Croom Reviews Maine Loss, Turns Focus To Tigers

Coach Sylvester Croom admitted it—he felt awful on Saturday night, still bad on Sunday morning, and no better after watching, again, Mississippi State lose 9-7 to Maine. "After review nothing had changed," Croom said Monday morning. "We turned it over in the red zone again on Sunday and the score was still the same."

But the head coach also made clear that, as painful as the loss still is, neither he nor the Bulldogs can afford to let the Black Bears beat them a second time. That defeat is on the record to stay; the rest of the schedule is still to be played.

"I have to put my own embarrassment and my own ego aside and get this team ready to play this week," Croom said. "This is the only game we can do anything about."

This game being the weekend matchup with Louisiana State (2-1, 0-1 SEC) in Baton Rouge, with a 11:30 a.m. starting time in Tiger Stadium. The Bulldogs, 1-2 after being upset by Maine, have drawn about as difficult a proposition as possible to mark a return to SEC play, and their first road trip of the year.

"This will be a big test as far as how we bounce back from a tough loss. And we're playing a great football team. They have no weaknesses that are obvious to me, just great talent, an excellent coaching staff, they execute well, and they have lots of confidence."

The Tigers also are grouchy after losing 10-9 at Auburn, which cost LSU a top-five ranking. They come into this home game ranked #13 and will certainly be looking to vent some SEC frustrations on their guests.

"But we do look forward to the challenge," Croom said. "It's great to play a SEC opponent, especially a high caliber team such as this. We'll be there with bells on and excited to play. It's an opportunity for us to get better."

That outlook is interesting considering the shock to the system that the Bulldogs absorbed in their loss to a Division I-AA opponent, and the unpromising nature of the next game. Still the first-year head coach will approach this week the same as any other, and try to turn the team's attention forward instead of on the rearview mirror.

And Croom said he doesn't see how losing to Maine will make playing LSU any more difficult. "It's going to be a challenge for us regardless whether we won or lost. We're playing a great football team."

"From a coaching standpoint we have to look at every possibility to find a way to give our players a chance to win the game. Not just compete but win the game. I know the odds are against us, but hey, that's the challenge of football. That's where we are. And we'll do everything possible to help us have a chance to win the game."

By the same token the Bulldogs clearly had every opportunity to beat Maine, and converted on only one chance at scoring. After putting up a touchdown on the second series of the night State's offense failed to expand the margin, particularly in the second quarter. Watching his team stall repeatedly inside the Black Bear ‘red zone' was frustrating and Croom ran down the list. A takeaway after a catch; an inteception at the goal line; a missed field goal.

Most infuriating of all the failures was the fumble by tailback Fred Reid at the Maine two-yard line with six minutes left in a 7-3 game. Yet while the coach said the runner could have protected the ball better, tape review showed something else. "It's very obvious if our fullback blocks a safety we walk into the end zone standing up." Instead that safety made the hit that produced a momentum-wrenching turnover.

Croom pointed out all sorts of missed chances, such as a punt return that was one correct block from becoming a touchdown. His kick-block team did reject a Maine PAT, but they also could have gotten to the third-quarter field goal. He also noted that the second-quarter interception of Omarr Conner's slant-pass to Jason Husband was actually defensive interference first. "We turned that in to the SEC office, it's not going to change anything," the coach added.

"We just didn't execute. We moved the ball between the 20s pretty well, we completed 60% of our passes. But the bottom line is we didn't get it in the end zone."

This bothers Croom, not just from the standpoint of one lost game but for what it says of how the Bulldog are struggling in so many areas. "There were five or six more plays that if we make any one of them we win the game," he said, speaking of both sides of the ball. "We didn't do a lot of little things that it takes to win. We're still not doing those things on a consistent basis." And now the Bulldogs are preparing for a foe that allows no margins for any errors.

As of Monday morning Croom thinks his team should be reasonably healthy with no new injuries of note after Maine. Split end McKinley Scott and offensive guard Otis Riddley are doubtful for another week, but wideout Joey Sanders (shoulder) should be back. Tailback Jerious Norwood (knee bruise) is expected to practice and play.

Conner did slightly separate his left shoulder but will be protected in practices and should be ready by Saturday. "Omarr took a battering," Croom said. Indeed Maine hit the quarterback repeatedly and blitzed constantly, and this naturally raises concerns about how State can protect the passer against a much stronger, much faster Tiger defense. The style of offense MSU runs uses the fullback and tight ends as receivers, meaning the blocking comes down to the five down-linemen. And this remains a serious weak point.

"If one guy breaks down on the offensive line it makes the whole operation look bad," said Croom. He does say the starting tackles, David Stewart and Richard Burch, are playing "pretty well" but the middle of the line has not. Also, Croom said that he would like to be able to play backup Kyle York more often but that the junior's arm-strength still doesn't look to be 100%

The coach is not anticipating any major lineup changes this week. He did shuffle the defense up for Maine and thought rookie cornerback Mario Bobo and end Michael Heard did well. Heard and Evans are a good pair of ends, Croom said, but he still wants former starter Deljuan Robinson and backup Rob Walker to step up their own games and give State some size at the ends.

Positions and schemes aside, Croom believes that the real challenge this week is not LSU but the same issue he has focused on since taking this job. Maine was certainly a setback, and will always be a difficult one to accept. But it was only one game of one season. "We're trying to build a program," Croom said. "As far as our thinking and the way we do things, we're starting over. We're doing things for the long-term. I'm not looking for a quick fix."

Instead he is looking for solutions inside the locker room and on the practice field. And the coaching staff will have sharper eyes than ever on each Bulldog this game week, judging reactions and responses. "I think a lot of them were extremely hurt," Croom said, "I think a lot of them are embarrassed. And I told them I hope they are. If they are we have something to build on, if they're not we have a serious problem."

Of course most fans would see losing to a I-AA opponent as a pretty serious problem in itself, something the head coach doesn't deny. At the same time it can become another opportunity, one Croom plans to take advantage of right now. "Anytime you hit a rough spot you find out who has true character, who the leaders are. In a lot of ways this will be a good things for us. I'll find out this week who we can depend on and who we can center our team around this year."

"We've got a plan for building this program. It's not about winning individual games. But we have to back away and see how far we've come. I know the record doesn't indicate it but believe me we have come a long way since last December. As far as how we think, how we see ourselves, how we work. As time goes on it will translate to winning. But we will stay the course and we can't get impatient. We have to keep sight of the long-term plan. That's my job."

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