No. 1 Mississippi St winning despite shaky defense
STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) Undefeated Mississippi State is the consensus No. 1 team in the country so smiles and praise are easy to find in Starkville.
But the success accolades have covered up a defense that - at least statistically - has been average.
Mississippi State (7-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference, No. 1 CFP) is giving up 439.6 yards per game this season, which ranks last in the league. The Bulldogs are also allowing 21.6 points per game, which ranks seventh out of 14 teams.
So far, the Bulldogs have been able to overcome the deficiencies. The offense has been among the league's best and when the defense has needed a stop, its done the job.
Coach Dan Mullen said veteran leadership has allowed his team to brush bad plays aside and focus when the big moments come.
''There are a lot of guys who have been in the program for a while and understand that we are here to play 60-minute football games,'' Mullen said. ''They also understand that the other team is going to make plays. The key when that happens is to put the ball down and play the next play.''
But there's still some anxiety - especially with a secondary that was burned for several big plays in last weekend's 45-31 victory over Kentucky. The Wildcats' sophomore quarterback Patrick Towles threw for 390 yards and two touchdowns.
Mississippi State safety Jay Hughes acknowledged the big plays were frustrating, but no one is panicking.
''I'm not too concerned,'' Hughes said. ''I trust the guys around me. The coaches always say that you don't want to peak early in the season, so that gives me hope that we'll be even better in the future.''
Mississippi State's secondary probably won't be tested much in the coming weeks. The Bulldogs face Arkansas (4-4, 0-4) on Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium. The Razorbacks are averaging just 199 passing yards per game.
Arkansas' ground-bound approach should play right into Mississippi State's strength. Its rushing defense is giving up just 118 yards per game, which ranks fourth in the league. Linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Beniquez Brown are one-two on the team in tackles and have combined for 11 1/2 tackles for a loss.
Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen wasn't buying that Mississippi State's defense is struggling.
''They've got a real solid D-line, their linebackers are big and physical,'' said. ''Those guys are really disruptive, and they kind of make a lot of plays for them. Their secondary, obviously, they're good SEC players. They've got a bunch of athletic guys back there, and they'll make the plays when you let them.''
Following the Arkansas matchup, Mississippi State plays Football Championship Subdivision opponent Tennessee-Martin in a game that figures to be little more than a scrimmage.
But on Nov. 15, the Bulldogs must hit the road to face Alabama. The Tide's passing offense ranks second in the league, averaging nearly 300 yards per game. Any lingering issues in Mississippi State's secondary could become very apparent.
Hughes said Mississippi State isn't letting all the success over the past two months go to its head. The Bulldogs have been the nation's No. 1 team for nearly a month, but they still have plenty of faults.
''You don't want to be complacent,'' Hughes said. ''When something's wrong, we're still quick to point it out.''
AP Sports Writer Kurt Voigt in Fayetteville, Arkansas, contributed to this story.
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP