October 12, 2017 10:03:53 AM
STARKVILLE -- Interceptions are a sore subject around the Mississippi State football complex these days. Ask cornerback Jamal Peters and his position coach Terrell Buckley about interceptions and they immediately say the same thing, while losing all expression in their faces.
"We don't have any."
That's an exaggeration, but only slightly. MSU's one interception on the year ranks it tied for last in the nation in that category, joining seven other teams in that tie -- only one of those other seven has a winning record. The Bulldogs (3-2, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) have spent two weeks working on turning that around, beginning with hosting BYU (1-5) 11 a.m. Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium.
The first trick to seeing improvement might be the simple presence of opportunity. BYU's track record of passing on 51.1 percent of offensive snaps this year is a strong departure from MSU's recent opponents of LSU (35.5 percent), Georgia (26.8) and Auburn (24.3). In those three games combined, MSU saw its opponents attempt 58 passes; the Cougars attempted 76 passes in its games against Utah and Boise State alone.
"I did a hit chart during the bye week, we're just not getting a lot of shots. We're getting, on average, two balls thrown to the outside," Buckley said relative to his corners. Safety Mark McLaurin said his position group feels the same way. "We're not getting a lot of opportunities."
That being the case, Buckley designed the bye week practice to make MSU better in that environment.
Buckley said he trained his cornerbacks on as many catches as he could imagine: standard ball-aimed-at-the-chest catches, catching balls headed for each shoulder, running from the middle to make a catch over the shoulder, catching bad throws, ducking in front of a receiver to catch a pass and simply jumping over a receiver/
"Any type of way that I've seen possible to get a pick or make a play on the ball, we've tried to work on it at least once," Buckley said.
The numbers suggest MSU's problem may be more skewed toward getting to the ball than what happens when it gets there.
The ratio of passes defended (the combination of pass broken up and interceptions) to incompletions thrown by the opponent can be used as a baseline statistic to measure aggression in a secondary. As the percentage gets higher, it suggests an opponent's incompletions are forced more by the defense's ability to disrupt an on-target pass; lower percentages suggest the team's pass defense success is more based on the opposing offense's inefficiencies independent of the defense.
MSU's current passes defended to incompletions ratio is 29.5 percent: still an improvement from last year's 19.3 percent, but also ranked 108th in the nation out of 130 and nearly four percentage points worse than any MSU defense dating back to 2011. A number that low is also atypical for a defense by MSU defensive coordinator Todd Grantham: at his two prior stops, four years at Georgia and three at Louisville, only twice did that ratio dip below 34 percent, and it never dipped below 31.
A number that supports Buckley's case is MSU's frequency of interceptions within passes defended. Since passes defended is a combination of passes broken up and interceptions, the percentage of passes defended that are interceptions can be telling of how good a team is at intercepting passes relative to how often it gets that opportunity. The average over the Dan Mullen era is roughly 25 percent; MSU currently stands at just 7.6 percent with one interception on 13 passes defended.
In all likelihood, all three blend together to create MSU's mere one interception this season: opponents have not thrown all that often on MSU, but MSU is not as good as it has been in the past at interrupting those passes and, as Buckley pointed out, not as good as intercepting them when they get there.
The frustration of it all has taken away any bragging rights for McLaurin, the one with MSU's only pick of the season. He ran under a ball batted into the air by fellow safety Brandon Bryant against Louisiana Tech and nearly returned it for a touchdown.
All attention has turned to the opportunity BYU presents.
"There's always excitement when you see a team throwing the ball," Buckley said. "The way they throw the ball -- is it conservative or is it downfield -- creates the excitement, and they do both.
"We are excited. We think we're going to get the opportunity to make plays."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter, @Brett_Hudson
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