Croom is not expecting his team to roll over for the visiting Blazers. Just the opposite; the coach is looking for the Bulldogs to put up a fight on the homefield. But coming off a 31-13 defeat at Vanderbilt, what Croom is more focused on is getting State to combine their willingness to keep fighting with far more efficient function.
"We lost a game I felt going in we had a very good chance to win," he said during the Monday morning teleconference. "Again we did things that prohibit you from winning—too many turnovers, missed assignments." This was frustrating to Croom because what he saw from the sidelines and on tape affirmed at least one encouraging tendency of the team.
"We challenged the players and we hit extremely well. The effort was better than at LSU. But we just don't execute very well right now. We're playing hard and hitting well but we don't execute, and we're a team with very little room for error right now."
As the 1-4, 0-3 SEC, record shows Mississippi State has made far too many errors in the first half of this season. Croom is keeping an even emotional keel under these frustrating circumstances, sticking to both the 2004 gameplans and longer-term program outlines. But he acknowledges that the challenge is greater for the players to stick to their task with so little success and reward. "Any adversity changes the psyche," he said.
"You just keep talking to them and trying to present the challenge, that this is part of the process we have to go through. And hope they can learn from it. Yeah, it's tough, you want to feel good and be able to celebrate after the game. Right now we're not at that point. But next week is another opportunity."
At the same time Alabama-Birmingham is not the sort of opponent a struggling team wants to attempt a rebound against. Croom praised UAB's talent level and coaching staff. Behind veteran quarterback Darrell Hackney the Blazers have beaten Baylor, Memphis, and Cincinnati, and are contending for a Conference USA crown. The Blazer defense might be even better, Croom said.
"This is going to be a tougher team to run on, they have more talent than Vandy on defense. They've done an excellent job recruiting, they have excellent schemes and fly around to the football. But we still have to run the ball."
The Bulldogs are serious about getting the ground game in gear in October. Croom blamed himself for getting away from fundamental running, particularly at Nashville. "Even though we got behind we still should have run the ball regardless." Starting tailback Jerious Norwood averaged almost six yards per carry and scored both MSU touchdowns, but only had 12 rushes. Croom noted that Norwood is getting more physical in his style and was not knocked backwards in this game. Along those lines the coach likes the potential Jason Jude shows, now that he is solving some fumbling problems that hampered his September practices.
"He did well in the game. It's obvious he lacks great speed but he's a hard runner, the power he gives us is something we can use in our packages and goal line, short-yardage, those kinds of things."
But the running can't be much better than the blocking, and as Croom has found out even when there are positive signs here something still clouds the picture. At Vanderbilt, new starting left guard Brian Anderson injured his ankle after a solid performance. "I know that if there's any chance for him to play he will."
Starting right guard Will Rogers bruised his sternum; he should practice this week. "Johnny Wadley is still beat-up," Croom said, "we rest him every Monday because of his knees and ankle." Still the shaky health disrupts a line that was finally just taking some puppy-steps forward. "I think we've made some headway there. (Tackles) Richard Burch and David Stewart have played well all year, they've really gotten better in the running game. Where we've had problems is in the middle three. But Chris McNeil had his best game and Brian Anderson did some really nice things. It's disappointing he'll probably be out this week."
To that end Croom said tackles Donovan Davis and James Cochran will be looked at as guards this week. The staff does not want to activate promising freshman Roland Terry if at all possible. "We've having injuries to a unit that was slight in depth anyway, so we'll have to do some patchwork inside."
As to other injuries, fullback Darnell Jones and defensive end Willie Evans have hurting shoulders and will be watched at practice today. "The big concern is (quarterback) Mike Henig," Croom said, "he has a severe shoulder contusion, I'm not sure how much work he'll get today. That's a concern because we wanted to get him some practice this week." True frosh Henig made his college debut in the second half at Vanderbilt, running three series in relief of starter Kyle York. Croom said he has some hopes that Omarr Conner (knee sprain) can return by Florida.
State has adjusted other starting/backup roles the last two weekends, such as at defensive end and cornerback, and moved the interior defensive tackles around. Croom doesn't anticipate any such moves this week, unless forced by injuries. "Right now I think we've exhausted all options as far as personnel moves. We'll continue to work with those people and try to get better."
And Croom still expects to see improvement from the Bulldogs, no matter how beaten-up they may feel physically or emotionally. In fact, the coach is telling his team to get even tougher after a most painful defeat at Vanderbilt. "We didn't play smart all the time but we gave a very good effort," he said.
"We're sort of going back to basics this week a little. But we have to get back to the identity we want. If we can get that established this year we'll have laid a good foundation for our future."