November 8, 2017 9:54:43 AM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State had an interceptions problem as the calendar turned from September to October: it only had one in five games. At the time, it was tied for last in the nation and spent the bye week charting opportunities and otherwise searching for answers.
On Oct. 14 against BYU, when MSU safety Brandon Bryant ran in front of a pass on the goal line and intercepted it to seal the game, he didn't necessarily fix the problem in one play. But he did kick off the series of events that did.
After struggling to intercept opponents early in the season, No. 18 MSU (7-2, 3-2 Southeastern Conference, No. 16 College Football Playoff) now finds itself tied for second in the conference and just shy of the top 50 nationally with eight interceptions. The only team in the conference with more interceptions than MSU is this week's opponent, No. 1 Alabama (9-0, 6-0 SEC, No. 2 CFP), which visits the Bulldogs 6 p.m. Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium.
"I think guys are around the ball and when they get a chance, they catch the ball," safeties coach Ron English told The Dispatch. "When you get more guys around it and they're expecting the ball to be tipped, they're alert and they're finishing more plays. When the ball pops in the air, they're getting the ball."
Since that Bryant interception, MSU has been getting the ball in bunches.
In the two conference games that followed, MSU intercepted Kentucky twice and Texas A&M three times, the latter being its first conference game with three interceptions in two years. MSU only had one interception against UMass, but that can be deemed acceptable on two platforms: first, UMass attempted fewer passes than Kentucky and Texas A&M did, and second, that one interception was returned for a touchdown by J.T. Gray.
The interceptions in bunches didn't come as a surprise to English.
"I think they kind of come in bunches at times: guys starting getting them and then other guys want to get them, they execute a little better or closer," he said.
The method to reaching these new interception heights has been a combination of two factors. First, English said MSU prioritized more than being in position to get an interception, but getting as many players in that position as possible. The Bryant interception that started it all was a good example: the intended receiver was several yards behind Bryant and covered by J.T. Gray, who had a shot at an interception if Bryant didn't catch it.
English hasn't stopped there.
"We always try to emphasize that it's not OK to just tip the ball, it's important to catch the ball," English said. "Even in practice, if we get hands on the ball but we don't catch the ball, we kind of make a big deal about it.
"In the NFL, they pay you to catch the ball."
It's a point safety Mark McLaurin said safeties have heard plenty of from English, and it's clearly sinking in: McLaurin grabbed his team-high second interception of the season against Texas A&M.
"Anytime we run into one, we hold each other accountable and expect each other to make that play whenever the time presents itself," he said. "We hear that all the time. We know we have to make those plays."
That formula may need a boost of some sort against Alabama.
English pointed out Alabama has only lost five turnovers this season, and only two of them were interceptions. From what English has seen of how the Alabama offense takes to the air, for once this season, the emphasis may be more on getting into interception position than it is converting once they get there.
"I think their quarterback has been good with the ball and not putting it out there for guys to get it. He throws into open spaces, he very rarely throws into tight coverage," English said. "I think they create space because they have very good wide receivers, but I think the quarterback is aware of not turning the ball over."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter, @Brett_Hudson
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