Not to mention sheer relief all around. I don't know about you, but speaking for my editorial self I was not at all comfortable walking into Scott Field yesterday afternoon. And it wasn't because, for the first time since, what was it, 1996 I was going to observe a Bulldog game from the press box and not the sidelines. Thanks to the new format of Dawgs' Bite there is no longer the need to work on the sideline, watching play through a lens. My aging knees are most grateful.
No, the discomfort was entirely due to uncertainty about just how well Mississippi State would play, could play this first time out. Having watched almost every practice for the last month, talked to the coaches and players, I was confident the Bulldogs had been prepared as much and as well as possible. I was equally certain Coach Sylvester Croom and staff had put together a gameplan sufficient to the task. That is, broad enough to utilize State's not-entirely-proven strengths and narrow enough to limit potential weaknesses. It's not as easy as it sounds, either, especially this early in an era.
Yet would the Dogs themselves be up to the test, and the opportunity? We know the answer now, which is why this Labor Day has become a holiday weekend to remember. Again, the celebrating has to be tempered with some cold reality. Tulane ain't good. Period. The Green Wave has a couple of sharp receivers and played somewhat better on defense than anticipated, but that's a team that will struggle to win four games even in a non-BCS conference. And for a whole half it was a 0-0 deadlock. If not for the total momentum-turn of a short-field interception and ensuing touchdown, who knows how things could have developed?
Thankfully we do know how they did develop, and upon further review it looks as if State—having opened up the offense in the second half and loosed Omarr Conner to create on the fun—would have come out on top eventually. Croom clearly had more playmakers to call on, by air or on ground. And if a scoreless first half kept the anxiety meter pegged on hi through intermission, it was also the chance for a long-disgraced Dog defense to prove reports of their resurgence are more than rumors. This D will be able to ‘W' games in time.
One other aspect to consider. This was the Green Wave that State lost to last September. Hopefully soon we'll again be taking this non-conference opponent for granted, but for now beating Tulane counts as program progress. When re-building a team from a new foundation, any upward step is to be cheered.
And goodness knows there were cheers rattling around Scott Field on a lovely September evening. It was near enough capacity, so I guess fewer fans used snipe season as their excuse not to report. The campus was crammed, certainly around Five Points (4-1/2 Points now?) thanks to Fan Fair moving into the amphitheatre and the Dog Walk adjusting accordingly. Don't know what it looked like to y'all but from my vantage point, running backwards between band and team captains while snapping photos, it was awfully impressive and I suspect to the Bulldogs even inspiring. As schmaltzy as that sounds, such things matter for a team that needed every extra iota of confidence they could collect before kickoff.
Now, one victory later, such confidence has been confirmed. If y'all were reading between the lines of last week's scouting report, I was honestly concerned what might happen if the Dogs did not have their hard work and sacrifices—physical, mental, social, etc.—rewarded with the win they needed. It's easier to ask kids to change their lives if they can perceive tangible benefits. Now they can see, know that the work was worth it.
And, that there is a lot more work in store if Mississippi State is going to beat a higher caliber of competition. Such as, say…Auburn. After the win Croom said he was glad the game had not been played a week earlier because the Dogs weren't ready to beat Tulane. One Saturday later they still weren't ready to beat Auburn, and fortunately did not have to.
This Saturday? Well, the odds will assuredly be against State. The Tigers loafed through their own opener and will be primed for both sides' SEC opener. Tulane is not in the same league, literally or figuratively, with Auburn. And while the Bulldogs are in the same conference I doubt few are so enraptured by this one win to envision State as a Division contender.
But the goal is to get there, eventually. Croom's first win was State's first step on the long road back.
Hysteria and history…
With a game under their belts and, more to the point, on tape, the State staff will have plenty to review while also assembling an Auburn gameplan. Among the more obvious items to work is getting offensive plays in, called, and started faster. I lost count of how often the ball was snapped with 1 fading to 0 on the play clock. That's not what Croom wants; after a scrimmage he said he wants the play in with 20 seconds still on the clock, giving Conner more time to read coverages and blitzes and make appropriate adjustments at the line. State could get away with it against Tulane but any decent SEC defense will make the Dogs pay for short snap counts.
We should also note the performance by an oft-questioned offensive line. J.B. Grimes began subbing early and kept it up often, which allowed starters Will Rogers and Johnny Wadley to make it through four quarters on shaky wheels with no evident problems. And how about Ellis Johnson's decision to play a ‘nickle' scheme on almost every second and third down? It wasn't just the scheme that took brass, but that he took the best cover-corner in camp—Kevin Dockery—and pulled him in as the extra safety with juco Jamaal Johnson taking left corner. Also, the defensive staff threw a far wider variety of sets at Tulane than they showed in scrimmages. Surprise!
Yet while we Bulldog folk are talking a game and a score, soooo much of the evening's attention was not on the field. It was on the State sideline and Croom. Kickoff of the Sylvester Croom Era brought a wide-ranging press contingent to campus. National newspapers represented were the New York Daily News, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution were present. By my elementary-school geography that means State was covered from coast-to-coast and North-to-South. SEC Commissioner Mike Slive also came to share in a historic moment for the conference.
The man at the center of attention was able to present a calm face all game-week, much as he has since his December 1 hiring. Even while his every step was shadowed by a ESPN crew at practices, and his appointment book was over-booked with interview requests, Croom took care of business. But he admitted what we all knew: it hasn't been easy. So getting inside the locker room at last, with no one to talk to but staff and team, might have been the first time in over nine months Croom was able to do what he came to State to do.
"It's the fun part for me," he said later. "Everything else I do is work. The fun part for me is coaching our team." All the more fun because his team won.
Croom did his best to turn talk to the team, the program, and State. Chatting afterwards with a giddy Omarr Conner and Jerious Norwood, I was told that A.D. Larry Templeton and Croom handed the game ball back-and-forth in the locker room. Each wanted the other to have it in gratitude: the athletic director because the coach had taken this challenge, and the coach because the A.D. had taken a chance on him. For the record, Templeton brought the ball to the postgame press conference.
Yes, he made Mississippi, SEC, and Southern history—athletic, social, political, every which way. As much as he wanted to talk about players and program, Croom had to acknowledge the larger context of the moment. And he did, lapsing sentimental late in the evening as he revealed some feelings in the days leading up to kickoff.
"Even on the bus ride over, talking to (assistant coach) Brad Pendergrass, I thought to myself, you know, 28 years of working towards this day…and now it's here. A dream that was impossible at one time, today was a reality. I just relished the moment with our players and our coaches. And our fans. I'm very fortunate we can celebrate tonight and really enjoy it all."
Croom must have really enjoyed it all. Because he gave the Bulldogs and assistants the whole of Sunday off. Come Monday he'll start working towards the next milestone in personal and program history. Like, a SEC win?