Croom also understands that most who hear his current concerns may think he is laying it on a bit, as State's third game of 2004 pits the Bulldogs (1-1) against an opponent playing a rung lower on the NCAA Division ladder. The coach isn't worried about what outsiders think, though, only for what his team knows about the Black Bears (1-1). "We're playing a good football team," said Croom at his Tuesday game-week press conference.
A couple of days scouting game tapes and talking to folk knowledgable about Maine football backs up Croom's comment. Offensively, he says, "They have several players we'd be fortunate to have. They have an outstanding quarterback in Ron Whitcomb, one of the better running backs we'll see this season in Marcus Williams, he's going for his third-straight, 1,000-yard season. He's a big back like those we played last week, which doesn't mean a lot of restful nights the way we tackled last week." Or the way Auburn's tailback tandem ran through Bulldog tacklers during a 43-14 Tiger victory.
But Maine is not one-dimensional on offense, either. "They have an outstanding receiver, Christian Pereira," said Croom. "A big receiver who runs good routes with excellent hands. I've always said if you have a good quarterback, good running back, and one great wide receiver, I don't care what the scheme is you can have a decent offense. They're not only a decent offense, they have a very good offense. That's going to cause some problems."
The Black Bear defense won't be any pushover, either. If not quite the size as most SEC squads, the eight-man front Maine uses makes for problems getting a ground game going. Croom read the numbers as evidence. "Their defense does a good job against the running game, an extremely good job. They're ninth nationally in rushing, giving up 72 yards a game." Another detail the coach noted: Maine hasn't been scored on in a first quarter this year, or in 56 of their last 63 games. He did not have to say that his Dog team has yet to score in an opening period.
And one final factor that everyone anticipates in this inter-sectional matchup, is that Maine will bring a motivated bunch of Bears down South. Croom expects a lights-out effort in the evening. "The fact that they're a I-AA team gives them a great deal of incentive, as far as the first time playing a SEC opponent. It will be a big feather in their cap if they can come in here, on the road, and win a game at our field.
"They're a confident football team, they're playing well, they have some skill people who can play at this level. So we really have our work cut out for us."
The Mississippi State staff would have had a busy work-week anyway, as the Bulldogs absorb the lessons from their first loss and look to put them into practice for the rest of the season. Croom repeated some Monday comments that the effort in defeat looked better on-tape than in-person, but the execution and efficiency were still not there on either side of the ball.
"We have a great deal of improving to do," Croom said. "That's very obvious. We need to execute better to give ourselves a chance to win the game." Any game, he meant.
The Bulldogs came out of their second game still in decent physical shape overall, but also with their first round of real injuries. Monday's evaluation of two hurting Dogs has been reversed. Now it looks as if backup right guard Otis Riddley is out for a while with a tear in the right-knee ligament. At the same time wide receiver McKinley Scott has not been entirely ruled out with a re-pull of his old hamstring problem. A MRI will be done Tuesday. "I don't expect him to play but we're trying to make sure there's nothing that will keep him from coming back later."
Other nicked-up Dogs—quarterback Omarr Conner and nose tackle Ron Fields—are fine and will be somewhat protected in full-pads practices. Though, Croom said, this Tuesday there will be more hitting by the top units than usual.
"In our nine-on-seven drills we'll work our first offense against our first defense," he said, adding "we will get better at both running and stopping the run. As much as you hate giving up touchdowns, if people are going to score on us I want them to do it through the air, not on the ground. Because to me that is a direct question of how tough we are, physically and mentally. I take it very personally."
Scott's uncertain status cracks a door that Croom indicated was going to be opening up anyway with the play of Jason Husband in the fourth quarter against Auburn. The redshirt receiver will get a starting job Saturday. "Jason will start at ‘Z', he earned that last week. He made plays and that's what we're looking for." With Riddley out, center/guard Brian Anderson will be ready to spell starter Will Rogers as needed, and just in case freshman Roland Terry will dress out.
There are some shuffles being contemplated on defense, but not because of injuries. Croom is still unhappy about how Auburn mauled State's front seven, and particularly dissatisfied with how the veterans played. To that end he talked about adjusting personnel to get some younger players more snaps, and thus simplifying a few schemes so the kids can be effective against basic running plays.
Croom said backup tackles Avery Hannibal and Andrew Powell will receive more playing time, as will end Michael Heard. "It may be some switches in the defensive line to get those guys playing time and give us a little more ‘juice' up front." Behind them, the staff will watch midweek practices before deciding if true frosh Titus Brown should be activated at #2 middle linebacker, a position that has been an unexpected weak link. "Titus has made a lot of plays in scrimmages and practices," Croom said. And fellow rookie Mario Bobo will have a larger role this week, maybe even a starting job depending on how the coaches judge things Thursday.
"We're looking for the guys that step up and make plays," Croom explained. "When guys perform and make plays they'll be given an opportunity to play more; the guys that don't make plays, their opportunities will decrease."
If Brown does play that will bring the total of true freshmen activated to five, along with LB Gabe O'Neal, receivers Jonathan Lowe and Keon Humphries, and Bobo. Croom is still looking to redshirt everyone else, but hasn't ruled out any chance of activating other rookies. "We may get down to game seven or eight and nobody else is left standing," he said. "Whoever the next-best guy is will play. But I do not want to waste the potential of some of our freshmen redshirting because I do think a lot of them will be good players down the road and the extra year will benefit them and our program down the road."
The Bulldogs were to practice in shorts, shoulder pads and helmets on Wednesday and then in shells only on Thursday. State is also keeping an eye on weather developments in the Gulf as Hurricane Ivan comes ashore. At this point there seems no danger of Maine's trip being cancelled, though last year the Black Bears did have a game at William & Mary delayed and ultimately forfeited by an early-October hurricane.
Not that Croom is worried about the weather as much as the field-forecast for Saturday. "And believe me, we've got a lot of getting-better to do."