Croom Calls Kentucky "Big, Big Ball Game"

Calling a matchup with the only Southeastern Conference club yet to score a league win "the biggest game for this program in a long time" might initially seem like classic coach-speak. But that is exactly how Coach Sylvester Croom frames this weekend's contest between Mississippi State and Kentucky. "This is a big, big ball game," he said at his Tuesday press conference, then explained why.

"Right now, as far as I'm concerned, we're 1-0 coming out the second half of the season. Because we're not the same team we were prior to the break. And that's the way I want our players to approach it. We have a chance to finish the season on a positive note, and this game is very, very critical to do that."

The attitude is far more positive in the Bulldog camp this week following a 38-31 homefield victory over #20 Florida. The upset win not only snapped a five-game losing streak and got State (2-5, 1-3 SEC) on the conference scoreboard, but gave the players a welcome affirmation that the progress their coach had been talking about was genuine.

But since a 6:00 a.m. Monday meeting Croom has been wrenching Bulldog eyes away from headlines and sports shows, to focus all attention on Saturday's 1:30 home game with the Wildcats. "It's bigger than last week," Croom said, "because last week is gone."

Getting over last week hasn't been easy, and not just because State knocked off a nationally-ranked foe. Five-straight defeats was taking a toll. So Croom did have more Tuesday praise for the Bulldogs. "We didn't win by accident, we played good football for an entire 60 minutes," the coach said.

"I'm proud of the players for hanging in through adverse circumstances, to finally come up with a win that hopefully could be a launching pad for future successes. We still have a long way to go towards being a really good football team, but as long as we continue to work toward that I think we're headed in the right direction."

And the way to stay on the right path is to take care of the next item of business. Kentucky (1-6, 0-4 SEC) might not be as energizing an opponent as the Gators, but Croom has respect for Coach Rich Brooks and the Wildcat staff, many of whom he knows from years in the NFL. He also called Kentucky a "mirror image" of State in many respects.

"They're coming in here in much the same situation that we are, having pretty much the same kind of season. They're a young football team, they've had a lot of injuries and been up-and-down. They're trying to get a big win as well. I expect a tough, hard-nosed football game. I think either team has an excellent chance of winning and it will come down to who prepares the best and has the most people totally focused Saturday to get the job done for 60 minutes."

The Wildcats also own a two-year win streak at State's expense, including a second-half blowout in Lexington last fall when the Dogs let a 17-7 lead turn into a 42-17 loss. That is something else Croom has put behind, not even using it as a motivational trick. "I haven't talked to them about last year at all," he said.

What the coaching staff is talking about, both to the players and among themselves, is how to defense the Wildcats. Regular starting quarterback Shane Boyd missed the 42-10 loss at Auburn with a shoulder injury. The senior is expected to play this weekend, but nobody is sure how much. Thus State has to prepare for the athletic Boyd and redshirt freshman Andre Woodson, a taller, more traditional type of triggerman.

"It's tough enough to prepare for one in a short period of time," Croom said. "To prepare for two different-style quarterbacks is even tougher. Now we have to have extra walk-throughs to get that done. But we have to be ready because we don't know which one will play. What you do in that situation is rather than worry about what they do, do what you do as best you can."

There are many areas where the Bulldogs are doing things much better. Croom talked of improvement shown against both Vanderbilt and Alabama-Birmingham, but the win over Florida proved it beyond questioning. The SEC's least-efficient offense produced four touchdowns and a field goal on 409 yards and held the ball over 32 minutes, all against a potent league defense.

The return of quarterback Omarr Conner after a two-game absence was the greatest single boost, Croom said. "His presence inspired our entire team, particularly in the offense." But the offensive line put together by far its best performance, both protecting a more mobile passer and opening room for the ground game. "Our offensive line allowed Jerious Norwood to have a great performance. Those guys really picked it up, especially late when we needed to put the game away."

Conner ran for 50 yards and threw for 158 more, hitting nine different targets for gains. A few tosses were to backs, but for the first time State had a real ‘corps' of wide receivers to work with. "Before that it was go to Will Prosser," Croom said. Now with split ends McKinley Scott and Tee Milons either healthy or on-track, and progress by younger wideouts such as Joey Sanders, there are multiple options available. "We still don't have great speed there but we've got guys that will make catches and run after the catch. Even if we don't have the ability to go deep we can keep the chains moving."

While Croom would still rather not run Conner any more often than necessary, and Kentucky will have seen the rollouts and bootlegs used so effectively against Florida, those plays will remain in the repertoire. "We told him he had to be smart," Croom said. "For the first time I'm coaching a guy to get out of bounds and go down. That's not my style, but we're a better team with Omarr than without him."

On defense the most significant improvement has been in the whole team's tackling, a sore point going into the open date that looked much stronger afterwards. Croom gave part of the credit to changing the starting linebackers to utilize younger and surer stoppers such as Gabe O'Neal, Titus Brown, and Quinton Culberson. "That had a big impact and increased our team speed and ability to tackle." Yet he also pointed to better sticking-and-stopping by the whole unit, though Croom added that this is an area still with plenty of potential progress—particularly open-field tackling.

To that end, "We will practice tackling the rest of the season, and from now on. We will coach every single day as long as I am here."

The special teams came in for more praise, with the punting of Jared Cook and return work of Jonathan Lowe getting the headlines. "Our kicking game was drastically improved in all areas," Croom said. "Except our placekick defense. I don't think we ahd the effort we normally have on extra-points and field goals. Other than that our kickers did an excellent job, our return many made excellent decisions."

Cornerback Mario Bobo (hamstring/groin) was in a red-cross jersey Monday. "He wanted to practice yesterday, we held him one more day and hopefully he'll be better." Tight end Eric Butler (ankle) practiced on a limited basis. "We hope he's close to 100% by gametime." Croom also said he would have to still be careful with Scott's hamstring.

The status of wideout Ray Ray Bivines was raised, and Croom appeared to close a book on the senior's career. "Based on talking with our academic people and looking at eligibility we don't have any options. If he doesn't play this is it. Right now his leg is not totally well, we would not get any productivity and risk further injury to him."

Croom was able to announce unit MVPs, something not done since the opening week win over Tulane. Norwood won the offensive honor, cornerback David Heard was defensive MVP, and Lowe the special teams standout. He also named Lance Lang and Fred Akines as the offensive and defensive ‘service' awards winners from the scout teams.

Conner, Culberson, and Keith Andrews will serve as game captains for Kentucky.

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