys are going to have off days," Mullen said. "Here's the great thing. (Russell) had an off day and there were still some opportunities there for us in the fourth quarter to go win the game, so great learning moment for young guys."
Northwestern (10-3), which also sacked Russell three times, forced the most interceptions since 1970 when it had six interceptions against Purdue University. The Wildcats said their game plan was to have Russell try to beat them with his right arm.
"I don't know who didn't make a play on defense today. It was incredible," Northwestern senior linebacker David Nwabuisi said. "As a defense player, we compete to see who can make the most plays in a game and, truthfully, we had no idea who won today. We make them go through the air. When they start throwing the ball in the air, we started to make plays on it, so it was a great job, and I'm just proud of my guys."
Even after MSU junior defensive end Denico Autry recovered from a block and returned his first Division I interception 43 yards to the Northwestern 15-yard line, Russell gave the football back immediately on an interception on the next play.
"I saw it in my guys' eyes all week at bowl practice and (in) the whole month leading up to bowl practices, watching the film, getting into game mode," Nwabuisi said. "We were really confident with what the coaches gave to us. We were just really confident in the kind of talent and game playing that we had. We knew we were going to come out here and get it done."
The final interception may have been the most confusing, as it was throw down the middle of the field and into an area where there were multiple defenders. Mullen called it "one really poor decision." It came as Russell was backpedalling, which forced it to be underthrown by at least 20 yards and it landed in the waiting arms of redshirt freshman defensive back Nick VanHoose.
The four interceptions were the most by a quarterback under Mullen's tutelage since 2000, when Mullen became a full-time college football coach.
"I'm sure Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Brett Favre have thrown four interceptions and still won a game," Mullen said. "That's just a mind-set of keeping your confidence throughout the game."