July 18, 2013 12:11:01 PM
Matthew Stevens - email@example.com
HOOVER, Ala. -- Without being prompted Wednesday, Tyler Russell took the blame for the Mississippi State University football team's last two losses of the 2012 season.
The Bulldogs' fifth-year senior quarterback made it clear at Southeastern Conference Media Days he has no problem shouldering the load for a 41-24 loss to the University of Mississippi in Oxford and a 34-20 setback to Northwestern University in the 2013 Gator Bowl.
"I wasn't as prepared as I should've been in those two games," Russell said. "I look back at how I practiced and got myself mentally and physically ready to play and it wasn't at a high enough level. It's something that will always bother me because it's hard to not see that Gator Bowl and think, 'I threw four interceptions and had the worst game of my life and we still had a shot to come back.' "
Russell, who is projected to be MSU's starting quarterback for the second consecutive season, had nine of his 10 interceptions last season in a six-game stretch that included losses to eventual national champion University of Alabama, LSU, and Texas A&M University. The losses from late October to New Year's Day piled up and ruined the excitement about the team's 7-0 start.
"Going 8-5 and qualifying for a bowl game isn't good enough anymore," Russell said. "A few years ago, you win five games at Mississippi State and that was a pretty good year. Now, we've changed everything, we're continually get better. Our goal is to go 7-0 and then continue on the season undefeated and ultimately make it to the championship game. If you don't have those goals, you shouldn't really be playing football."
Russell knew his preparation suffered in a stretch where MSU lost five of its final six games. He then decided to gather the team in the football field house for an impromptu players-only meeting.
"It was very emotional because I looked them all in the eye and said, 'Guys, these losses are on me and nobody else because I wasn't ready to play,' " Russell said in his first public comments about the team meeting on New Year's night. "Some guys were still mad, some cried, and a lot of guys spoke up, but I needed to let them know I didn't live up to my responsibility as a leader."
Russell made those comments despite breaking 11 single-season school records, including completing 231 passes for 2,897 yards and 24 touchdowns.
"We got to a point last year that we said we couldn't be beat, and then we got one loss and that changed everything," Russell said. "This year our focus is one game a time. You have to have the mental toughness to get back on that horse if you get knocked down. That's something we struggled with last year, and that's one thing I'm trying to change."
Russell is MSU's all-time leader in passing efficiency (136.38), and is one passing touchdown away from the tying the school record of 38 held by Derrick Taite from 1993-96.
Russell said the final two losses last season taught him about leadership and how the quarterback can be a reflection of the team.
"I feel like if I would've played the last two games like I'm capable of playing we would've won," Russell said. "I look back at how I acted in those weeks of practice and I tensed up and my teammates felt that. I know they did, and I should've been that local guy to loosen them up and we should've been having more fun."
On a day when Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel tried to deflect questions about his off-the-field antics and behavior at the Manning Passing Academy last week, Russell allowed reporters to blame him for the last two losses, even if his teammates disagreed. MSU junior defensive lineman Kaleb Eulls disagreed with Russell's assessment of the 2013 Gator Bowl. He didn't let the meeting end with Russell taking all the blame for the team's performance in Jacksonville, Fla.
"I remember that meeting after the Gator Bowl loss because Tyler said it was all his fault and I just didn't think that was true," Eulls said. "I respected him for standing up for all of us like that, but I was thinking, 'No, Tyler we should've picked you up.' "
Four years ago, Russell was booed after his first pass in Davis Wade Stadium went for an interception in a spring game. Later, he admitted to having little knowledge of the offense.
"I still remember in my first season as a true freshman we were playing Houston and I went to practice, but as a third-stringer you honestly never mentally prepare yourself to play," Russell said. "There was five minutes left in a tight game and coach (Dan) Mullen got so mad he turned to me and said, 'Go warm up, you're going in.' My first thought was saying to him, 'Oh no I'm not' because I wasn't ready."
With less than a month before preseason camp begins, Russell will be the focal point for an offense based around his skills and comfort level.
"At some point you're going to have to handle the adversity, so I think it was a great learning point for the guys on our team and they took a lot out of it," Mullen said. "It's a great thing to play on a New Year's Day bowl game. The tough part about it is you're usually playing a pretty good team. I think our guys were disappointed in their performance in the Gator Bowl. That loss led players that had been used to winning bowl games, finishing seasons on high notes, led them to have a greater sense of urgency going into this offseason.
"I think being an older guy, understanding the pressures that come along with being a starting quarterback is a natural part of the process. Tyler understands our offense, understands what we're trying to accomplish, can help as a leader out there on the field now."
n Tulsa picked to win Conference USA West Division: At Tulsa, Okla., the University of Tulsa and East Carolina University were the choices to win Conference USA's West and East Division football titles in a vote by league head coaches.
Tulsa received all 14 first place votes in the poll released Wednesday, while ECU received 11 of 14 first-place votes.
The University of Southern Mississippi, which received 40 points, was picked to finish fifth in the East behind East Carolina, Marshall University (82 points), Middle Tennessee State University (70), the University of Albama at Birmingham (54).
USM defensive lineman Rakeem Nunez-Roches was named first-team C-USA. He was the only Golden Eagle named to the first team.