Seems easy enough for Banks to say so on a Monday. Maybe after some scouting of a potent Volunteer offense, or testing schemes in practice, or just the growing campus frenzy for this Saturday night showdown…maybe then Banks will see it as more than ‘another SEC game’.
Or maybe not. Banks isn’t being blasé, he’s simply sticking to a career-long approach which makes the next ‘another game’ the biggest of his Bulldog life.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re playing at East Webster High School or in the SEC, playing football is what I love to do. I’m looking forward to competition against Bray, Patterson, Rogers, and all of them.”
It’s all the ‘them’ referred to by Mississippi State’s star cornerback and many more which make Banks a must-quote this week. Tennessee (3-2, 0-2 SEC) brings an attack to town which, with no disrespect to EWHS, operates at a rather higher league level. A balanced one at that, with 195 rushes through five games and 201 passes tossed.
And, almost 61% of them caught for a SEC-pacing 329 yards each weekend. The Volunteers already have 14 scoring plays via their air game, making this easily the most daunting matchup Bulldog defensive backs have faced so far. That, Banks agrees with.
“They’ll probably be the best passing offense we’ve faced. Because they’ve got a really good quarterback in Tyler Bray. I’ve got a lot of respect, he gets those guys in position to make plays.” Guys such as Justin Hunter (33 catches, 456 yards, 4 TDs), Cordarrelle Patterson (21, 290, 2), Zach Rogers (14, 249, 2) and others. Coach Dan Mullen referred to these Vols as NFL-caliber players, the thrower and catcher alike, so surely that gets a cornerback extra motivated for the challenge?
Nope. “I just go out and play football.”
In Banks’ defense, so to speak, this week is nothing new. He has played in his senior share of big games already after all. And Banks certainly has seen some of the best quarterbacks in the college business, even picked them off. In fact, it was Banks’ pair of picks and touchdown returns against Tim Tebow in 2009 which put the then-freshman on the national radar. Along the way he has played coverage against the likes of Case Keenum, Aaron Murray, Cam Newton, and more.
The result is 15 career interceptions, leaving Banks one shy of tying the program record. Whether he can victimize Bray is an open question though, and Banks notes this quarterback has some aspects that stand out even in the listed names. “He’s got a big arm and is not afraid to throw it around,” Banks said.
“He’s that type of fellow who will throw three interceptions and then come back to throw touchdown passes. That’s the guy where as a defense you have to keep your composure.” Banks doesn’t merely mean getting lax in coverage after a success or two, either. Tennessee can and will do more than chuck the ball around all evening, as a 200-yard rushing day at Athens proved.
“They’ve got a good football team. They ran the ball well against Georgia.” The Vols also showed resilience there, battling back from a double-digit deficit the first half to take a brief lead.
At the same time #19-Mississippi State’s defense has a few points of its own to prove against the first truly top-flight offense faced in 2012. A unit which has allowed 13 points-per meets a team scoring almost 40 a week. And while the Bulldogs do allow more yards and first downs than fans find comfortable, Coach Dan Mullen has been comfortable with lack of points permitted. So far.
So don’t expect radical adjustments in one week on this side of the squad, Banks warns. Specific adjustments, sure. Attention to individual matchups, of course. Otherwise…
“The game plan will be the same,” says Banks. “To go out and play physical, Mississippi State football. We need to create turnovers and get off the field on third down.” This defense has been meeting that first goal for sure with 15 takeaways, nine of them interceptions. Three of those belong to Banks, though he has not had quite as many opportunities this season to pick passes. September opponents tended to throw the other way, toward first-year starter Darius Slay.
Good plan on paper, bad results on field…the senior Slay has four interceptions of his own and for weeks led the NCAA rankings. Still is there any thought of State’s cornerbacks changing sides for situations and specific receivers? Banks downplays the idea.
“Slay can hold his own, I’ll hold my own so we ain’t going to switch off anybody. Because we’re good enough to handle anybody in the country.” No, this is not Banks going into Smoot Mode, though he and the Bulldog legend are friends. It’s just Banks stating his facts.
Besides, “I’m not Fred, we’re two totally different people.” Which is why the younger of the two isn’t going public with any dares to throw it his way. Nor does he need to for that matter. “Nobody is shying away from me. Nobody is scared to throw to anybody in the SEC. This is college football and I put my pants on just like you do.”
“I’m not a selfish player,” Banks adds…though he also makes no attempt to disguise his goal of getting that interceptions record. “I haven’t done this by myself, the d-line, linebackers, secondary are all working together. Most people try to make it about me but it’s not.”
And for all the merited attention given Tennessee’s Bray, this Bulldog has a rather high opinion of State’s own quarterback in the same context. “It’s exactly what Tyler (Russell) is doing,” Banks said. “I think they’re the same guy. Tyler is just as good as all those guys but Bray and Murray have been playing longer. Next time Tyler will get the exposure he deserves.”
Speaking of exposure… Saturday’s late timeslot offers Mississippi State its opportunity to make another statement. Though, when Banks talks about loving underdog status he’s out of synch with linemakers who are giving the home team a slight nod as of Monday. Realistically for both teams this looms as a true SEC toss-up, a nice coincidence given how each offense hopes to throw and catch.
The key from Banks’ perspective is who can connect first and best. Then, he added, not relaxing the pace, something State has been a bit prone to.
“Something we want to do is start fast. If we get a jump on these guys, keep playing hard like we just got out of the tunnel. SEC football games mean you can’t let-up at all.”