FOOTBALL: 'Cats Take on 'Flying High' Dawgs

For the first seven weeks of his first season as Mississippi State's coach, Sylvester Croom asked his team not to give up on the coaches, themselves and the season.

Saturday's performance against Florida offered plenty of proof that the Bulldogs bought into Croom's message.

"I told the players that if they would just believe, then something like this would happen," Croom said.

That something was a 38-31 upset of the No. 20 Gators, who entered the game as 20-point favorites and left wondering what hit them. The Bulldogs (2-5, 1-3 SEC) outhit, outpushed and outshoved the Gators throughout the game, rushing for 251 yards and responding to every Florida response.

The final response came when Mississippi State running back Jerious Norwood ran through the Florida defense for a 37-yard touchdown with 32 seconds left, giving the Bulldogs their first SEC victory under Croom.

"We've won nine games in the last three years, so I can't even express what this feels like," MSU center Chris McNeil told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. "All you can see in our locker room right now is tears. ... It was like nothing I've ever seen before."

McNeil and Norwood were just two of many heroes who came through time and time again for Mississippi State. With McNeil and the offensive line blasting through the Florida front seven, Norwood rushed for 174 hard-earned carries and two TDs on 29 carries. Quarterback Omarr Conner also returned from a knee injury that forced him to miss two games, completed 15 of 24 passes for 158 yards. He also ran 13 times for 50 yards and a 2-yard touchdown and played with plenty of composure.

The special teams provided a spark when true freshman Jonathan Lowe returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown and a 24-17 lead in the third quarter.

The Mississippi State defense gave up 441 yards but it also forced three turnovers, including an interception by safety Jeramie Johnson at the MSU 44 with 2:03 left in the game, setting up Norwood's game-winning score.

"It won the ballgame," Croom said of the interception. "It came down to one play, and that was the play. We had to have the ball back. I didn't want to go into overtime. Our defense was wearing down."

The combination of all those factors was enough to inspire Croom to call it the "No. 1" victory of his long coaching career.

"This is No. 1," said Croom, 50, hired last December to turn around a program that won only eight games over the last three seasons. "We beat a team that talent-wise is far better than we are. Our kids won that game strictly on guts and heart."

Now imagine what Croom could do with two or three quality recruiting classes.

"This is just the beginning," Croom said. "We're building to a championship program."

NOTES, QUOTES
GAME BALLS GO TO: RB Jerious Norwood, the offensive line, the tights ends and the fullbacks -- Norwood would be the first to admit he got plenty of help up front from his physical, aggressive blockers, but he showed his own toughness by rushing 29 times for 174 tough yards and two TDs. "More heart than any running back I've ever seen in my life," MSU center Chris McNeil said. "He takes a pounding." KEEP AN EYE ON: QB Omarr Conner -- After returning from a knee injury that forced him to miss two games, Conner did a lot of things right for the Bulldogs, holding the team together under pressure, completing 15 of 24 passes for 158 yards and a touchdown and rushing 50 yards and a touchdown. QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's a team win, without question. We don't have that single individual who's going to walk out there on either side of the ball and make the play every time to win the ballgame. ... That's what's great about football, winning as a team." -- Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
LOOKING GOOD: Mississippi State only scored seven points against Maine and entered Saturday's game ranked 117th out of 117 nationally in scoring offense (12.5 points per game) and 114th in total offense (280.5 yards), yet the Bulldogs ripped Florida's defense for 31 points, 409 yards and 251 rushing yards.

STILL NEEDS SOME WORK: The Mississippi State defense did force three turnovers, including one to set up the winning score, but the Bulldogs also gave up 441 yards and allowed the Gators to climb back in the game time after time.

ROSTER REPORT: The Bulldogs didn't appear to lose any players to significant injuries, but they did get some good news when WR McKinley Scott returned from a hamstring injury that has nagged him most of the season and caught two passes for 21 yards, including a tough catch on 3-yard touchdown in the first quarter.


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