In fact, some officials had signaled a loose ball. But another, close to where the ball landed, signaled incomplete pass and whistled play dead. The crew huddled and eventually ruled an inadvertent whistle, which not only meant the play had been dead but never happened in the first place! Ironically, replays showed that Ricard's arm was barely in motion forward and it was truly an incomplete pass. But the incomplete call was made purely on lack of a catch, not the quarterback's motion.
Naturally Croom wanted the game's first touchdown awarded to State and for a moment he raged along the sideline. "I didn't do a very good job in that, because I wasn angry," he would say afterwards, smiling, though Croom did settle down quickly enough as play resumed…even nodding understanding to the crew chief as TV cameras watched. "The officials followed through," he said, "it's just one of those things that happens.
"And I've got to control my temper. The players actually handled it better."
The bigger test was of the Bulldog team itself. "We had some adversity when we had Rico's fumble return for a touchdown called back. That was a point where I was very concerned." He was even more worried when Tulane drove inside the ten-yard line before Ricard—either he threw the wrong way or his tight end made a wrong turn—lobbed an easy interception to McDougal in the end zone.
"I told them at halftime, OK, you had something bad happen, but how are you going to handle it tonight?" Croom said. "And they responded." One other detail from the Play That Was Not…when the officials asked the clock be reset, it was back to 1:51 and not the 1:45 showing when the play began. Fortunately the extra seconds made no difference.
On Their Best Behavior…
One point Croom stressed all spring training and fall camp was discipline on the field, in the form of playing by the rules to the letter. The State staff was almost obsessed at times with penalties, for good reason as the Bulldogs had plenty of them in practices. The first scrimmage featured many flags, mostly pre-snap mistakes in alignment and movement. Things got better as camp went on but the volunteer referee attending every MSU practice was still kept busy explaining the rules daily.
Yet in their debut the Dogs behaved splendidly. Only three penalties were assessed against State, for 30 yards. Half of them came on one call, when defensive end Deljuan Robinson clearly popped the Tulane quarterback in the lower back with both hands a long second after the throw. That was the only noteworthy blemish in a game that State played cleanly, yet at the same time with legal aggressiveness.
"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 only problem the coaches had with the game was how long it took to get the offensive play called and ball snapped, with the 25-second clock often down to the final tick before the hike. Croom wants the huddle breaking much earlier.
This was also the first time State had played under the new NCAA rule that offending players be identified by the head official. In a most interesting twist, the first such penalty charged to a Bulldog account went to…offensive tackle David Stewart, the legendary quiet guy on the team. The senior came out of his stance early on a second down on State's third series of the first quarter. "David got a little excited," Croom quipped.
The official attendence of 52,114 was the second-largest home opener in MSU history and the fifth-largest home crowd ever. The throng began arriving early, too, with parking lots filling up in the morning hours. There were a few sprinkles through the afternoon, which left a muggy haze across campus, but most of the fans were enjoying the holiday weekend trip and prospects of better things from the Bulldogs. The bulk of the crowd also got a souvenier in the form of a Maroon tee-shirt, with 50,000 handed out free at the gates. Russell Athletics made the shirts and paid half the cost while private funds paid the rest.
For the start of a new era State also changed up the pre-game procedure, with the Bulldogs offloading in front of Frat Row and marching through the amphitheatre—now the host of Fan Fare—behind the band. There was barely room to move inside the new green-screened fences (put up for liability reasons) with well-wishers crammed on either side of the walkway leading to Bully Boulevard and on down to Five Points.
"I tell you, that was really impressive," Croom said, though he noted that the band had to stop at times and slowed up the march. "I love the music but hey, I've got to go! But that had to be impressive to the players." The head coach also liked how his team, dressed in suits or coat-and-tie, looked on the walk and then taking the field in new gear provided by Russell and designed by…Croom. "I was pleased with the uniforms if I must say so myself!"
