FOOTBALL: Croom wants no looking back against UK

Mississippi State has dealt with defeat surprisingly well this season. Now, Coach Sylvester Croom says, comes the real test—how with the Bulldogs cope with success?

"This is new territory for us," Croom said Monday morning, as Mississippi State began preparations for this weekend's home game with Kentucky in the aftermath of a 38-31 upset victory over Florida. "You don't want to come down from that place, and that's normal. But the only way to remain at that place is to win again. Because as high as that was, to lose this week would be just as low."

The Bulldogs have endured plenty of 2004 lows, as the 2-5 record (1-3 SEC) shows. So knocking off the 20th-ranked Gators at Scott Field has boosted Mississippi State attitudes sky-high. The head coach doesn't want to spoil everyone's fun, but Croom will demand today that the Dogs forget Florida and concentrate on Kentucky.

"The biggest thing is we have to get ready," he said. "That's going to be a challenge because we're pretty euphoric state. This is a learning process. We've handled adversity pretty well, sometimes handling success can be difficult. We have to put this behind us and go back to work and be the best team we can possibly be this coming Saturday."

Mississippi State certainly was at its very best this past Saturday, giving what the coach called "a maximum effort" to score a victory that earned headlines across the country. It also resulted in Florida Coach Ron Zook's firing this morning, unwelcome news to Croom.

"Any time a fellow coach is fired that's disappointing. Ron's a good coach, I hate that he and his staff and their families have to go through this. We know it's part of the business, but it's not a part that any of us enjoy."

On a more pleasant note, State's victory was so impressive that a couple of Bulldogs were recognized as SEC Players of the Week. Tailback Jerious Norwood received the league's offensive honor after rushing for 174 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner with 32 seconds remaining. Cook earned POTW for the first time after punting four times for a 55-yard average, and dropping all of his kicks inside the Florida 20-yard line.

"I think we played as well in all three areas as we could play, that particular day," Croom said. "We were better. A lot better."

While some individuals won honors, Croom said the entire team executed in all aspects with just a handful of mistakes and penalties. One unit particularly worthy of praise was the offensive line, which looked nothing like the group that had struggled for six preceeding games. The coach pointed to a healthier Will Rogers and the accelerated improvement of Chris McNeil under Coach J.B. Grimes' intense tutelage. "But the key thing is the emergence of (left guard) Brian Anderson. Our two tackles have played pretty well most of the year, but Brian is the key. Johnny Wadley has been beat-up all year and he can't move as he's capable of doing, and our offense is built around guards who can run."

The best blocking of the day, though, was by right tackle David Stewart, who dominated play at that end of the line. "I wish we could recruit 25 guys like David Stewart every year," Croom said of the senior. He also said that the low-key ‘Big Country' was hot under the helmet Saturday after seeing a Gator kick a downed Norwood in the head. "It took everything we could to calm him down. But I like that!" And Stewart knocked off at least three helmets himself afterwards.

Defensively for Florida, the coaching staff gambled on changing the entire starting linebacker unit. The results were impressive in almost every aspect and Croom expects to keep freshmen Titus Brown and Gabe O'Neal and soph Quinton Culberson as the first unit. But veterans Rico Bennett and Clarence McDougal will also rotate in for obvious passing situations as the new kids are not as confident yet in ‘nickle' packages, and Brown not as mobile in coverage. "Only problem with that," Croom said, "Florida began to attack with the run when we were in that package. We've got to get our starters more involved in that package."

Croom also complimented the work of the receiver corps, which made a healthy Omarr Conner that much more effective by running sharp routes and making clutch catches. "We don't have the fastest receivers in the world, but we made plays." This also suits Croom's outlook to the entire season, which he repeated this morning.

"Our whole mission this year is to realize what we don't have but maximize what we do have, and we came pretty close to that on Saturday." Now, the challenge is to produce another such maximized effort against an unranked SEC visitor. This will be a test of State's maturity, Croom said. "It's extremely tough when you haven't been used to winning."

The Monday injury report was short, with only tight end Eric Butler (ankle sprain) and cornerback Mario Bobo (hamstring, groin) questionable. Neither dressed for Florida and Croom is not counting on having them back in the starting lineup for Kentucky, but said both will be eased into the practice rotations.

As to this week's work, the coaches hope to keep up the same routine as all season and make sure the Bulldogs understand that, win or lose, a game played is over and all that matters is the upcoming contest. The only difference now is that State's players have been rewarded for doing the work and giving the effort…a maximum effort, Croom said, proved by the fact that no ‘loafs' were assessed after reviewing the tape. "The pursuit on defense, the physicalness of the offensive line, our ability to respond to every challenge, maintain our poise…there's getting to be a little level of maturity. "It is an emphatic validation that we plan we have in place will work, it is on schedule, our players have improved," Croom added. "This is the first time we've really gotten some positive results from our efforts."

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