Croom's Bulldogs will be lining up again this weekend when Mississippi State hosts Auburn in the SEC opener for these Western Division rivals. Gametime is 11:30 a.m. for the regional Jefferson-Pilot telecast from Scott Field.
And what is the ‘line' on Auburn according to Croom? "They have no weaknesses there," he said. "Their offensive line is huge, they have guys 6-7, 6-9, all of them are over 300 pounds and they are athletic. Over on the defensive line they run as well as any defense I've seen, great pursuit."
Thus Mississippi State's second game of 2004 will be no trivial pursuit at all. By luck of the SEC draw the Dogs have to debut against a most impressive visitor. "They're an outstanding football team," Croom said. "They have talent, depth, I see no real weaknesses there."
The MSU coach noted equally strong points in other Auburn-areas, such as the tag-team runners of Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown. "You're talking about a 230-pound halftback," he said of ‘Cadillac' Williams, "our fullbacks barely weigh that." The linebackers make their own impressions as well. So while Croom said he was pleased with the way State manhandled Tulane in the season-opener, he adds that the Bulldogs have to take their physical game to a far higher level the second time out.
"This is a SEC game, no question we'll find out what kind of football team we have."
The coaching staff liked a lot of the answers they found in a 28-7 victory over Tulane. Croom said he would have been content with a one-point margin, and was pleased with the way the Dogs overcame a couple of early adverse situations and made second-half plays to win. "I thought we were physical, we only had one pre-snap penalty, we didn't turn the ball over, we got two turnovers." Croom did note a few negatives—missed assignments, lack of technique such as on the Tulane touchdown pass, and so on. "The best thing, I thought we improved as the game went on."
Croom announced the team Players of the Week, with one surprise. On offense, right tackle David Stewart got the recognition for a spending blocking effort over SEC back of the week Jerious Norwood. "Jerious did not play as well as he was capable of, the timing wasn't quite right." Defensive end Willie Evans (four tackles, one sack) was the POTW on that side and placekicker Keith Andrews on special teams. Also, walk-on quarterback T.J. Swanson and freshman linebacker Titus Brown were the Scout Team players of the week. "Those two men will automatically dress for the home game this week," Croom said. Neither was dressed out for Tulane.
Tuesday, Croom seemed more optimistic that wideout Tee Milons would have a chance to dress for Auburn after missing the opener. The coach said Milons had a good Monday workout, his third-straight positive practice, and has almost earned his place on the game roster. This is in keeping with the coaching staff's practice policy.
"Until they show on the practice field they can be depended on they will not get into the game," Croom said. "If you don't do it on that field, I don't expect it to happen on Scott Field."
Croom had no injuries to report from the first game, one trend he definitely hopes can be maintained with luck, conditioning, and prayer. "We can't afford for any of our starters to have a serious injury because we don't have any depth on either side," he said, talking particularly of the offensive line where there is almost no depth. "We've got the starting five plus (guard/center) Brian Anderson and (guard) Otis Riddley. We don't have a backup tackle at this point who has played well enough to even consider. But we have to put somebody out there. James Cochran and Donovan Davis it's sort of flip a coin to see who is our swing tackle. We're not totally comfortable with the performance of either one of them." The staff toyed with activating true freshman Roland Terry but Croom doesn't see the rookie being ready to play in a SEC game soon enough to burn the redshirt year.
Croom did say that converted DT Devrick Hampton is coming along and being developed as a backup guard. "He's not ready because he hasn't played offense, but he has tremendous ability to play the position. No question once he gets it down he's going to be a good player at that position. We're spoon-feeding him right now.
"I'm not poor-mouthing when I talk about lack of depth in our offensive line," Croom added. "It's not there. There is no relief in sight. If we were to lose either tackle, I really don't have a plan. There is nobody on defense to move over there."
Three true freshmen did play against Tulane—Jonathan Lowe on kick returns, Mario Bobo at cornerback, and Keon Humphries at wide receiver. Linebacker Gabe O'Neal is booked for this weekend's game. Otherwise, the rest of the freshmen are probable redshirts already.
Croom had compliments for the kicking game in general, though he saw two opportunities that Lowe could have broken a kickoff return all the way if the timing had been better. "That's an area we have to get better at because we're not good enough to miss those kinds of opportunities."
For that matter opportunities will be scarce against Auburn in any area of the game. Croom indicated the offensive gameplan could be more open this week as the unit picks up more and more aspects. But he is not going into this game with a 60-minute script. "We're going to do whatever it takes to win. If we have to throw it 50 times or run it 50 times.
"Remember, the West Coast is a great system. We have multiple formations and we'll use them as our team improves and gains confidence. We will not use them to impress people or sell tickets."
And tickets for the weekend are going to be scarce with Auburn using most of their quota. State's opening win, as well as the atmosphere before, during, and after the game, is coaxing more folk to order tickets as well, instead of sitting home to watch the telecast. Croom doesn't promise a victory for the home folk…but he does guarantee an honest effort.
"Our guys will show up and play and do their best. If we do that maybe we can hang around and something good will happen for us. But no question we're playing one of the most talented teams in the country this week."