Early in the fourth quarter, the home team Trojans had just driven 91 yards in six plays, knocking in their third touchdown and cutting Mississippi State’s lead over Troy to 23-21. Thanks to a missed extra point by the Bulldogs, Troy was one field goal away from taking the lead over a visiting SEC school, the home crowd at its back.
With 12 minutes left in the game, Tyler Russell took the field for MSU. He knew he needed a long drive to keep the Trojans from getting another chance. He knew he needed a score to make sure his team stayed ahead.
He also knew his receivers had been dropping passes all day.
First down: ball is snapped, Russell looks, senior Chad Bumphis is open on the right sideline. The throw is in the air, it hits the receiver’s hands, then it falls to the ground. Incomplete. Another drop.
Again, Russell finds himself on his own 26, only up two. At this point, it’s the most important drive of the game. He has to keep the chains moving.
Second down: Russell takes the snap, rolls left, scans the field quickly. He doesn’t see an open receiver, but what he does see? Open grass in front of him. Green and empty. Russell tucks the ball, sprints forward and takes the defense by surprise. 20 yards later, the Bulldogs have a first down near midfield and State is back in business.
“I’ll say this, that was a big turning point in the game,” offensive coordinator Les Koenning said. “Getting that first down, reading it and taking it, I thought that was a very, very good judgment by him.”
The drive ended in Russell hitting Bumphis for a fourth-down touchdown in the back of the endzone, burning nearly half of those 12 minutes off the clock and giving MSU a two-score lead over Troy.
It was the Bulldogs final score of the game, and it was the last one they needed, going on to win 30-24.
A win which came, in large part, thanks to the legs of a pocket passer.
Russell will never be mistaken for a dual-threat quarterback, but his coaches and teammates have called his speed and ability out of the backfield “deceptive” and something most defenses don’t expect.
During fall camp, Russell even said his own defense never expected him to run it, allowing the 6’4” signal caller to gash his defensive teammates for a few big runs in practice.
“I feel like the defense will give me two or three times a game that I’ll be able to make some plays with my legs,” Russell said. “You just gotta take what the defense gives you. That’s what I was able to do.”
Dan Mullen has compared Russell to Alex Smith, current San Francisco 49ers quarterback and Mullen’s former pupil at Utah. Mullen said the same thing often happened with Smith, where defenses were caught unaware and Smith was able to run for anywhere from 10 to 40 yards without being touched, simply because no one expected it.
Smith may be a touch speedier and a more natural runner than Russell, but the comparison holds.
“Defenses get lulled to sleep,” Koenning said. “He’s faster than what you think he is. Now we don’t let him think that, we like to pick at him. [But] he’s fast and he takes pride in it.”
Russell said MSU ran the same play he scrambled on a few times on Saturday against Troy, a play both he and Koenning said is just a read for Russell in which he has the decision to pass it or pull the trigger and run, though he only chose to scramble on that fourth quarter play.
“I did that time and I was able to get some yards,” Russell said.
The quarterback has gained only 46 total rushing yards through three games and has netted 37 with his one sack. He won’t run often, but when he does, it may just keep working.
His arm will always be the most important of his appendages, but Russell’s legs could certainly change the outcome of a few more games and have the same big impact.
“I think so,” Russell said. “I think so.”