September 5, 2010 12:29:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Efficient through the air and on the ground, Mississippi State ran riot Saturday in its season-opening 49-7 win over the University of Memphis.
The Bulldogs racked up 569 yards of total offense, and redshirt freshman quarterback Tyler Russell tossed four touchdown passess in his MSU debut.
Russell, who spilt reps with starter Chris Relf in the first half, played all but one series in the second half once the game was out of hand. He completed 13-of-16 passes for 256 yards, giving head coach Dan Mullen the kind of performance he hoped to see from Russell in the season opener.
Mullen entered the game planning to rotate Relf and Russell, and the latter left a better impression than he did the last time he was in front of fans at Davis Wade Stadium, when he struggled mightily in the spring game. He credited that performance in preparing him Saturday''s opener.
"The spring game, I really didn''t do as well as I''d like to do, but I got my feet wet and I knew the things I needed to work on," Russell said. "In the summer and fall camp I worked on those things. I felt different. I knew I was more prepared as far as game situations.
"We had 29 practices before this game, so I practiced real hard and everything took care of itself."
Any questions surrounding Mississippi State''s offense were answered early in the game as multiple skill players got touches and produced big gains. Leon Berry had a 55-yard touchdown catch and Vick Ballard had a 51-yard scoring run in the first half to help the Bulldogs take a 21-0 lead into the break.
Searching for consistency and balance, Mullen exited the win feeling positive about the team''s running game and passing game. Between Relf and Russell, they completed 20 of 26 passes and accounted for 372 passing yards. Brandon Heavens and Chad Bumphis each had over 100 yards receiving, which hadn''t been done by a Bulldogs duo since McKinley Scott and Justin Jenkins did it against Houston in 2003.
Mullen left Russell in the second half to build game experience and said he anticipated his No. 2 having a quality performance after struggling in the spring game. Relf was in a similar situation last year, playing behind starter Tyson Lee and featuring in spots. The chance for Russell to play nearly all of the second half was invaluable, Mullen said.
"It was more important to get Tyler that experience in some different game situations and different things we did with him," Mullen said. "That''s the kind of situation Chris has been in before, and we wanted to make sure we got Tyler that experience.
"He''s got to be ready for those situations as the year goes on. He managed the game for us and made the throws he needed to make."
While the Bulldogs'' offense caught traction early in the game, Memphis punted five times and missed a field goal in the first half. Then the Tigers sputtered in the last minute of the half with a pair of penalties and a missed field goal that nixed a second-and-1 chance from the State 31-yard line.
To add to Memphis'' up-and-down day offensively, head coach Larry Porter sat starting quarterback Cannon Smith after just three drives in favor of true freshman Ryan Williams. Smith beat out Williams in preseason, and though Porter vowed to let Smith develop chemistry with the Tigers receivers, he ended splitting reps evenly between the two. Williams was picked off twice by MSU cornerback Maurice Langston, while Smith recorded the Tigers'' only score of the game, which came in the final minute.
Memphis recorded nine first downs to MSU''s 28 and finished with 237 yards of offense.
"I just saw something in Cannon Smith that he was unsettled and not comfortable back there," Porter said. "He took a shot early, and he came over with his mouth bleeding and I just made the decisions to go with Ryan Williams, and he looked comfortable out there and so we stayed with him."
Russell engineered a scoring drive to open the third quarter, which was capped with his second touchdown to Brandon Heavens.
Langston''s second pick was followed with Ballard''s second touchdown run of the game, this time from one yard out to give State a comfortable 35-0 lead.
Outside of Russell''s first touchdown pass to Heavens, all of his scoring throws were to wide-open receivers. Ironically, he credited the looks down field to the Southeastern Conference-leading running game the team established last season.
"We had a great running back, Anthony Dixon, and he helped us out a lot," Russell said. "They thought we were going to do the run, and we had great fakes that allowed things to come open."
State has just five days to prepare for Auburn, which comes to Starkville in a nationally televised Thursday night game.
n NOTES: K.J. Wright sprained his ankle in the second quarter, but is expected to play Thursday...Shane McCardell, Chris Smith and Michael Hunt were suspended for Saturday''s game due to unspecified team rules violations...State set an opening-day attendance record of 56,032, which is the fourth-largest crowd in Davis Wade Stadium history.
1. EMCC football returns to Netflix airwaves Friday COLLEGE SPORTS
3. Walters column: Five Prep Football Questions - Week 2 HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS