This weekend finds the Bulldogs venturing into the #13-ranked Tigers' den for a 11:30 a.m. contest. State is 1-2, 0-1 SEC while Louisiana State is 2-1, 0-1, and coming off a 10-9 loss at Auburn. That defeat means the defending SEC and national co-champions are most unhappy this week and ready to vent some frustrations on the home field.
A hostile situation, indeed. "But it's a challenge," Croom added. "If you like playing SEC football, if you like playing in the top venues in the country, our players should look forward to this. Because it will be a great opportunity for them."
The Bulldog coach is seeing opportunity in what most observers would label a mismatch. And Croom is not downplaying Tiger prowess a bit. Two weeks after losing 43-14 to Auburn, he finds so many similarities between these Western Division squads. "They're definitely one of the top teams in the country," Croom said.
"They're a big, fast football team. They're multiple on both sides of the ball and we've got our work cut out for us as far as recognizing exactly what they're doing." Not to mention coping with LSU's speed and strength even when the Dogs do read things aright.
Croom ticked off the Tiger strong points, such as the tailback tandem of Justin Vincent and Joesph Addai backed by bruiser Alley Broussard. "He had an excellent game against Auburn," Croom said. "Their offensive line is very similar to Auburn's. That's going to present a challenge to us as far as trying to stop the running game and getting to the passer."
Which can be either JaMarcus Russell or Marcus Randall, the likely starter. "They have two very talented quarterbacks. Russell is huge, about 6-5 and almost 250 pounds, he's as big as some of our defensive ends. Randall is a little more mobile and inclinded to run. But both have excellent arms."
The defensive story is just as daunting for a State team that ranks 10th in SEC offense after three games. "They have a great player in (end) Marcus Spears. And the guy I had not heard much about, their outside linebacker, E.J. Kuale, is a very impressive player. I've seen him do some things that are exceptional.
"Their corners, Corey Webster and Travis Daniels, are good enough to leave them out there in man-to-man and play bump all day. That allows them to play eight or nine man fronts and leave those guys singled-up on receivers." This creates further problems for Bulldog blocking that could not hold off the blitzes of I-AA Maine in a 9-7 defeat. Croom said that State running backs will have to pick up the blitzing eighth or even ninth man, which not only means a risky one-on-one matchup but takes one potential receiver out of the play-plan.
So Croom acknowledges the scale of the task his team has drawn for their first action away from home. "But we do look forward to playing them," said the former Alabama lineman. "It's been a long time since I've been in that stadium. I have a lot of fond memories of when I played there, it is truly a great place to play. The competition, the crowd, the entire atmosphere…when you go into a venue like that you never forget it."
The Bulldogs would certainly like to forget their last outing, and Croom admitted that coming off a loss to a lower-Division opponent doesn't make things any easier. "Much has been said about us losing to a I-AA school, I'm disappointed about this loss as I would have been a loss to anybody. It's difficult to assess, but we actually played better in that game and probably from an execution standpoint it was our best game of the three." Except of course for failing to score any points on four of five ventures inside the 20-yard line, which ultimately cost State what on paper looked like a sure victory.
By contrast this weekend's script would look like a sure defeat. "We discussed that yesterday," Croom reported. "Nobody is going to give us a chance to win. I understand that. But as always, it doesn't matter what anybody thinks. The guys that put the uniforms on and go on the field are the only guys that ever matter, how they think about themselves and how they prepare and how they play."
Monday's preparations had the varsity in shorts and shoulder pads with reserves and redshirts in full-gear. Quarterback Omarr Conner was held out Monday and scheduled for limited Tuesday work in pads to protect his bruised left shoulder. The coach was not concerned about his playmaker being ready for LSU. "Omarr says he's going to play and that's good enough for me."
More questionable is senior wideout McKinley Scott, who missed the Maine game with a re-injured hamstring. "I think to put him out there right now would risk losing him for the rest of the season," Croom said. Receiver Joey Sanders should be back after missing a game, and flanker Will Prosser's gashed right hand won't be a problem. The defense got a scare Monday when tackle Corey Clark went down with a leg injury that turned out to be a calf bruise. "He'll be back out today, how much action he does we don't know."
Senior wideout Ray Ray Bivines practiced Monday and showed some moves, the coach said, but the repaired hamstring and damaged nerve are still not full-speed. State is looking into the slim chances of getting a sixth year for Bivines, who was both hurt and ineligible as a true freshman.
The only starting lineup change set as of now is at punter, where Brooks Crabtree will kick first ahead of Jared Cook. The walk-on got two punts against Maine and while he did not have as good an average as Cook his hang-time and initial distances were better. "He's been kicking well, and we haven't had consistency there so we're going to give him the opportunity."
Along those lines, Croom responded to questions about how lineups and depth charts are set and why certain players are seeing little action or not even dressing out. "I've tried to re-iterate to all our players that the guys who perform well on game day and in those scrimmages Monday," he explained. "Nothing is in concrete. If somebody passes you up the other guy plays.
"For whatever reason some of our players don't seem to quite understand. I keep getting e-mails from parents and fans of some of our players that we've not giving them a chance. Everything we do on that field is on film. They have to show us what they can do on the practice field before they get a chance to show what they can do on Scott Field."
Or at Tiger Stadium, or anywhere else the Bulldogs will play this season. Whoever dresses out in road uniforms this weekend (and the SEC limit is 70) will have earned their spot on the roster. And the way Croom wants them to see the game is as a shot at success. "As much as anything else it's getting our players to understand the possibilities and what they are capable of, the work we have to do in order to make that happen and go there with an attitude of playing the absolute best we can and with the idea we can win this football game," he said.
"It will be a great challenge, but it's also a great opportunity for us to get better against a great opponent. I know I look forward to it and based on the way our players have worked I'm sure they're looking forward to it as well."