For nearly two years Tyler Russell has been referred to as Mississippi State’s quarterback of the future.
Saturday night the redshirt freshman may have proved the future is now.
Russell’s first career college football game couldn’t have ended better as he went 13-for-16 for 256 yards and four touchdowns without a turnover in Mississippi State’s 49-7 victory over Memphis in the 2010 season opener.
“At first it was a lot of pressure but I redshirted a season, just sat back and learned,” Russell said. “Now I’m finally starting to figure out what I’ve got to do to become a good quarterback.”
After the first two drives, Russell and junior starter Chris Relf alternated possessions with the confident Russell getting all of the snaps in the second half.
“We had a set plan for the first half,” Mullen said. “It was important to get Tyler some experience. I think Tyler had so much success because of what he was able to see on the sidelines.”
The signal-calling duo ended the evening 20-for-25 for 372 yards and five touchdowns. Russell, who was making his collegiate debut in front of 56,032 fans at Davis-Wade Stadium, ended his first drive of the night with a 20-yard floater pass to sophomore Brandon Heavens. The Parade All-American quarterback from Meridian executed a touch pass over the arms of a Tigers linebacker after Heavens beat two Memphis (0-1) defenders on his route.
“I saw when (the Memphis defender) jumped and then the ball went right through his hands,” Heavens said. “My first thought was ‘whoa, I better catch this ball’.”
Mullen handed the ball to Russell for the first drive of the second half and eight plays later found Heavens again for a 27-yard touchdown.
Heavens, who earned the first-ever starting nod of his MSU career, ended the contest with five catches for a team-high 112 yards. MSU officials announced minutes before kickoff that the Bulldogs coaching staff would be putting Heavens in the starting lineup Saturday night over sophomore Chad Bumphis, who was the team’s leading receiver last year.
“It felt so good with the first game coming out starting and I was just excited,” Heavens said. “Chad and I got out every day. As long as both of us contribute to the team, we all win.”
Bumphis wouldn’t disappear as the former four-star recruit from Tupelo caught four passes (two of them for touchdowns) for 100 yards.
After his first pass of the 2010 season was intercepted by Memphis defensive tackle D’Angelo McCray, Relf was sent back on the field where he immediately converted back-to-back completions with the second one putting six points on the board for a 55-yard touchdown strike down the sideline to senior receiver Leon Berry.
“It showed some maturity for Chris,” Mullen said. “You couldn’t throw a worse interception to start off the game, hit him right in the numbers just the wrong color. I went to get after him and he said ‘coach relax, don’t worry about me – I’m fine.”
Mississippi State (1-0) dominated Memphis nearly every statistical category Saturday including first downs (28-9), total yards (569-237) and rushing yards (197-41).
The new-look MSU defense, thanks to the hiring of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and defensive line coach Chris Wilson, held the inexperienced Memphis offense to five first downs, 145 total yards and most importantly zero points in the first 45 minutes of play.
“Defense shutting them out for 58 minutes and 29 seconds is a great effort,” Mullen said. “(Manny) does a great job of coming out you from a lot of different directions.”
The return to the Magnolia state for new Memphis quarterback Cannon Smith didn’t go well at all. The former starter at Olive Branch High School and Ole Miss verbal commitment completed only 4-for-7 passes for 30 yards and was pulled for freshman Ryan Williams in the first quarter after three straight three-and-out drives.
“It was definitely not a great start,” Smith said. “We had some self-inflicting wounds.”
The Bulldogs new attacking defensive front seven consistently got deep in the Memphis backfield while tallying seven tackles for a loss and forced nine punts throughout the night.
After coming to MSU after a All-American career at Gulf Coast Community College, Vick Ballard introduced himself to the MSU faithful in a big way after a 51-yard touchdown sprint gave the Bulldogs a 21-0 halftime lead.
Ballard, a 215-pound tailback from Pascagoula, would lead the Bulldogs in rushing with 60 yards on seven carries and two touchdowns.
“It was a wide open hole that you could drive a bus through,” Ballard said. “Anybody could’ve scored a touchdown with the ball on that play.”
Memphis’ first full half under the new direction of Larry Porter ended in a bizarre way as with seconds left the Tigers seemed confused as to whether they wanted to let sophomore Paulo Henriques attempt a 48-yard field goal. Memphis burned two timeouts after acting they were going for it and then Henriques was way short on the field goal try.
The 42-point margin of victory was the largest in the 43-game series between the two schools.
Mississippi State will have a quick turnaround this week as they get a national television audience for a Thursday night matchup with No. 22 Auburn led by junior-college transfer quarterback Cameron Newton that received recruiting interest this past offseason.