LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Tyler Russell hasn’t gotten too many standing ovations in his senior year but he received one on his way to the bus outside War Memorial Stadium Saturday.
Mississippi State’s senior quarterback has struggled through a injury plagued 2013 campaign where he’s been benched for a athletic sophomore more suited to his coach’s offensive system. He has been knocked out of three different games this season but Saturday he was cheered loudly. As he walked from the locker room to the bus with his right arm in a sling, Russell nodded to acknowledge the fans cheering him that logically were publicly pushing for sophomore Dak Prescott to take his starting job.
“People have probably been giving him a hard time this year,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said.
Due to Russell’s injury, he was restricted from media access Saturday after the game.
After tossing for a season high 263 yards Saturday, Russell had SEC Network color analyst Andre Ware, a former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL first round pick saying the MSU quarterback will have a future in professional football.
Russell led the MSU offense Saturday with 263 yards through the air and two touchdown passes in a dramatic 24-17 overtime victory over Arkansas. The quarterback whose five-year career may be the most difficult to properly define, continues to rewrite the record books with 5,441 career passing yards in his career. He moved ahead of Don Smith (1983-86) and Derrick Taite (1993-96) for third place on the school’s all-time list.
However, beyond all the numbers, Russell may be remembered for his performance Saturday by words such as gutty and inspirational because of his ability to put his physical health aside to perform for his team under less than optimal conditions.
“When you go 18 for 28 with 263 (yards) and two touchdown on half of a practice just shows…the type of kid he is,” Mullen said. “It shows how far he’s come, what he is and what he has meant to this program and what he gives to this program is pretty special.”
MSU sophomore quarterback Dak Prescott was ruled inactive for the second straight week after suffering a severely pinched nerve in his left arm in the loss two weeks ago at Texas A&M. Mullen said after the win he Prescott would be out next week as well as MSU concludes its regular season at home on Thanksgiving night in the annual Egg Bowl rivalry against Ole Miss.
Russell only participated in half of a Thursday practice to prepare for playing Saturday in a environment where MSU (5-6, 2-5 in Southeastern Conference) had never won in school history. Mullen, who said he would take the starting quarterback decision to pre-game warmups, said he had a conversation with Russell before the game that sounded more like a pitching coach on the mound has with a player in the spring.
“Tyler came in from warmups and said he felt okay and I asked him ‘fastball or just change ups?’,” Mullen said with a smile. “He goes ‘Coach I’ll be throwing some change ups out there but I’ll be able to make the throws I need to make, trust me’ and I did.”
Russell’s second and fourth-quarter touchdown passes gave him 45 scores accounted for in his career, good for third on the program’s all-time list and one touchdown behind Anthony Dixon for second. Russell holds the fourth most passing performances of 200 or more yards in program history. Russell now owns 10 games with 200 or more yards, one behind leaders Tommy Pharr (1967-69), Wayne Madkin (1998-2001) and Kevin Fant (2000-03).
In the final drive of regulation that ended with a missed 42-yard field goal by Devon Bell, Russell took a violent shot from a Arkansas pass rusher that left him down on his stomach and unable to move the right side of his body. After the hit, Russell he was forced to signal to the MSU training staff with his left hand only to come attend to him immediately.
Russell was less than 100 percent healthy after suffering a right shoulder injury trying to make a tackle late in the loss last week to No. 1 Alabama.
“When I see my quarterback on the ground in pain, I’m mad,” MSU sophomore tailback Josh Robinson said. “That just means to me we did something wrong. That’s my brother out there.”
In the end, Russell stood and watched a backup, this time freshman Damian Williams, score the game-winning touchdown in overtime after taking nearly every snap of the game Saturday. That scene, of Williams being congratulated with Russell fading into the background may be the defining picture of Russell’s 2013 season. For it was the fifth-year senior that was seen after practice Wednesday and all through the week, getting the true freshman prepared for such a moment.
“I have the trust from them because Dak and Tyler are the ones preparing me for moments like that,” Williams said about his 25-yard touchdown run in overtime. “I look up to both of them and they’re the ones I’m trying to get to trust me. It’s hard to trust a freshman.”
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.
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