"I thought winning in high school felt good," quarterback Omarr Conner said. "Man, this feels great! I'm proud to be a Bulldog."
So was the new head Dog. "Unless it's a conference or a national championship, I don't know how I could be much prouder of these guys," said Croom, whose debut as a college coach was success watched by over 52,000 fans at Scott Field and a ESPN2 audience. While nobody could say they saw a potential championship team this night, all could recognize a vastly-improved program.
"It feels good to win," tailback Jerious Norwood said, "to start back to winning."
Victory is something no current Bulldog remembers much after three miserable seasons. State had not won since October 11, 2003, at home over Memphis. But this team seemed to have put the past far, far behind as they gutted through a scoreless first half before running away with an opening-night win. "It was a lot of fun out there," said defensive end Willie Evans.
"I thought we came out motivated," said Conner. "It was a whole new ball game."
And, a whole new era for both Mississippi State and the Southeastern Conference. Yet while Croom acknowledged the significance of being the SEC's first African-American head football coach, he wanted more to celebrate a win for the team and school. "Winning is always important, and winning at home is more important. It's a good feeling, that's why you play the game."
The Bulldogs did not play a complete game until after halftime. For all the off-season hype about the new offensive scheme, most knew the defensive squad would be State's stronger point early on. The unit performed even better than hoped, throwing a shutout effort in Tulane's facemasks for three quarters. The first two were crucial as the Dogs, calling a conservative game on purpose, also failed to score.
"We wanted to set the tone," linebacker Clarence McDougal said. "The offense started a little slow but they came through. There were a lot of great plays made by the D." None were bigger than a pair of clutch interceptions on either side of intermission. With less than a minute left in the second quarter and Tulane on State's six-yard line, TU quarterback Lester Ricard rushed a lob into the end zone behind his tight end that McDougal easily plucked.
The Green Wave also had the ball to start the third quarter, on the opposite end of the field. On another third down Ricard felt real pressure as Evans and nose tackle Ronald Fields collapsed the protection from each side. Ricard tried to shoot a bullet to his secondary receiver, sandwiched between linebacker Rico Bennett and free safety Darren Williams. The latter had the read and the angle.
"I knew he was going to throw the slant," Williams said, "the quarterback looked right at him." Williams sucked in the ball at the 32-yard line and his 19-yard return put the Dogs in business. "I knew if I could get it down to the five or ten the offense could do its job," said Williams. The offense did, as on second down Norwood took a delay handoff from Conner, saw the seam opening behind right tackle David Stewart's stout push inside, and bolted untouched into the end zone at 12:54.
Starting inside midfield after a Tulane punt, the offense doubled the lead. Norwood found tight end Eric Butler for 27 yards and wideout Will Prosser for 15 more to the TU ten-yard line. On third-and-goal Conner got a huge block as tailback Fred Reid chopped down a blitzing linebacker, and he saw Butler breaking open in the end zone.
"Eric told me coming off the corner he'd be open," Conner said. "I said OK, I got you." His frozen rope of a pass was snared for the 11-yard touchdown pass, the first for either Bulldog, at 8:21. In seven minutes State had entirely changed the game.
"We were very conservative early on," Croom said. "We opened up and got some things going in our passing game." The Dogs gained as many yards in the third quarter as in the whole first half.
The 14-0 lead lasted out the quarter, though State might have broken its own momentum by changing quarterbacks so Kyle York could play two series. Tulane used the reprieve, and 70 seconds into the fourth period Ricard found Chris Bush behind coverage for a 59-yard touchdown pass. As quickly as that the margin was halved.
But Croom's team showed a different sort of resilience by answering with the best drive of the evening, a 85-yard series in six plays that showed the best of the West Coast system. Conner hit a couple of quick throws, Reid nibbled at the line, and then Norwood turned a dash at left tackle into a cutback for 43 yards to the Wave five-yard line. "I guess it was my instincts," said Norwood, who finished with 112 of State's 199 rushing yards. Reid took over for the winded Norwood and bouncing off three hits scoreed the touchdown at 11:23.
The instant response effectively deflated Tulane's hopes, as the Dog defense kept up the pressure on Ricard. State got the ball back in three plays on a punt, and Conner directed one more scoring drive that stayed entirely on the ground. Fullback Darnell Jones did the honors with a 11-yard burst through right guard for the final margin.
State was able to collect 310 total yards, not bad for a first time to run a new offense against a real opponent. The big story though, especially for the first half, was a defense that exceeded most expectations. Tulane managed just 210 yards and had to punt seven times (for 306 yards). The two interceptions were the most notable plays, but it was the consistency the unit showed on a muggy evening that impressed Croom.
"I'm real proud of our defense, when their backs were to the wall they responded," he said. "Tulane came after us, they played well and it was an even ball game the course of the ball game. But the interception that kept them from scoring at the end of the first half was huge."
Yet the greatest test of the game was also the most controversial moment of the day. With two minutes left in the half McDougal and end Michael Heard hit Ricard just barely in the act of throwing. An official instantly waved ‘incomplete' but others did not notice, while Bennett scooped the loose ball at the MSU 35 and took off the other way. His apparent touchdown was properly negated, but the crew also ruled that the inadvertent whistle mandated a repeat of the third-down play.
"There was a split-second when I saw heads drop," Croom said. But even as Tulane moved inside the ten-yard line the defense stiffened and created the first key turnover. "We rallied and hung in there," Croom said.
And ultimately prospered as the offense matched the defense's gritty example. "Coach said we had to come out and win," said Conner, who was 9-of-17 passing for 102 yards and a touchdown in his first college start. "And we made plays."
Which was what the new head coach wanted. "They did the things from a character standpoint I wanted to see," Croom said. "Not beat ourselves with penalties and turnovers, be a physical team, finish every play and finish the ball game."
The Bulldogs did finish this one. As winners. "We did everything we could do to get better," Norwood said, "and I guess it paid off tonight."