But in the fourth quarter the All-American candidate showed the simple knack he has for right place, right time. With South Alabama sitting on Mississippi State's 18-yard line, C.J. Bennett fired for Jag receiver T.J. Glover near the goal line. The throw was on target but Glover didn't glove it; Banks did, catching the short carom. Not only that but he ran it back 47 yards the other way.
"I wasn't surprised," Banks said. "That's what I do. I'm not trying to be cocky, but that is what Coach expects me do, go out and make plays. I know if you throw the ball around me five or six times I'm going to get one of them."
In fact South Alabama came at Banks close to a half-dozen times, and made it work a few times for uncharacteristic big gains. "They were trying me all night and caught a couple of hole-shots when we were in cover-two," Banks said. Up to tonight teams tended to throw the other way, i.e. at Slay which naturally contributed to his fast start.
Now Banks has his third theft of the year, and more to the career point 15 total. That puts him just one back of the all-time Bulldog record set by Walt Harris, a mark Banks unabashedly seeks. He already owns one record though; that runback gave him 274 yards total, surpassing the 241 by Derek Pegues. Banks now ranks first in the FBS in interception return yards.
Something anyone can read even with fake eyewear. One wonders if Slay will make a play on the shades this week.
HAPPY RETURNS: Banks was busy in other return roles. He fielded three punts for a net 34 yards, including a 20-yarder to set up a field goal in the second quarter. Nor was Banks alone in bringing balls back. WR Jameon Lewis had kickoff returns of 49 and 41 yards, and WR Chad Bumphis a 11-yard punt return.
"That was probably the strong point of the game, kick return and kick return," Banks said. "We've got a lot of athletes back there and we felt if we could hold somebody up or block somebody we could make things happen. We're pretty happy with what happened."
South Alabama's longest runback was 21 yards on a kickoff by contrast, with a three-yard gain on the only punt attempt to return as P Baker Swedenburg averaged 47.0 yards on four tries. This was the first game Swedenburg had a real opportunity to hit them long, too, as the offense struggled to advance.
"The special teams coach did a good job today," quipped Dan Mullen. "He was terrible a couple of weeks ago! Baker with a 47 yard average punting the ball; kick returns overall were pretty solid. Our kickoff coverage very good, our punt coverage very good, punt returns very good. That was a bright spot."
TAKING HIS TURNS: QB Dak Prescott did not see the field last week in a tense Troy game. Back at home, though, the freshman was able to return to his package-role. In the second quarter after starter QB Tyler Russell drove State the first 73 yards, it was Prescott taking over at the seven-yard line. He got the rest on scrambles of five and two yards for the touchdown.
"It's just my role," Prescott said. "Whenever Coach calls my number I'm going to get in there and do what I can to help the team and take advantage of my opportunities. That's all it was, and it just felt good to get in there early when my number was called."
It was Prescott's second touchdown in this goal-line package; the first came against SWAC squad Jackson State. "It feels great actually scoring on the college level. Not just one game, but getting in there a couple of times feels good."
Prescott also got to take over the whole offense in the third quarter for a series, then again in the fourth. He had a fine hot-toss to WR Brandon Heavens go for 38 yards, only to be voided by an obvious block-in-back by OT Archie Muniz. Prescott shoot it off and came right back with a sweet slant-route connection to Heavens again for 29 yards.
"Like I said, just taking advantage of my opportunities. They got a passing play and I wanted to hit it. I didn't have too good of a first game throwing the ball so I had to come back and take advantage of my opportunities."
By all rights Prescott should have had two rushing touchdowns. But in the third quarter after he rushed to within inches of the goal on second down, Russell—following a South Alabama timeout—returned to fall forward behind OC Dillon Day for the sneak touchdown. It was the same sort of play Russell used to make the deciding first down last week to run out the Troy game.
Prescott was not offended by the change in package-plays. "You know, Coach Mullen went with the quarterback sneak to throw them off a little bit. It really doesn't matter as long as we get that touchdown!" The younger quarterback also says his elder is a better runner than appreciated. "Oh yeah, defenses had better be ready for him! He's going to come out and if they're not ready for that he's going to pull one and get a few yards."
So, is it Prescott's prowess now inspiring Russell to better footwork? The freshman grins at the suggestion. "Oh yeah, we always compete, we always joke around that I'm going to make him run it! And we're just trying to get better every part of the game."
STRING SNAPPED: Russell's reputation has been made with his arm anyway, and he was off to a perfect passing start as far as turnovers—or not—through three games. In fact he got to the second quarter before getting picked. Admittedly Russell had pressed his passing luck a few earlier times and been saved by his receivers.
But on throw #19 of the night the ball meant for WR Arceto Clark was cleanly caught by Jaguar Tyrell Pearson. State did get it back two snaps later when S Nickoe Whitley intercepted at the eight-yard line. Still the streak of 137 passes without a pick by Russell ended.
And by pure irony, he is tied with Wesley Carroll at 137 throws without interceptions for the school record. Though, Carroll did it in 2007 as a freshman.
Russell was 13-of-27 passing, and unlike last week's 11-of-26 there were no excused drops to offset the percentage. Mullen said the junior was off, over-throwing at times and often waiting too long to unload. WR Chris Smith said he wasn't sure why Russell struggled so. "But we came out as a team and the team did well and picked him up. We all rallied around each other."
TIME AND PLACE: Smith was involved with the evening's strangest play, also off a pass. This one completed as Russell hit him for a 21-yard gainer on the right side. Then Jaguar Charles Watson came flying in from Smith's left side, and the ball went flying off to the right.
"I didn't expect the guy to be behind me, once I broke a tackle I thought he was gone," Smith said. "But he came out of nowhere and made a big play. He hit me, hit the ball, I tried to hold it tight. Luckily I had some backup! B-Have was right there at the right time."
As in Heavens, who just happened to be in position to snag the ball in-air and even add three yards to the play's total net down to the Jaguar seven-yard line. Two snaps later Prescott made it a 14-0 score, because a Bulldog had been in the right place at the right if unplanned time.
"I wouldn't call it luck," said Smith. "Effort is what it takes. Like Coach Mullen says, effort puts everybody in the place they're supposed to be every time. It ain't no such thing as luck, man, we're out there just making plays."
MSU-ELLANEOUS: Mississippi State is 4-0 for the first time since 1999...OG Tobias Smith did not play a snap for the second-straight game, with Justin Malone going the distance again…PK Devon Bell was 3-of-3 on field goals with makes of 42, 42, and 31 yards. Bell hit his first college field goal last week at Troy, after missing the first three attempts…Backup Charlie Grandfield was given a 40-yard attempt in the fourth quarter and missed. "I wanted to give Charlie a shot, we were up and Devon had done pretty well," Mullen said. "Just to keep building those other guys in case there is an issue."…DT Dewayne Cherrington made his first career start, and after three starts at tackle Kaleb Eulls moved out to his old DE position…LB Benardrick McKinney also made his first start, at middle linebacker…Nine Bulldogs caught a pass.