The real problem wasn't a tackle by MT's Kyle Griswold, ironically the receiver who had stumbled during contact with Banks way back on the Bulldog side of the field. It was another Raider who, without intent at all review showed, simply fell across Banks' left leg. "A guy hit me late and my knee went back," Banks said, not knowing it was no foul. Nor, fortunately, any harm.
Because soon enough Banks was prowling State's sideline, his day done, with no evident hitch in his step. "I'll be alright. I'll get a little ice, tomorrow I'll be back."
Banks wasn't the only one suspecting a late hit. Mullen himself didn't have a clear enough view and as the star cornerback was being helped off State's coach put a finger in the face of referee Mark Curles. "Yeah, I saw that," said Banks. "And I appreciate Coach Mullen, he's always got our back no matter what." As for the knee, doctors quickly affirmed there was little to fret…and everyone could breathe easily including Banks.
"I'm a senior, I didn't want my last game to be played right here, getting hurt."
Especially not after tying the Mississippi State career record of 16 interceptions, set by Walt Harris in 1995. "It's something I've been after since I've been here," said Banks. "I knew I could do it, but it's an honor to be tied with Walt Harris right now. It's a blessing from God, that's all I can say, God blessed me enough to put me in the right place at the right time most of the time."
Actually, the sore knee wasn't what bugged Banks most. His pride was hurting a little. "I missed two turnovers we should have got." One was a last-play of the first half when the senior corner had position and a bead on a very deep throw. Banks went up, put both hands on the ball but only batted it up where a Raider could catch it at State's nine-yard line. Fortunately he fell down on the grab and time ran out in the process. It was Middle Tennessee's only real chance all evening to score a touchdown, too.
Banks finished with eight tackles, tying for the team lead despite playing just two-and-a-half quarters in the 45-3 victory.
"This is a great game for John," said Mullen. "He made a bunch of big plays, made a bunch of great tackles, had a nice punt return. They were trying to pin us deep and he got us out of trouble. Then obviously the interception. Uou never know of the sideline but I think the interception was kind of the play that sealed the deal." Because three snaps later State had a 24-3 lead.
The interception, combined with a fumble forced and recovered by LB Cameron Lawrence, each set up third-quarter touchdowns. And reserve S Kendrick Market ended the game with an end zone interception. So the turnovers tilted State's way, three to one…though it ought to have been more lopsided to Banks.
"I missed two turnovers we should have got. But if we can get turnovers we can win football games. So that's a big part of our team."
GOOD CONNECTION: It's been four years since they made their high school names together. Tonight, Mississippi State fans really got to see what made Tyler Russell and Chris Smith such a potent combo back at Meridian. The two teamed-up for seven passes that produced 66 yards and, more of note, a pair of touchdowns.
"In high school we had nights like this plenty of times," said Smith. "I trust him as well as he trusts me, this is how its supposed to be."
Welllll…not exactly by plan. Both of Smith's touchdowns—he had three total TDs his previous three seasons at State—were on reads by Russell. Not the first read, either. Nor was the quarterback playing favorites.
"Somebody will probably say that!" Russell smiled. "But he was just open, I was going through my reads." Besides, Russell said, "Sometimes I get a little confused who is out there anyway because we rotate them so much!"
Maybe so, but there surely was a degree of familiarity on display. Smith's, and State's, first touchdown came on a sharp four-yard flip from Russell to cap the initial drive. The second was more dramatic. Breaking off the right end, Smith beat a jam-attempt by the Raider cornerback for a one-step lead he kept into the end zone and along the back line. Russell saw and delivered for the touchdown play that came after Banks' interception. F"He tried to jam me at the line but I made an inside swim move and came over the top."
"Chris had a big night," Russell said. "I felt all our receivers had a big night. The offensive line did a good job blocking and the running backs did good."
Russell was best of the bunch with his 17-of-21 passing for 191 yards and three touchdowns, and no interceptions. Sure, Smith got the career-best seven grabs and two touchdowns…but no less than nine other Dogs caught balls from Russell or Dak Prescott.
"Tyler's the type person to spread the love," Smith said. "Anybody he sees open he's going to try his best to get it to them." So why did his old buddy end up with seven balls where no other Dog had more than two? "I got open a lot, that's why I got the ball a lot! He saw me and I had to make the play."
