Coach Sylvester Croom’s one-time group of flop-eared pups turned into a well-trained, full- grown, vicious, pack of attack dogs that devoured eight of 13 opponents in 2007.
The Bulldogs found the bite to match their bark by charging to an impressive, 8-5 record that included a 10-3 victory over the University of Central Florida before a Liberty Bowl record crowd of 63,816 at Memphis.
The Liberty Bowl win made Croom one of 11 active SEC coaches that have won a bowl game.
“Our conference is the toughest in the country,” Croom says. “We’ve got more national championships and more players in the pros. The talent level and quality of our coaches is the best in the country.
“If you’re going to compete in this conference, you’ve got to play well every week because anybody can beat anybody at any given time. It’s an honor for me to be a part of coaching in the SEC. I felt it as a player (at Alabama) and I feel it even more now as coach at Mississippi State.”
Whether the Bulldogs have the bite to back up their bark this year remains to be seen.
A Look Back
The Tigers spanked Mississippi State, 45-0 before 50,112 fans in the Bulldogs’ Davis Wade pound in opening-season action for both teams last season.
“The first thing I told the guys was that they didn’t lose the (LSU) game, I did,” Croom said. “And I did. That dumb decision to try and get a touchdown just before the half was stupid. If I had one thing I could do over again, we’d run a draw or screen. It would be broken for a touchdown. That would be great and we’d go into halftime up 10-0, We’d get a little Kool-Aid, high-five everybody, tell them how good we played, come back out, and lets see what happens.”
A Look Ahead
The Bulldogs have 15 starters returning this season, six on offense and nine on defense. The squad also has two experienced special team players returning in kicker Adam Carlson and punter Blake McAdams.
“We’re excited about the season,” Croom said. “We’ve got a lot of players returning, 21 of them seniors, and are a pretty, experienced team. We have a couple of guys, who are going to be in starting roles this year that played as backups that will have to play really well.
“Overall we’re going into this season with a more talented team. But as everyone knows and has watched throughout our conference over the years, a lot of things go into being able to win. That’s particularly true in being able to have a chance to compete for a championship.”
Sophomore quarterback Wesley Carroll, who went interception-free in his first 136 pass attempts last season returns to direct the Bulldogs’ West Coast offensive system. The 6-1, 190-pounder started nine games and finished with 134 completions out of 255 pass attempts for 1,392 yards and nine touchdowns while suffering seven interceptions.
“You usually don’t expect your quarterback to play until his third season in this conference,” Croom says. “This young man (Carroll) played well after he ended up all of a sudden in the early part of the season starting in the Southeastern Conference as a pure freshman. With no benefit of spring practice, no work in the summer with the coaches to learn a pretty, complicated offense and he had 136 throws without an interception to almost break a national record.”
Anthony Strauder, a 6-3, 290 pound senior, who has started 30 consecutive games and played every snap on 13 occasions, returns to anchor State’s offensive line at left guard. Craig Jenkins, a 6-4, 315-pound junior guard and two sophomore tackles, Mark Melichar (6-5, 290) and Derek Sherrod, (6-5 300) will join him. Both Melichar and Sherrod who, moved up from back-up roles must fill the big shoes left by the departure of Mike Brown, who was dismissed for his arrest on felony charges.
“Mark and Derek must step up and play well and we believe that both are capable of doing so,” Croom said. “We’ll be alright with those two guys. The tackle spots are both the second most important guys in the offensive line behind center.”
Croom, a former All-America center in college at Alabama and an All-Pro NFL star strongly believes that success offensively starts and ends with solid line play, especially at the center spot.
Jamayle Smith, a 6-0, 185-pounder, logged 33 receptions for a team high 510 yards last season has emerged as the team’s top pass catcher. He’ll be the go-to-guy in place of departed star receiver Tony Burks. Aubrey Bell is expected to also play a key role along with Brandon McRae and Co-Eric Riley,
“Our offense is definitely going to open up, “Croom says. “A lot of reason for that is Wes (Carroll) at quarterback. I trust Wes and Tyson Lee (a junior college transfer) to make the right decisions. In our offense the ball will go to anybody, who can get it. Running backs will be receivers, but that depends on the quarterback making good decisions and getting the ball to the open receiver.”
Defense has been the hallmark of MSU football since Croom took over as head coach at Starkville in 2004. The Bulldogs under first-year coordinator, Charlie Harbison, should prove to be another tenacious playing pack this season.
The Bulldogs recorded three of their four SEC victories by five points or less. They included a 17-14 Egg Bowl win over in-state archrival Ole’ Miss, a 17-12 victory over Alabama in addition to their 19-14 triumph over Auburn.
Of Mississippi State’s four league setbacks, three were by 14 points or more with their largest margin coming in the 45-0 season-opening loss to LSU.
“There will be minor changes because every coach is going to be different,” Croom says. “Any time you get a different play caller, a guy is going to have a different feel for the game. He’s going to have different thoughts about the way you do things. But, our overall philosophy will not change. We want to be a physical defense that plays fast and be sound in the fundamentals. We’ve got to make sure that we don’t give up explosive plays against the run or pass”.
Derek Pegues, a 5-10, 195 pound senior defensive back, is a speedster and he returns to anchor the defense as its emotional leader. He moved to free safety last season where he turned in a sensational performance by intercepting five passes, one of which he returned for a touchdown. He’ll also provide the Bulldogs with an outstanding and dangerous, special-team threat returning punts and kick-offs.
He’s part of an experienced five-man secondary that includes strong safety Keith Fitzhugh (5-11, 205) and safety DeMon Glanton (6-1, 190), along with senior Jasper O’Quinn (5-10, 185) and junior Marcus Washington (5-10, 180) at the cornerback spots.
Joining the always dangerous, Pegues on State’s special teams is Carlson and McAdams.
Carlson connected on 10-of-13 field goals, including a career-long 48-yarder with 12 seconds remaining to give his team its 17-14 season-ending win over Ole’ Miss, while McAdams averaged 39.9 yards a punt.
When Mississippi State Invades Tiger Stadium
The contest coming after both State and LSU have opened SEC West play against Auburn shapes up as crucial to the season hopes of each team.
Mississippi State will bring a vastly improved team that has more talent and experience than before going into its fourth season under Croom, who is 17-30 at the helm.
The Dogs will be fighting mad to avenge last year’s 45-0 whipping at the hands of the Tigers. Croom is 0-2 against LSU in Baton Rouge and 0-3 overall. But, he knows from experience as a player at Alabama what it takes to win at Tiger Stadium.
LSU could prove to be its own worse enemy by allowing the upset-minded Bulldogs to stick around late into the contest. While the State team will play well and give the Tigers a good fight it’ll take more than the noise of clanging cowbells to turn the tide against LSU.
The Bulldogs don’t yet have the bite to back-up their bark. Look for overall superior talent and experience to make the winning difference for the Tigers to break a close game open midway the third quarter and pull away to an eventual, 24-10 victory.