The Mississippi State Bulldogs got beat by the Northwestern Wildcats in a lot of ways Tuesday afternoon. The defense look delicate and uninspired. The offensive line was a step slow.
Even so, they found themselves, inexplicably, down only one score in the fourth quarter. Even on a day where almost every unit underwhelmed, the Bulldogs had a chance to win the 2013 Gator Bowl.
But quarterback Tyler Russell made sure that didn't happen.
In a season where SEC quarterbacks have defined their teams, Tyler Russell helped define this game as a failure. Northwestern played its hearts out defensively, but it certainly doesn't compare to SEC competition. Which makes Russell's ball movement stats Tuesday, when compared with his season averages, rather interesting:
But that's nothing. That's just moving the ball down the field. On a day where the Bulldogs' defense and special teams provided excellent field position, that's surmountable.
What wasn't surmountable was the turnovers.
Russell threw four interceptions on Tuesday, each one his fault, and each one pivotal in its own, unique way. Let's go through them, shall we?
Interception No. 1: On the Bulldogs' third play, from his own 31-yard line, Russell pegs the ball at Northwestern lineman Quentin Williams. The senior snags it out of the air and runs it back for a first-minute score. 7-0, Wildcats.
Interception No. 2: One possession later. After scattered gains of 9, 11, 13 and 11 yards, the Bulldogs line up on Northwestern's 23. Russell forces a ball he has no business throwing, which gets picked off by Ibraheim Campbell at the 9-yard line.
Interception No. 3: Early second quarter, 13-0 Northwestern. Struggling to move the ball on offense, Mississippi State just got its first big break: a 44-yard interception by Denico Autry. The line up on the Wildcats' 15-yard line with a chance to dent the lead. On the first snap after Autry's pick, Russell fires another ill-advised pass, which is picked by Chi Chi Ariguzo at the Northwestern 3.
Interlude: At halftime, coach Dan Mullen speaks to Russell about taking care of the ball. His words: "Go into the locker room, splash some water on your face, readjust your pads and forget that you came out to start the game ... Get in the tunnel, start jumping up and down again, get yourself tight and run out of the tunnel again.
Interception No. 4: After a touchdown and a defensive stop, Mississippi State gets the ball back with a chance to tie the game. From his own 15, Russell is pressured and fires up a wobbling-duck—off his back foot, no less—that Nick VanHoose has time to call fair catch under. He returns the
punt interception back to the Bulldogs' 5; Northwestern scores the clinching touchdown four plays later.
That's a pretty inauspicious dossier of throws.
It's hard to figure where Tuesday's performance came from. On 366 regular-season throws, Russell was only intercepted six times. His cautiousness was one of the many reasons Mississippi State started 7-0. It was one of the many reasons it found itself in a bowl game to begin with.
But on Tuesday things fell apart for Tyler Russell. He cost his team the football game. Now we'll wait and see if he's capable of picking up the pieces.