Indeed the MSU head coach is demanding that his Bulldogs prepare for Saturday's matchup with the visiting Black Bears (6:00 at Scott Field, no TV) just as if this were a conference contest. Because, Croom said, State didn't do so well in their first league outing with Auburn anyway.
"I don't see how we can overlook anybody after getting shellacked 43-14," Croom said, pointedly. Our players would be nuts to think they could walk out there and beat anybody. We've got to do a whole lot of improving this week. Maine is not in our Division but that doesn't mean they're not capable of beating us."
The Black Bears (2-0) have certainly proven capable of beating I-AA teams so far. They are coming off a 38-0 rout of Northern Colorado and ranked in the Division top-twenty, and Croom expects these visitors to be extra-motivated by a Southern road trip.
"Maine had a good win last week and after our loss I'm sure they're looking forward to the next opponent. They're hungry to upset us on our home field. We'll work extremely hard this week to make sure that does not happen."
Croom definitely does not want anything like this past Saturday to happen again. The coach repeated his post-loss comment that the Bulldogs aren't ready to match up with a SEC contender. "Auburn showed us that we're not up to that caliber yet." But he also eased up on some Saturday comments about perceived lack of effort from much of the team in defeat.
"After I studied the film I thought we played hard. We didn't play smart all the time. The brightest spot was we played hard, we finished the ball game."
On-the-site judgements from the college sideline is different than what Croom could do in the NFL, where snapshots of alignments and plays could be faxed to the bench instantly. "Now you go with gut-feeling," he said. "The bottom line is in some cases (Auburn) was a lot faster, it wasn't because we weren't trying." He pointed to one kick return where further review showed great efforts by Mario Bobo and others to get off blocks and chase downfield, as well as aggressive tackling by Darren Williams, Marvin Byrdsong, and others.
In other situations the Tigers were just too tough, such as when Auburn blocking made filling gaps extremely difficult. That said, Croom is not cutting his Dogs any slack. Even a bad break, when a clutch catch by Will Prosser was incorrectly called pass interference, was no excuse for ensuing letdowns.
"We didn't respond well after that, successive penalties kept us from getting first-down yards. That was a critical stretch." He also was bothered by some pre-snap penalties.
On the brighter side, Croom praised quarterback Omarr Conner's progress in the second game. "He improved a great deal, made some really nice throws." The coach also liked how backup Kyle York bounced back from a wrong read and interception to direct two touchdown drives. "He gives us a solid guy, he did a good job of managing the offense, particularly coming off that injury and the limited work."
But if Croom was a bit harsh right after the game, he is not backing off assurances that some starting jobs and snap-quotas are up for the taking this week in practices. He said Bobo, the true freshman, will get "significantly more playing time" this weekend. Bobo is pushing David Heard for the right corner spot, though he could play left corner with Kevin Dockery moving to safety if needed. Defensive linemen Avery Hannibal and Michael Heard and linebacker Byrdsong also earned praise after film review and the promise of more snaps.
Croom also said the defensive staff will watch linebacker Titus Brown closely this week. "We'd considered redshirting him, but he's practicing well. There's a lot of things he has not learned but my feeling now is he'll get a lot of on-the-job training." Through two games State has played four true freshmen: Bobo, kick returner Jonathan Lowe, linebacker Gabe O'Neal, and receiver Keon Humphries.
The wide receiver rotation is due for adjusting in week-three also. Dressed out for the first time, Tee Milons played well against Auburn in the first half. Redshirt Jason Husband had a good game and Prosser remains the most consistent pass-catcher in the group. These will have to expand their roles because it appears starting SE McKinley Scott will miss this week after re-injuring the hamstring that slowed him in August camp. Ray Ray Bivines is still doubtful for any September action.
"We'll throw to a lot of guys," Croom said, after nine Bulldogs caught balls against Auburn. "But we don't have a great, dominating receiver, a big guy with speed." Except, possibly, for tight end Eric Butler who has five catches (61 yards) through two games.
Other than Scott, Croom did not expect any of Saturday's injuries to miss Maine other than possibly OG Otis Riddley. His condition was to be updated mid-day. "Really we came out pretty decent, some guys will miss practice today with bumps and bruises." That includes NT Ronald Fields, who missed most of the second half with a hurt left knee.
Another concern for Saturday is the weather, with Hurricane Ivan currently projected to come ashore on the Gulf Coast by midweek and bring rain to the Starkville area over the weekend. The Black Bears might find some irony in this, as last fall they had a game at William & Mary called off by the threat of a hurricane hitting the Virginia areas. Maine claims a forfeit but the NCAA does not recognize it as a win on the record.
Croom is not thinking about weather and records right now. In review the effort against Auburn was better; the final score stayed the same. "We have to play better than that if we're going to compete in the SEC," Croom said.