Right. The solace is slim and the humor grim. But in times like these we veteran Dogs lunge for whatever consolation we can sniff. Not that there is much to be found at the moment.
Or, it seems all-too-likely, for the balance of this season. Of all the aspects to analyze from Saturday's loss to Maine, the most painfully obvious is that we now know, beyond any doubt and debate, just how weak the Mississippi State football program truly is. Whatever optimistic outlooks anyone may have envisioned a change in direction and gameplans would bring about in the short term, the brutal reality is just what I indicated last week. That Bulldog football is, in every sense of the phrase, starting over. Not building on an existing foundation, but going right down to the bedrock and beginning again.
The process is not pretty, any more than was Saturday's scoreboard, and the view is surely going to get even uglier in the immediate future before there is serious opportunity for a turnaround.
Understand that nothing said herein is to downplay the effort and execution of the Black Bears in pulling off what, to them, was an upset and a historic event. They earned it. I had no problem at all with Maine players celebrating on our field. It's not every day that a team claims its first SEC victim. Argh, that means Maine has a better record in the league than does charter member Mississippi State.
Which leads again to the fundamental theme of the day and Coach Sylvester Croom's first season in Starkville. Mississippi State is still at rock-bottom. After the Auburn whipping it was still possible to overlook the seriousness of the situation by acknowledging that the Tigers were after all conference and national contenders who were on their game. Much as MSU folk have done for the last, oh, shall we say century or so after getting run over by bigger, stronger, and just plain better SEC rivals.
And now? There's nothing else to say. Even our most Maroon-tinted glasses have cracked at last. We should politely ignore the frantic few trying to excuse things away, blame officiating crews, or conjure up dark SEC/NCAA conspiracies which keep Mississippi State at the bottom of the league ladder. The facts are that there are not enough good, experienced football players on this 2004 roster—in the key muscle positions particularly--to compete with quality teams, or to offset bad breaks against lesser opponents. State could have had half-again as many more red-zone failures as in this game and should still have been able to scratch out a win over a I-AA program.
Immediately after that last desperate heave into the end zone fell to the turf, I had to dodge linebacker Clarence McDougal as he dashed to the locker room. "I don't like to lose," he told me later. "I'm tired of it. I just had to get out of there." And this from the defensive Dog who played more snaps than anyone and topped his team in tackle. No lack of effort or execution there.
But he and we are indeed weary of defeat. We also can read a schedule and see more of it is in store. Think Auburn's defense was intense, holding State's starting offense scoreless? Impressed with how Maine sold out with constant blitzes that overwhelmed shaky Bulldog blocking? LSU is fiercer, and faster. This is another way of saying without some serious breaks things are going to get worse before, we fervently hope, they can begin to get better.
Yet let's be clear about what I am not saying here. By no means do I want anyone to imagine that I'm just telling us to accept sad truth and be content to live with it. Never. Or never again, that is. The collapse of the Jackie Sherrill regime may well have left State in this sorry state, but never forget that during that same tenure we also got a sweet taste for what Bulldog football is capable of. If higher expectations those good years created ended up costing a coach his job, the same raised standards ought also to be demanded of any new State staff.
And they are. Most of all, by these coaches themselves.
If I can impress one other fact upon all who've read this far, it is this. For all the frustration, hurt, and even shock of losing to a lower-Division visitor, there was not a single excuse offered by any Dog who came to the press conference. And yes, they came as requested. Nobody begged off or blew off the request. (No, it wasn't like that the last couple of years.) They answered every question without resorting to excuses, clichés or finger-pointing. Heaven knows Omarr Conner could have pointed a finger…the right one only, though, as his left arm was in a sling from one of the host of hard hits taken. Instead of complaints about lack of protection, the quarterback took blame upon himself for not getting a job done. He also gave credit where due.
"They made more plays," Conner said of Maine. "And like Coach says, the team that makes the most plays wins the game."
McDougal agreed. "They played great. But this has to be one of the toughest losses in school history." This from an undisputedly tough, committed young man who's overcome a devastating injury to play for a ball team that has yet to taste real success. And what does a 22-year-old pup really understand of Mississippi State's agonizing gridiron history?
What is worth stressing today, in September of 2004, is that the man given the chance to both make SEC history is determined more than ever to change the Bulldog's future even as the enormity of the task grows all the more apparent. Some may argue but I do believe Croom understood exactly what he was getting into…probably even better than the folks who hired him. After all, too many of us Dogs—and I must include myself—tend to become numbed over the years. We enjoy the infrequent highs on this roller-coaster ride so much that the lows are to some extent tolerable or at least excusable.
Not so with the new man. Croom is driven by a fire that won't be put out by a bad game or season. It's a fine point, but stay with me here. In Saturday's post-game there was neither anger at the performance nor self-pity about the situation. Just a professional, matter-of-fact assesement that, to my mind anyway, was strangely encouraging. In the long-term, that is. Short-term, well, Croom has to play the hand he's drawn. Or drawing on a NFL metaphor, there's no waiver-wire in college ball.
All that Croom cares about right now, this afternoon, is how his first Mississippi State team will respond both individually and as a group. "Now we find out really what kind of character we've got. Do we have the strength to stay together as a team and come back and improve? Will we point fingers at one another or stay together and be the best football team we can possibly be?"
‘Improvement' in anything other than record terms is naturally a subjective thing. But I think now that the sheer, stark, seriousness of State's situation is finally obvious to all, we as fans and media alike can also begin rebuilding our own immediate impressions of the program without sacrificing any long-run expectations. Quite literally, we will have to take everything a day and a play at a time, then after November see if the outlook is any brighter.
"I think we'll respond positively," Croom said of the team. "We've been through too much. We'll have to wait and see but I've got to believe the progress we've made it's tough to turn back. And I expect us to continue to press forward. No question it's a step back. Two losses at home is definitely a step back. But we've got to look forward."
I'll give McDougal the final word this week. "We have to come fighting. Our backs are against the wall now. We just have to be better all-around."