Croom Not Satisfied With First Scrimmage Results

When the whistle finally blew on Saturday's scrimmage game, at 5:00 p.m., there were exactly two weeks remaining before Mississippi State kicks off the 2004 schedule. From what Coach Sylvester Croom saw in the practice contest at Scott Field, the Bulldogs will need every hour between now and 5:00 p.m., September 4 to prepare for a real game.

"We did everything you could do to lose a ball game today," Croom said after the three-hour session wrapped up. "So we've got a lot of work to do the next two weeks."

Croom and staff had the Bulldogs doing, or trying to do, a lot of work in the first and only true game-type session of fall camp. State spent just an hour on pregame procedure, from kicking warm-ups to unit tune-ups, before getting down to what the crowd of Bulldog Club members had come to see: full-speed plays on both sides of the ball.

By and large the Bulldogs were able to operate at a game-type pace, until the humidity and intensity took an obvious toll on the first- and second-units. Efficiency was another matter entirely.

"I don't like to make comments after a scrimmage until I see the film," Croom said. "I'm sure we had some individuals, probably, play well. But I didn't see a lot of it. We had a lot of opportunities to make plays and we didn't. Guys have got to step up and make plays, and they didn't."

The lack of play-making was most obvious on offense. Had the scrimmage schedule not spent much of the last hour in red zone drills, the whole session might have ended without a touchdown of any sort. "We didn't have as good a day as we thought we would," said tailback Jerious Norwood, who had six carries with the first unit for 19 tough yards. He did get 30 yards on three receptions, an example of the pro-style offense Croom wants to run.

But the head coach definitely wants better running than was shown Saturday. The four true ballcarriers combined for just 60 yards on 32 totes, with the only scores on goal-line blasts by third-team tailbacks Jason Jude and Rickey Wright. Wright did get to show he is durable with 12 rushes for 17 yards.

The passing stats looked somewhat better on paper; on the field the numbers were negated by lack of consistency in the air game. #1 quarterback Omarr Conner was 18-of-30 for 171 yards and threw a nine-yard touchdown to tight end Eric Butler late in the day. Second QB Kyle York was 6-of-12 for 39 yards with two TDs and an end-zone interception by CB Kevin Dockery. Nominal #3 man Aries Nelson did not see the field until well into the second hour, playing after true freshman Mike Henig had already run several second-team series.

But again the statistics did not tell the same story Croom did. He saw almost nothing to cheer about in the offensive production, and plenty to worry about. Pre-snap penalties particularly drew his ire, with flags for alignment mistakes and delays of game. "We did a poor job of getting the plays in," Croom said, "that's my fault."

The players were not dodging blame, though. "You could definitely tell, as the day went on some guys lost focus," said center Chris McNeil. "Personally I don't think it was that good of a day for us. A lot of dumb mistakes, really."

Part of the problem was that the offensive line remains a patch-together unit, with both starting guards — RG Will Rogers and LG Johnny Wadley — not scrimmaging, and LT Richard Burch having missed some weekdays of work. Even though many second-teammers have taken plenty of practice snaps there is still little cohesion in the blocking, with painful results for the runners and throwers. Besides which there were so many decent passes that ended up as drops or miscommunications between thrower and target. As the scrimmage wound on, the bulk of the passes went to tight ends and backs, not to wide receivers — partly by plan and more due to a lack of protection.

True, the preseason doctrine that defense is always ahead of offense held on this day. "But with the athletes we've got the offense should never be behind the defense," McNeil said. "And I give it to the defense, those guys are hustling to the ball. But today wasn't our day."

The first- and second-defenses felt a bit better about their afternoon. "The defense had a pretty good day," said #1 DT Corey Clark. "Our effort could have been a lot better, we went out and stopped the run and a couple of passes and looked good. But effort-wise we could be a lot better."

For this scrimmage the defense primarily stayed in the base 4-3 set, with the strong-side end and linebacker flipping to match up with the offensive set. State did show some nickel packages as well with the middle linebacker replaced by an extra safety. It was nothing new from the spring game, though there clearly has been progress made on this side of the ball.

Only Croom wasn't in a mood to give much credit. "We made some nice hits in there. I didn't think our pursuit to the ball was as good as it has been in practice. But the way we played offensively I don't know if we even tested them enough. I know we made some mistakes in the secondary that caused passes to be open, but when we had them we didn't hit them on offense."

As the scrimmage ground on the defensive staff mixed the first- and second-units freely to develop their substitution patterns, mostly in the linebacker and end positions. Interior linemen Clark and NT Ronald Fields played a higher percentage of consecutive series. "The first team needed to get more reps so we know how it is to be in the game that many plays," Clark said.

Newly-moved SS Quinton Culberson and #1 rover DE Willie Evans each got seven credited stops, while OLB Rico Bennett and Dockery had six apiece. #2DT Avery Hannibal scored a pair of ‘sacks' though the red jersey and quick whistles didn't allow the quarterbacks to take any real damage.

With the offense struggling punter Jared Cook (41.3 yard average) was kept busy. So was PK Keith Andrews, who made good on six of his seven field goal attempts with a long effort of 37 yards and a miss from 40. Rookie Adam Carlson was 2-for-2 on kicks of 42 and 28 yards. #2 TB Fred Reid was the primary kick returner though other kids got chances to field the kicks without a serious return effort.

Besides Rogers and Wadley, other injured Dogs were held out entirely including wide receiver Ray Ray Bivines (hamstring), back Demarcus Johnson (hamstring), and defensive end Stephen Arant (shoulder). Bivines did receive encouraging news on Friday when a follow-up exam showed the damaged nerve that has slowed his recovery is progressing. Croom also limited the snaps of players like wide receiver McKinley Scott, wide receiver Will Prosser, and fullback Darnell Jones. "We're trying to keep guys healthy at positions we're' thin at," he said. "Considering how much hitting we've done I think we' re pretty fortunate to be as healthy as we are."

But with the preseason clock winding down the Bulldogs can't count on good fortune to be ready for their debut. Croom was most unhappy with the errors, lack of execution, and most of all the pre-snap penalties. "Those are the things that get you beat. And we definitely would have gotten beat if we'd played anybody, let alone a team like Tulane." The coach was also not satisfied with the conditioning some players showed on a warm, muggy day.

At least now Croom and Co. have hard evidence on tape to show their players exactly what was wrong in the first scrimmage, and what they want done right in this week's practices. "This will be a good evaluation tool, a good measure of where we are, how far we have to go to get anywhere close to being a good football team," Croom said. The coach plans one other game-type practice in midweek, though not a full scrimmage. After that he hopes to settle on a two-deep to prepare for Tulane, with those Dogs working in shorts the rest of the week while reserves and young players still go full-contact.

But the guys on top of the positions charts understand that the demands will be just as great from now on regardless of who is hitting or not. "There's always going to be competition for positions," McNeil said. "No matter who you are the best horse is going to play. So a lot of us are going to have to keep battling to maintain our positions and other people are trying to gain new ones.

"We'll go back to practice Monday and try to pick things up," Norwood said. "We don't have too much time. Practice makes perfect and we have to go out and practice what we're going to do."

David Murray is the editor of Dawgs' Bite magazine and the featured writer for the Dawgs Bite, Powered by website. You can contact him by email at

Gene's Page Top Stories