It so happens that the schedule has Mississippi State committed to open their ‘second half' with a visit by the Florida Gators. Gametime at Scott Field is 11:38 a.m. CT, with Jefferson-Pilot televising the inter-Divisional game regionally.
Certainly the Bulldogs would like to forget the first portion of their season, which left State 1-5 overall and 0-3 SEC with a five-game losing streak going into an open date. Croom said the rest appears to have done the players good and the team attitude in Monday's practice was positive. He did not change tune after Tuesday's workout, from 1:45-to-3:15 with post-practice meetings. The Bulldogs got their day's work done early during the last day of the fall campus holiday, and before threatening weather moved in.
The Monday session largely followed up on four days' practices before the break, with Croom stressing a return to his favored fundamentals. "Tackling, protecting the football, stripping the football from the opposition, finishing every play. And trying to be detailed.
"We're asking everybody to pay attention to details and understand every play can make the difference in the ball game, and make sure they do what they can on every play to help us win ball games."
Tuesday drills (in headgear and shoulder pads) focused more on getting ready for Florida, no small task for any team and a greater challenge for a struggling Bulldog club. "They're one of the top teams in the country, definitely one of the leaders in our conference," Croom said of the #19-ranked Gators, who are making their first visit to Scott Field since 2000.
The rundown obviously began with super sophomore Chris Leak, who Croom called the best quarterback State has faced this year. "And we've seen a couple of pretty good ones. He's a winner, too. He really presents some problems—a strong arm, quick release, accurate, all the throws. He is the key to their offensive right now." But Leak is more dangerous with talented tools to use, such as running backs Ciatrick Faison and DeShawn Wynn and explosive wideout Andrew Caldwell. "He's a speedster who can get behind you at any time," Croom noted. The coach said every defensive gameplan begins with making the opponent one-dimensional, but that might not be enough with Florida.
"Only problem, their one dimension is pretty dog-gone good. And they've got a huge offensive line, the shortest guy is 6-5 and he's the center. They must have a lot in their football budget for food."
The Gator defense has some size, too, but Croom is more impressed with how Florida runs to the ball and around the field. Linebacker Channing Crowder gets the headlines, but as the coach pointed out "All their guys, even their front, look like linebackers. It seems they've taken a philosophy of signing as many linebackers and tight ends as possible and moving them because that's the kind of speed they show.
"Yeah, they've got more skills than we have. But we're going to approach as we're going to play our best ball game and see what happens."
As for his own team, Croom has seen some encouraging signs in recent weeks. And the team is reasonably healthy after six games, starting with the return of quarterback Omarr Conner. The soph, injured early in the second half at LSU, is moving without much pain in his strained left knee and throwing the ball well back with the first unit.
"Omarr is feeling fine, he's excited and ready to go," Croom said. "And it appears we may have three healthy receivers for the first time this year." This is because McKinley Scott will be ready to go after missing three games and playing limited snaps against Alabama-Birmingham. Mid-season improvement by fellow split end Tee Milons is another good sign to the coach. "It appears for the first time we have three guys we can go into a game thinking we can depend on," he said, including flanker Will Prosser as the tried-and-true target all season.
Also, the offensive line is as close to full-strength as it is likely to be this year. Left guard Johnny Wadley is back in the rotation after missing two starts. "He's still not 100% but we don't expect him to be 100% this season," Croom said. "He feels better and is moving better, I think he got more out of the rest than anybody but Omarr." Brian Anderson is over ankle sprain and will start at left guard and back up Chris McNeil at center. Young tackles Donovan Davis and James Cochran are also being worked into the mix more this week.
The big position-news this week is on defense where all three linebacker starting spots will be filled by new faces. Former cornerback/safety Quinton Culberson has been moved to weak-side linebacker, and true freshmen Titus Brown and Gabe O'Neal promoted to starting middle- and strongside-linebackers. Croom has been most unhappy with defensive tackling this season and says this trio are the best tacklers available for the positions, as well as the best speed.
"The big thing is making sure we know what we're doing so we don't vacate gaps or bust coverages. But from a physical and ability standpoint, and a plain old getting your best players on the field standpoint, they give us the best chance to play solid defense." Croom said former starters Rico Bennett and Clarence McDougal will work regularly in nickel packages, and Kenny Kern and Marvin Byrdsong rotate with the starters. "The guys coming off the bench in spot play will hopefully give us a little more juice on defense."
The defense is generally healthy, though cornerback Mario Bobo is still a bit slowed by a hamstring suffered a week ago in practice. His Saturday status will depend on how the next three days go, Croom said. For now David Heard is back with the first team at right cornerback, while Kevin Dockery will start at left CB and be replaced by Jamaal Johnson when playing in nickel situations.
The Bulldogs will be back in school Wednesday and back on the usual game-week practice schedule. But their coach has hopes that Mississippi State will change some things about how they play the game and how they think of themselves as they get back into action.
"We can't change what has happened, we missed some opportunities early," Croom said of the 1-5 record. "What I want to do is for our guys to have some fun, the second half of this season play and maximize the ability we do have. We've got everybody in position, I think we've made all the moves we can make. Now we just have to go to work and make things happen and not sit around and wait for things to happen."
NOTE: MSU announced Tuesday that the October 30 home game with Kentucky will kick off at 1:30 CT at Scott Field. There will be no TV broadcast.