The Mississippi State Bulldogs passed their first big test of the 2012 season on Saturday.
It was more like a midterm exam.
MSU completed the first half of the season by defeating Tennessee 41-31 in front of a packed house of 57,831 and improved its record to 6-0. The Bulldogs jumped five spots in The Associated Press poll from No. 19 to No. 15 and stand No. 16 in the USA Today coaches poll.
The fact that the crowd was on full tilt didn’t go unnoticed by MSU head coach Dan Mullen.
"Obviously, a great atmosphere and the fan base did an unbelievable job giving us a home field advantage,” Mullen said.
Mullen was also quick to give his team some credit.
“I love how hard our kids played and thought they played really well," Mullen said. "It was a four-quarter battle and we knew it would be. Our kids played well for four quarters in all three phases of the game. There's always going to be ups and downs and as a mature team, we handled those ups and downs really well."
Entering the contest, the Bulldogs heard how great Tyler Bray was and just how talented Justin Hunter and Cordarrell Patterson are. While that may be the case, the Bulldogs felt they had something to prove.
“We have some good players on our team and all they heard all week was Tyler Bray is the best quarterback on the field (and) these receivers are the top NFL players,” Mullen said. “We have a good quarterback and good guys in the secondary. It was a great challenge. They wanted to go out, prove we're not a half bad team and we have some talent ourselves."
Russell certainly performed at a high level completing 23 of 37 passes for 291 yards and two scores. The junior quarterback also kept the offensive rhythm rolling by spreading the football around to eight different receivers.
"He was very balanced," Mullen said. "The one thing with Tyler is people like to say 'oh, he's locked in on this guy or that guy' but he's not really locked in on a guy but he's going to take what the defense gives him.
"Fortunately, having a lot of senior receivers means he has a lot of comfort with those guys and it gives us flexibility to spread the ball around a bunch. Eight different people caught a pass and that's really hard for other teams. If they're going to take something away, that's fine because we'll just go to another aspect. Seeing all of those guys perform keeps us balanced on offense."
Another key to State’s success in its sixth win of the season was the return of Tobias Smith. The senior offensive lineman was dominant in the first half before being hobbled by injury. State struggled to move the football in his absence however, once he returned in the fourth quarter the Bulldog returned to dominance.
"It's just a boost," Mullen said. "He's a captain of the team. On the field, he brings a lot of leadership and that to me is what's so critical. His leadership on the field lifts the players up to the others around him."
State will now turn its attention to a very good Middle Tennessee State program that can present problems with their ability to score points.
With the Blue Raiders coming to town, Mullen and his staff must guard against the Bulldogs looking ahead to a showdown with Alabama.
Mullen said it's a concern and keeping focus is something not solely the responsibility of the coaching staff.
"It sounds like coach talk, but (the coaching staff is) watching Middle Tennessee State this week and that's our whole focus," Mullen said. "Kids have a different deal and it's going to be on the leadership of our team to make sure they remain focused on the task at hand. That task at hand is winning our homecoming game and protecting our home turf to get us to 7-0. I do think they'll keep that focus on that game and that will trickle down to the young guys."