Not much of anything has gone State's way so far, as the 1-4 (0-3 SEC) record and a four-game losing skid indicate. Still the first-year head coach remains optimistic such tape-review improvement will become more evident during games, and hopeful the progress results in a victory sooner than later. Such as this weekend, when State hosts Alabama-Birmingham in a 1:30 game at Scott Field.
"It's another opportunity for us to improve, hopefully for us to win a ball game," Croom said. "We'll get ready with every intention of doing that."
This opportunity is also a challenge for a Bulldog team that hasn't won since beating Tulane in the season-opener. Now they host another Conference USA visitor, and a much better one. The Blazers (3-1, 2-0 CUSA) certainly are not your typical Homecoming Game foe. Led by former MSU offensive coordinator Watson Brown, UAB brings a balanced, effective, and increasingly successful club to Scott Field. "They're a very fine football team," Croom said. "Defensively their scheme is very similar to ours, the same kind of fronts. They do a few different things, a few more pressures and a little more zone, but it's a similar scheme. The thing that's impressive is they run to the football, they tackle well, they're a well-coached defense."
The offense, directed by junior Darrell Hackney, maybe be more impressive. Croom compared Hackney to LSU's JaMarcus Russell. "He's about 6-3, 250 pounds, and has a great arm. The thing's that impressive is he doesn't make bad decisions, if the pass is not there he throws the ball away. But he can make every throw; touch, long, intermediate. We've got to do a job getting him down. Roddy White is an excellent target, a big-play guy. He can beat you and go the distance. "The scheme is very multiple. Watson is still doing a lot of things he did years ago, from the wishbone to nobody in the backfield. He'll give you full-house and no-house, four and five wides, all of it. So we have to be sound and probably very simple so that we know what we're doing and and play with some confidence."
Just how much confidence the Bulldogs possess at the moment is a legitimate concern. Croom said Tuesday that he can see faith growing among the players, not just in their own assignments but in the overall offensive and defensive concepts. He repeated Monday impressions of progress the Bulldogs showed even in defeat at Nashville. "I was pleased with the hitting and the effort, of course disappointed with the loss. The thing I pointed out to the players was we have make plays. We were in position to make plays, we just didn't."
Some more specific positives out of the Vandy game were brisk hitting—"the kind you can hear on the sideline," Croom said, "We've been doing a lot of grabbing since the Tulane game." He also noted improved blocking and quarterback protection, and harder running by Jerious Norwood. The line's progress is the most encouraging aspect to the offensive staff. "The line, despite the injuries, is starting to make some strides forward. More importantly, is play up to their ability. Our two tackles have done that all year. (Center) Chris McNeil had his best game at Vanderbilt, it was time for him to step up and he did. The big improvement came with Brian Anderson."
Unfortunately Anderson, a new starter at left guard in game-five, injured an ankle. Croom upgraded his status Tuesday saying Anderson has a better shot at playing against UAB. Four-game starting LG Johnny Wadley will also play but still need frequent relief. Donovan Davis, James Cochran, and Royce Blackledge are practicing at left guard this week also.
Croom called the injury situation "pretty decent. Darnell Jones and Willie Evans probably won't get any contact work today but we expect them to get some practice in tomorrow and play this week." Croom added that quarterback Omarr Conner is ahead of schedule recovering from the knee sprain at LSU and should be ready for Florida. Tight end Eric Butler (toe, knee) played at Vanderbilt but was not near full-speed; he should be fine this weekend.
On the down-side, expectations that senior wideout Ray Ray Bivines would be able to help at Vanderbilt were dashed. Bivines is still not 100%, but more than that has not been able to spend enough time practicing specific gameplans after missing nearly two months of drills. Nor is Croom looking for help soon from fellow senior McKinley Scott with a repeatedly hurt hamstring. "You keep hoping against hope, I'm about to the point that if they do they do, but I'm not getting up a lot of hope."
The result of those injuries and other, lesser injuries has been inconsistent results from wide receivers at all positions. But, "That's part of the game, you play with the guys you have and try to find ways to win the game." What Croom is not willing to accept is State's rash of turnovers, with 13 in the last three losses. He said some of the nine interceptions were just because the offense was pressing in situations, but that the receivers have to turn into defensive backs and prevent picks.
As to fumbles, Croom is cracking down. "That's my fault because I got away from some things," he said, meaning in- and post-practice punishments for dropping the ball. Such bobbles won't go unrewarded any more. "Believe me, we'll get their attention about fumbles. Either we're going to eliminate them or we're going to be the best-conditioned team in history."
Physical conditioning is obvious; emotional status is harder to judge. And Croom agrees that the task is not fun right now. "When you work as hard as we have to in this business, you like to have a chance to sit back and enjoy and laugh. There's no laughter. But life goes on. I told the players, I understand, I've been through it longer than they've been alive and I don't enjoy it.
"But I have experience enough to see them getting better, and I showed them plays yesterday with how they are improving. They have to believe that and believe what I'm telling them, and continue to fight through this. This is a part of building a solid foundation. If you don't build a program the right way it's going to crumble at some point. You pay now or pay later, I'd rather pay now. We're paying the price now."