No. 19 MSU’s secondary ready for Tennessee attack

Johnthan Banks

STARKVILLE – (AP) Tennessee’s Tyler Bray is one of the nation’s premier pocket passers, and the 6-foot-6, 215-pound junior has the completions, touchdowns and passing yards to back it up.

Mississippi State’s secondary couldn’t be more thrilled about the challenge.

Johnthan Banks

In the Southeastern Conference showdown, Tennessee (3-2, 0-2) brings its high-flying passing offense to face the No. 19 Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0), who boast a pass defense that has been among the best in the league the past few seasons.

The Bulldogs have a seasoned quartet of starters – led by cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay – who have combined for 98 career starts and 37 interceptions. Eight have been returned for touchdowns.

“It should be fun,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said.

Tennessee’s coaches and players have plenty of respect for Mississippi State’s defense, but won’t make any changes to the offense. Bray has completed 61.1 percent of his passes this season for 1,582 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions.

Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson are huge and talented receivers. Hunter has been especially productive, with 33 receptions for 456 yards and four touchdowns.

Passing is what the Volunteers do. There will be no secrets on Saturday.

“We’re not going to hold anything back,” Bray said. “We don’t care if we’re playing Ed Reed or any of those guys. We’re going to go after it.”

Added Hunter: “I know their coaches are putting it in their heads that we have two good receivers over here. I think it goes both ways. They’re talking about us. We’re talking about them.”

And Mississippi State is eager to prove it’s up to the challenge. The Bulldogs have cruised through most of their schedule so far, winning four of five games by double digits.

Tennessee will provide the biggest challenge to date. But Mississippi State has reason to feel confident in the matchup – mostly because of its lockdown secondary

Banks is the leader of the group. His lanky 6-foot-2, 185-pound frame is responsible for 21 career interceptions, including three so far this season. The senior has played against some great quarterbacks during his four years – like Florida’s Tim Tebow and Houston’s Case Keenum – but said Bray is “different” because of the sheer power he can put behind his throws.

“He’s got a big arm. He’s not afraid to throw it around anybody. I’m really excited about playing those guys,” Banks said.

There’s little doubt opposing teams would love to avoid throwing toward Banks. But picking on others in the Bulldogs’ defensive backfield hasn’t been a good idea.

Darius Slay

Slay, the 6-foot-1, 190-pound senior cornerback who starts opposite of Banks, has been the biggest beneficiary. He leads Mississippi State with four interceptions.

Safety Nickoe Whitley has an interception that he returned 66 yards. The other safety, Corey Broomfield, is the only one without an interception this season, but has picked off nine career passes.

“Their scheme helps them,” said Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, who had hip surgery Tuesday and will be coaching from the press box Saturday. “They play a lot of zone, so they can just prey on a quarterback, break him down and they make the play. There’s not that many big-time corners out there who’ve got the size, the athleticism and the instincts. These guys have it. They’re good. You don’t have that many interceptions by luck. You just don’t.”

The respect is mutual. Mullen called Hunter and Patterson “the two best receivers we’ve played this year” and Bray “the best passing quarterback we’ve played.”

Bray didn’t have his best game in a 51-44 loss to Georgia on Sept. 29, throwing for 281 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. But the Volunteers were off last week and have had plenty of time to correct those mistakes.

Bray has a bit of a gunslinger reputation, confident that his strong arm can put the ball in the smallest of windows. That sometimes gets him into trouble, but Dooley said it’s a trait he admires.

“There are a lot of quarterbacks out there scared, they throw it away every time they feel a little heat,” Dooley said. “ … I’d rather tone down this kind of guy (the risk-taker) than the other.”

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