Just under no circumstances should we, unless paid to do so, invest precious free fall weekend hours pondering the mid-2004-season situation of Bulldog football. There's another whole month-and-a-half left for discussing and cussing the subject. Besides, those folk most directly and intimately involved will continue to do it for us this week, and with the urgency only coaches and players can feel.
For that matter, Coach Sylvester Croom is telling the Bulldogs themselves to get away for a while…after putting in four practice days that is. The head coach will even encourage his staff to take as much of a quick break as practical, leaving Croom to assume sole responsibility for Off-Week Worrying.
And no, he's not asking for or expecting our sympathy. Empathy, maybe, but even there Croom continues to make it clear he A) knew what he was getting in to, B) knows what he wants to get done at Mississippi State, and C) can and will accept either rewards or consequences as they come.
Of course after a 1-5 start with losses to Maine, Vanderbilt, and now Alabama-Birmingham there are obviously more of the latter. This last defeat was somewhat different, though, as the Bulldogs played easily their best all-around game so far and were in position to finally win again against a respectable foe. They didn't. And while he wouldn't tell if it was out of frustration or just not having anything left to say, this Croom went almost directly from field to press conference after barely passing through the locker room.
I'm voting frustration, given the comments. "We have to play perfect right now. We have to play flawless because we have a lot of adversity. We don't get a lot of breaks, so if adversity builds character we'll have a heck of a lot of character in this program. Because everything seems to go against us right now." Frustration indeed.
Oh, and in case anyone didn't get the word yesterday, that indeed was a SEC officiating crew. As a ranking MSU administrator said, though his words won't go over well in Birmingham, State would have been better off with a CUSA crew. I doubt referee Rocky Goode will be on Croom's Christmas card list now, and the coach was close to earning a letter from the league office with his postgame comments. "Our kids are fighting their guts out and every single call goes against them. And things on the other side are not being called. I'm very disappointed in that." Asked to expound, he said "No, unless you're going to pay my fine."
Again, let's not read this as whining or woe-is-us. Lord knows we Bulldogs have done enough of that over the decades. Besides, Croom doesn't want to offer any player even a hint of an excuse to drop their heads now…no matter how tempting it surely must be. If he's hard on the refs, Croom is harder on his players. Without naming numbers, he told us of a pass play that, had it been run correctly, should have produced a first-half touchdown. Only the receiver failed to go in motion as called. Seriously. And just as seriously, things like that seem to bother the coach more than losing. Or maybe he means that things like that are why State is not able to win today.
"I'm sure it comes with time," Croom says, with a hint of hopefulness. "All I can ask is they keep giving effort and paying attention to details, and hopefully our execution will improve in the future."
I think what galled Croom most about this loss was that, as he said, for the first time he saw State practice as if they had finally, fully bought into the plan. "The first time in practice that we looked like a football team." Now THAT is an admission, to say the least, and Croom did explain. It was the way the team practice, as individuals and units, and the way they approached the Homecoming game with open camaraderie. "Everybody was pulling in the same direction, so I'm encouraged by that," Croom said.
"But we still have to learn to create an atmosphere of paying attention to detail and doing little things right all the time. Then it comes down to making plays." And as the record shows, State is not making enough plays. More, yes; I saw them against Vandy and UAB as did many of y'all. The offense was sharper, the defense more aggressive…and hey, we even made field goals! I'm not all that bothered by the punt return TD that decided the game as that guy does, after all, lead his league in all returns. Also, can we who witnessed the last two games agree on this: that had Omarr Conner been healthy either and maybe both—this last one especially, given how UAB defended—contest would have played out very differently?
I can't stress enough what Conner's absence has meant. No, the soph is nowhere near fully-immersed in the playbook, but he is the best play-maker State has. Period. Not only that, he had become in many ways the heart of the team, offense and defense. The Dogs respect Kyle York's poise and like Mike Henig's potential. Their faith is invested in Omarr. It's so cruel that he was not available for the most promising shots State had at mid-season wins.
York was the first Dog to the pressroom, and he naturally spoke well and eloquently. Insistently, too, as if trying to make a team's case to a dubious at best jury. "We're improving," the quarterback said. "Not to the point we can go out and win consistently, but the improvement is there. It's not because we haven't given the effort and worked hard and paid attention. We just haven't gotten over that hump."
Trouble is that the hump will only get bigger, opponent-wise. UAB is as good as advertised and could compete, this year, in the SEC. Look at that roster, BTW, and see why Croom and staff are recruiting Alabama hard. Real hard. State can use a lot of that muscle/talent and is going to sign some up this winter. And to any recruiting freaks who'll sniff that State is taking Alabama and Auburn rejects, all I can say is you gotta start somewhere. There's just not enough hosses, of either size or eligibility, to go around in this state.
But that's the future. For now Croom can only work with what is on-hand, and willing to practice and play by his book. "I want fighters in this program," he said Saturday, pointing to guys like Bryson Davis and Brian Anderson. Back in spring the coach saw no future for the young fullback, and now he has earned the starting job. Croom is awed by Anderson's commitment.
"It's real simple. The way I look at it, there are guys out there playing now I didn't think would be on the team now. When I see kids continuing to do that, I know we're losing but I know we're going in the right direction. Because they are establishing a sound foundation for this program to be built on. And that's character and winning attitude. And those who aren't I'm not going to worry about." No, he wasn't talking specifically speaking of anyone, such as impatient offensive guard/defensive tackle-at-heart Devrick Hampton. The redshirt knew the deal and chose not to wait a turn. Thing is, Croom did not criticize the choice; he was a player himself in the day. He was only disappointed that a kid with long-term potential couldn't envision the same future the coach could see more clearly.
There will be more like Hampton, safe to say. But not as many as I once thought. I know this isn't the same as wins—what is?—but there's been one very encouraging sign I've seen since the season started and the losing began. It is that the more practices I attend, the more I see the Bulldogs getting on the same page with each other and their coach. I reckon that sounds kind of strange judged against scores and record, sorta Stepford Dog-ish if you wish. Yet it's a fact. These players haven't just signed on with Croom and State, they re-up every afternoon and daily work to win, hold, or regain jobs.
In that spirit, here's an interesting and maybe instructive quote offered by junior York about the ongoing—stress that, ongoing--transition of this program. "I always will be a Jackie Sherrill fan. But we've got Coach Croom now, who is a visionary. He's doing things that haven't been done here in a while. Unfortunately for the fans and media those things are unseen, they happen in the heart and mind of the player here. That's the kind of player we're trying to recruit, not just a guy who is going to put the ball in the end zone but a guy who is going to represent this University."
So there. Couldn't say it better meself. And be ready to hear the same theme from now through November, regardless of what happens on and off the field. Just don't spend too much time this week thinking about it, but do try to enjoy the break. The Bulldogs will, after they complete four hard days of practices (including a lot of fundamental drills and ones-vs.-ones, Croom says), and after a 6:00 ayem run Friday morning head out of town. Fast.
"And we'll let them go home for a whole weekend," Croom said. "Because they've been through a lot. I want them to come back renewed and refreshed for the next part of the season."
Sounds like a plan to me.