Smith has made plenty plays, though this was his first night to find the end zone in 2012. The only issue was twice the senior has fumbled balls away after catches. Not that his friend ever doubted the old Dog would produce.
"Chris is one not to get down on himself," Russell said. "He always wants to come back the next day and continue to get better and he's done that. You're going to have fumbles and you're going to throw picks. But as long as everybody stays together you've going to do fine."
CHART CLIMBING: Russell's three touchdown tosses give him 28 for his career, tying the junior for 5th all-time at Mississippi State with former teammate Chris Relf.
PERKING ALONG: Had the game developed as State, and to be fair everyone else, expected it would have been a short night for LaDarius Perkins. The offense apparently wanted to maximize their lead back much as possible early because on the opening series Perkins rushed nine times out of 14 plays. He had five more rushes before the first quarter ended and 17 at halftime.
"The first series was pretty good," he said. Trouble was State only led 10-3 in the third quarter when the defense forced a punt. After three Russell throws, one incomplete, Perkins was given the handoff for a basic counter-right.
There was nothing basic about the results. "It opened up for us. The line did their job, I just made a couple of cuts and took it to the house." Perkins didn't have a smooth landing in the end zone with a heel-trip but got the score anyway on a career-long carry of 64 yards. From there, "Everybody started making plays, we started putting points on the board."
Nobody appreciated the key touchdown more than the Dog who was throwing pretty well already. "I told him at halftime we were completing passes and moving the ball but we're shooting ourselves in the foot," Russell said. "I need somebody else to get the team going. That's one thing I told Vick Ballard last year and he was good to do that too. LaDarius showed he can do it and put the team on his back. When Perk got that big run and scored everybody was pumped up, then the defense gets that interception, we feed off each other offense or defense."
Perkins' big breaker means he has scored a touchdown every game this season, one of just two FBS-level players to do so to-date. He has scored eight rushing TDs and posted four 100-yard games in this first year as the starter.
WAKE-UP CALL: As Russell noted, Perkins' score put pressure on the Raiders to take more chances and the Bulldog defense took advantage with consecutive forced turnovers and touchdowns. Some wondered if there was an emotional response to watching Banks go down for a scary moment. Banks downplayed this angle.
"I think we came out the second half and played great. Coach Mullen, I'm not going to say what he did in halftime! But he got us fired-up and we came back out and dominated."
AT A CROSSROADS (sorry, couldn't resist): One of Russell's touchdowns went to a surprising target, at least based on season results so far. But after Lawrence's forced-and-recovered fumble, the quarterback wanted to nail this win down so he called a passing play from the Raider 23-yard line. His progressions took him to soph WR Robert Johnson.
It wasn't a perfect play as Johnson lost footing and slipped, but on his knees leaned far enough outside for the catch and his first college touchdown. That was good in and of itself to Mullen; more meaningful was the still-learning receiver getting a boost to his confidence. "What is good to see is it translate to game day for Robert. You see him in practice sometimes and there is some ‘wow' at practice. And a lot of times that ‘wow' turns to kind of average in a game."
"It becomes a confidence factor, how he sets up and runs routes differently in practice; and in a game ‘I'm going to run my exact route and not put any spice in it right here, I'm going to do what I'm supposed to do'. I think tonight you got to see him get a little more relaxed out there on the field. I think this will really help him, to perform on game day as he has in practice."
MSU-ELLANEOUS NOTES: Mississippi State is one of eleven remaining unbeaten teams in D-I. The 7-0 start is the best since 1999 opened 8-0…Counting last year State now has a nine-win streak that is third-best in program history…Mullen has now won 15-straight non-conference games, a stretch begun and now finished for the 2012 regular season by Middle Tennessee…Mullen teams are now 9-4 playing with a ranking…Homecoming produced the 21st consecutive sellout of Davis Wade Stadium, though Middle Tennessee reportedly sold only about 400 of their ticket allotment…Of State's three sacks, two were shared among three backup defensive linemen…The Bulldog defense has now forced and/or recovered 21 turnovers in seven games with a dozen interceptions…The starting secondary foursome now has between them 39 interceptions…P Baker Swedenburg only had to punt once all evening, that in the fourth quarter, for 39 yards.