Croom's own ‘uniform' of golf shirt and slacks got soaked in the last minute as guard Otis Riddley dumped the obligatory ice-water shower in celebration of the coach's first win. "It almost gave me a heart attack," Croom said, but he recovered nicely to do a fast ESPN interview on-field and dash over to doff his cap to the student seats as the crowd chanted ‘CROOM, CROOM.'
Second (Man) Guessing
Now that he has contested, and won, his first college game, Croom can also experience another inevitable aspect of coaching—hearing from Sunday morning quarterbacks. In the case of this debut quarterbacking will be a topic of discussion. It won't be the performance of starter Omarr Conner, who played a steady and at times exciting game.
Rather the question is why, once State had taken a 14-0 lead, was Conner relieved by backup Kyle York. After the change in triggermen the offense, which had just scored on consecutive drives, was three-and-kick on the next two turns. And Tulane used the reprieve to hit a home-run pass for their only touchdown and make it a contest again. It didn't stay that way long as Conner returned for TD drives of 85 and 72 yards to put it away.
But hindsight at the time ignored a couple of facts. Croom had said a week earlier both Conner and veteran York would definitely play, and with State suddenly in front by two scores the time could not have been better. More to the immediate point, before throwing his touchdown pass to Eric Butler the quarterback had taken some sharp licks, including saving a fumble by diving on the loose ball. Conner was both winded by the contact and dragging in the humidity, to the point the coach pondered if he should be lifted. "He comes right back and throws a strike," Croom said. Then Conner got a break to catch his breath again and rest up for a big fourth quarter.
Plus, the staff needed to get a look at York under live conditions, to judge how strong his throwing arm is after winter surgery to fix a shoulder condition. York's balls did have more zip on them, so much that twice he overthrew targets. He was 1-of-3 for nine yards in two series. Croom and coordinator Woody McCorvey intend to keep playing the elder quarterback, while rookie Mike Henig will be dressed for every game. The coaches really want to redshirt the freshman though, so DB Brett Morgan is the emergency quarterback.
And speaking of choices, Croom even second-guessed himself a bit in postgame. In the fourth period, leading 21-7 with half-a-quarter left and facing 4th-and-1 at Tulane's 44-yard line, the coach chose to go for the first down. "It might not have been the smartest call in the world," he admitted later. "But I had confidence they could get it. I wanted to see if we could do it."
And the Dogs did it as Jerious Norwood punched his way through for two yards, continuing a drive that ended with State's fourth touchdown. "Somewhere we'll have to do it to win a ball game," Croom added about making the fourth-down call. "We know that we can convert those situations."
Cool Hand Omarr…
The line from Conner's first game under-center was not spectacular; 9-of-17 passing for 102 yards, one touchdown, long throw of 27 yards. He did not throw an official interception, though this has to be qualified. Late in the second quarter and backed up against the MSU goal line the sophomore lined the ball right into the hands of Tulane's Bruce Youmans at the 11-yard line. But Wave linebacker Blake Barker hit Conner hard and very late, and the roughing call negated the turnover and kept the game scoreless.
Conner, who spent his true freshman year catching passes as a backup wide receiver, was both excited and relieved to be back at quarterback, and starting. Despite the nerves. "I thought the first drive I was anxious to get out there and play, my first time being a starting quarterback in the SEC. I had to settle myself and let myself know I belonged."
He proved it on the play Croom pointed to, bouncing back from what could have been a knockout shot to throw the big touchdown pass. Conner said he simply could not have left the field no matter how tired and winded he was at the time. "I knew we'd been through so much, and I wanted to show my team I was a leader." He did, as the offense followed his lead from then on. Conner had to run more often than his coaches liked, but the 25 net yards on seven carries were worth it…as was an extra 15 yards tacked on for a late Tulane hit on one scramble.
Croom was already convinced of Conner's leadership potential, and resilience. "One thing I do like about Omarr, he has mental toughness. I can chew him up and down and he just laughs at me. It's like talking to a wall, but he always seems to bounce back." And not just bounce back, but even come back with a joke if needed.
"I came into a meeting the other day," Croom related, "and said hey, I'm nervous, Omarr looks like he's nervous. Omarr says "well Coach, we'll hold each other's hand."