Bulldogs Continue Preparations For Vanderbilt

The records won't impress anyone when Mississippi State meets Vanderbilt this weekend in Nashville. But this only makes the Saturday evening game at Dudley Field all the more meaningful, the way Coach Sylvester Croom puts it.

"I'm sure they're going into this ball game with the same thoughts that we are," State's coach said. "Of just winning this one ball, win to get confidence and get some things going."

Not much has gone the right way for either the 1-3 Bulldogs or the 0-3 Commodores. Since both squads are 0-2 in SEC play, though, there should be no lack of motivation on either sideline as the contestants try for an initial league victory.

At his Tuesday press conference Croom said Vanderbilt, under third-year Coach Bobby Johnson, are a better squad than their winless record shows. "I think they've had some tough breaks and have not been able to win games. But they've been in all three games. With as many returning lettermen as they have they expect to be better than they are right now."

In fact the Commodore roster has 21 players with starting credits before this season, many of them two- and three-year men. That gives Vanderbilt the experience edge over the Bulldogs. The biggest advantage looks to be under center. "Their whole attack centers around Jay Cutler," said Croom. "He's the hub of the offense as far as a passer and runner. And that gives a little something different we haven't seen, a passing quarterback who can run the option."

The junior triggerman is not Vanderbilt's only offensive weapon shining on scouting tapes. "(Tailback) Norval McKenzie is another guy that we're going to have to deal with," Croom said. "They have solid receivers and an outstanding offensive lineman in (left tackle) Justin Geisinger.

"So they'll pose a challenge for our defensive front. They run very well and that's an area of concern." That's no exaggeration, as State is allowing over 180 rushing yards a game after a month of play. "We have to improve this week defending the run and particularly our tackling," said Croom.

Defensively the MSU coach pointed out some 'Dores to watch such as defensive end Jovan Haye. Vanderbilt is not nearly as complex scheme-wise as LSU was, nor as athletic as either those Tigers or Auburn. "But they are very efficient and confident in what they do. I think they play the run game very well and don't give up easy passes. It's a simple, sound philosophy and that's why they are effective."

Croom can only hope that his own defense improves on the effectiveness front after allowing LSU a stride less than 600 yards in a 51-0 loss at Baton Rouge. Despite those stats he said that some Bulldogs did play well or at least hard in defeat. Tackles Ronald Fields and Andrew Powell were two, as they performed in adjusted positions. Fields is now playing off the nose at a standard tackle position with Powell lining up over the ball. Croom explained it was not a major change in philosophy as most Bulldog tackles are trained to play both positions.

"We moved Ron to prevent some double-teams, most of the time a three-technique (tackle) is a single block. He's still learning some gap responsibilities, but it's a positive. We've got those two guys definitely in the right spots now."

The coach also had praise for outside linebacker Marvin Byrdsong and rookie cornerback Mario Bobo--"He was not intimidated by the atmosphere at all, in fact he thrived on the situation." Now Croom is telling the rest of the defensive team to follow some examples. "If we had everybody playing like those four guys we'd be a good defensive team. A lot of people in my opinion did not play up to their ability."

The coach is not planning any lineup changes to the defense for now, though he wants to get rookie linebackers Titus Brown and Gabe O'Neal in for more snaps. He did back off Monday comments that freshman Anthony Littlejohn might play at Vanderbilt, after watching the afternoon scrimmaging. "I don't think he's quite ready to make an impact now and it's not worth wasting the redshirt year."

But the State staff has taken the redshirt off freshman quarterback Mike Henig, who will alternate with starter Kyle York this weekend. Both are promoted due to the knee ligament strain that will keep four-game starter Omarr Conner out for up to three weeks. York will play first and was not allowed to scrimmage Monday as Croom did not want to take any chances at this point.

He said Tuesday that there was a plan to play Henig against Tulane, before a change of mind. At the time Conner needed all the practice snaps he could get, as did York to strengthen his repaired throwing shoulder. "From that time on it's been a week-by-week situation," Croom said. "I told Mike on the sideline at LSU, you'll play next week. We're committed to playing him now."

The degree of commitment was shown by the number of snaps Henig got Tuesday in passing drills, not just equal to York's but often before the junior took a turn. "We won't expect him to do the entire package as Omarr would have done, but I have confidence the things we ask he can execute. He'll make mistakes but I do know he'll compete." Croom also said that using York and Henig won't radically change the offensive gameplan or blocking schemes. "Neither are the downfield runner Omarr is, but behind the line both of those guys are mobile enough we don't have to change what we're doing."

Croom said Henig took all the Monday snaps in contact work, and focused on reading and picking up blitzes as well as screen passes and draw plays. The rest of the package is being put in Tuesday and Wednesday.

Conner is the only new casualty of the week, joining guard Otis Riddley and wideout Ray Ray Bivines on the sidelines. Split end McKinley Scott did practice Monday, though his status will be determined by the next two days of drills. Tight end Eric Butler is taking it easy with a hurting toe and will play. And senior SE Ray Ray Bivines is taking more and more turns in practices, though he is not likely to play this week. Offensive guard Johnny Wadley is being held out another day of contact drills to protect his sore ankle, with Brian Anderson running #1.

There are all sorts of things Croom wants to emphasize this week, especially better tackling and creating turnovers on defense. But his top priority at the moment is helping his team regain a measure of confidence. "And a little more of an attack mentality," he said.

"We have to revisit some things that we are doing as far as what kind of team we want to be. In a lot of ways it's getting back to the core of who we want to be, in order to give ourselves a chance to move forward from this point."

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