By JOEL COLEMAN
It was the most talked-about issue on the minds of Mississippi State fans coming into Saturday's game against South Carolina.
Who would be the Bulldogs' starting quarterback?
That question was answered minutes prior to kickoff when Tyler Russell introduced himself as MSU's signal-caller on the massive video board at Davis Wade Stadium, earning his first career start and garnering a loud chorus of cheers from the maroon-and-white-clad faithful.
Four quarters of football later however, and not even the Parade All-American by way of Meridian High School could solve Mississippi State's recent offensive woes.
Following his stellar outing in Birmingham a week prior when he relieved Chris Relf and led MSU on a second-half surge in a 21-3 win over UAB, Russell suffered through inconsistencies in Saturday's 14-12 loss.
As Russell completed 11 of his 29 pass attempts, there were highs – such as a late-first-quarter touchdown pass to former high school teammate Chris Smith – and there were lows – such as a pair of interceptions, including the game-clinching pick by South Carolina's D.J. Swearinger.
Through it all, Russell felt he simply didn't get the job done.
"I didn't play well enough to win the game," said Russell. "Sometimes I made the play. Sometimes I didn't. I feel like we were off on a couple of throws and just missed them."
It seemed early on as though Russell's first foray into the role of a Southeastern Conference starting quarterback might be a successful experience.
After one quarter of play, Russell had already thrown his touchdown pass to Smith, spearheaded a Mississippi State offensive attack that out-gained South Carolina 78-39, and most importantly, put the Bulldogs on top 7-0.
Rough patches soon followed for Russell, who completed just 33 percent of his passes the rest of the way.
"I settled in pretty quick I thought," said Russell. "Sometimes I was high and sometimes I was low. I have to be a more consistent quarterback for us to win. This is why I wanted to play in the SEC, so I could face tough defenses like South Carolina."
While the Gamecocks' defensive prowess had a lot to do with hindering Russell, one factor that didn't slow down the Bulldogs was MSU's play-calling.
Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen indicated postgame that the Bulldogs didn't hold anything back in Russell's debut as a starter.
"We weren't conservative at all with him," said Mullen. "In the course of the game, I had no hesitation with Tyler. We let Tyler do what he needed to do."
Only time will tell if Russell will again be under center when the Bulldogs travel to face Kentucky on Oct. 29, but Mullen knows Russell will be willing and ready, if needed.
"Tyler has done a great job for us," said Mullen. "For two years, he's sat here waiting for an opportunity. He got an opportunity last week and seized it. We'll grade the film and see how he played (Saturday), but he's never done anything but prepare himself to be ready to play."
Whether Russell starts in two weeks or not, he left an impression on his Bulldog teammates Saturday, despite his inconsistencies.
Running back Vick Ballard said Russell came through for MSU by giving them a chance for a victory.
"Tyler put us in a position to win," said Ballard. "He was comfortable right from the start. We knew he would be calm because that is what kind of person he is."
Despite Ballard's praise, "comfortable" and "calm" doesn't cut it for Russell. In his own mind, whether or not he's the starter, it's all about the Bulldogs finding ways to turn close losses into wins.
"We're just so close to being a really good football team, and that's what you've got to take out of a game like this," said Russell. "It's no fun to lose and I believe everybody played hard. We've just got to come back to the drawing board. We have to keep a good attitude and keep moving forward with the season."