Thursday Bulldog Football Notebook

Johnthan Banks certainly doesn't pull any punches evaluating his first Arkansas experience. "I remember I was young, and dumb…" the Bulldog cornerback began, then laughed along with the reporters. A couple of whom saw Banks perform as a true 2009 freshman, and would never have thought that rookie dumb. Young, yes.

And indeed it was the youth of Banks and in fact most of the Mississippi State secondary that showed up in last year's 42-21 loss at Little Rock. Or as he resumed, "I really didn't know what was going on. They had a group of good skill players and a real good quarterback."

Really good. Ryan Mallett was 18-of-34 with a pair of interceptions, both by CB Corey Broomfield, so it was not a particularly great day by his statistical standards. But any lack of efficiency was offset by five touchdown passes including strikes of 39, 58, and 64 yards. So Banks & Co. realize this is a most dangerous matchup; not only because Arkansas has the skill folk to make plays, but to do so after being stopped.

Or, seemingly stopped. In fact, Banks said, that is when the Razorbacks may be their most dangerous.

"We're going to have to be extra careful because when Mallett gets to scrambling we have to stay in coverage. We can't break off our receivers and try to go tackle the quarterback. We have to let our d-line and linebackers handle that and we have to stay in coverage the whole time."

Sounds simple enough. Yet setting aside even the technical demands of that, there is the more fundament fact that nobody gets a job in the Bulldog secondary without a well-developed sense of aggression. Put another way, they like hitting folk and no one more so than the other quarterback. Well and good in many matchups…

…but not this one. Not against a tall, strong, and even stronger-armed slinger who is hard enough to flush from the pocket and even tougher then to contain without doing something, well, dumb. Which means coordinator Manny Diaz is asking for self-control by State's secondary Saturday.

"It's pretty hard but when you're disciplined you can do it," Banks said. "When a db is aggressive it's pretty hard to stay in coverage, but we know we have to do it because Mallett is a Peyton Manning type guy." And Arkansas's pro-style passing plans can certainly put up NFL numbers.

"We've got a good gameplan for them though. You'll just have to come to the game and see how we play them!"

Banks for his part isn't facing Arkansas from the same free safety vantage point of last fall. He's been a full-time cornerback this sophomore season, which means an individual matchup this time around. Not that any of them are easy, of course; for that matter the job isn't necessarily simpler, either. "It's going to be different because last year I didn't cover a lot, I really blitzed a lot that game."

Over the course of this season Banks has had his share of coverage highs and lows, with a pair of interceptions and five breakups to go with 39 tackles. Yet he's also found himself a topic of fan discussion based on just how far off the line of scrimmage he generally lines up. He's heard the questions and frankly is tired.

"Well, I don't mean to disrespect anybody. But I'm playing the defense. If you don't know the defense you can't say if I'm playing a cushion on a guy. I'm just going out there and playing the defense."

A defense that must be on absolute top form this weekend if State is to avoid getting into another shootout with Arkansas. As a true sophomore Banks still is relatively young, yet also pretty well SEC seasoned by now.

"I'm still growing. I still have a lot to learn. But I have confidence in myself now." Confidence in his entire secondary, too, a group that has something to prove on the home field this time around. "This year we're going to be older and we're going to have to go out and play football."

ON THE OTHER HAND: While Arkansas has thrived in the air as expected, the Bulldogs passing game has been struggling the second half of the season…as not entirely expected. Though few figured this 2010 offense would be entirely balanced, more was forecast for the throwers and catchers. A running game that has produced even better than hoped is the obvious reason for a 70-30 split in play calling.

At the same time, State's October air efficiency was a little worrisome. Then when for the first time since September the Bulldogs had to throw, the results were disappointing at Alabama.

"We were just off the whole night," WR Chad Bumphis said. "The wide receivers and quarterbacks. One time we'd slip or drop a pass; one time they'd make the wrong read. It was just a mix of everybody just messing up at the wrong time, and it would be one person each play."

Ironically, last Saturday was the first time since the Houston game State was over 50% passing, though barely at 12-of-23. Bumphis himself was able to achieve his first SEC touchdown of the entire season, on a 27-yard throw off the arm of backup QB Tyler Russell. A fine play, but too late to change the outcome…and not what this offense had expected of itself by November.

"It's bad frustrating, especially when we've made them before and all the time we put in in the summer to work on stuff like that," said Bumphis.

So, what's been the practice focus? "Everything, really. Just fundamentals, running better routes and getting the timing down again." Yes, that sounds like everything, alright. But then Bumphis also agrees that while the Dogs were off at Alabama…they weren't that far off. Which means it shouldn't require that much fixing.

"I mean, we don't stress about it," he said. "We just look for another opportunity to go out and make the play." The plays that had been making. And as for the fellow on the other end of this throw-and-catch equation, Bumphis has even fewer stresses about Relf.

"Chris is going to be alright," he said. In fact, "If anybody it'd be the receivers! I mean, Chris is the one that keeps us together so Chris will be fine."

Speaking of receiving, for a while Bumphis was doing a whole lot more carrying than catching. In one four-game stretch he rushed the ball 12 times for 93 yards; by contrast in the Florida and UAB wins he had just one catch, total. Those rushes came in a variety of ways, too; not just regular reverses but end-arounds and the occasional direct snap keeper.

"Yeah, they're just moving us around to get the ball in our hands. I mean, I'm just happy to get the ball in my hands either way." Naturally since he came to campus to catch passes, netting five balls for 84 yards in the last two SEC outings has been a return to expected role. But if the boss tells him to tote some more… "I don't mind it!" he grinned.

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