Croom Draws Spotlight While Dogs Focus On Game

Yes, Sylvester Croom realizes that he is going to be the central story leading up to Mississippi State's game at Alabama this Saturday. Instead of fighting the fact, however, the Crimson Tide alumnus hopes to turn it into an advantage for his Bulldog team.

"I told the players I know all the attention is going to be on me," Croom said in his Monday morning teleconference. "But I'm not going to play. And that's good for us, it increases our chances."

The chances for Mississippi State scoring a third-straight Southeastern Conference win, that is. Not that Croom sees the odds leaning in MSU's favor by any means—"I expect it to be a tight game, if we can make it tight," he said—but even the smallest advantage will be welcome this weekend in Tuscaloosa.

"We're going to play an outstanding football team, a well-coached team," Croom said. And, his Bulldogs (3-5, 2-3 SEC) are also playing in hostile territory, something this team has not handled well in 2004. "We haven't won a road game," the coach pointed out.

"It's a tremendous opportunity for us, and a big challenge this week. In order to build the program we want to build you have to win on the road. There couldn't be a better time to start than this week."

From the media's perspective, there couldn't be a better story line this week than the return of Croom to the school where he played, coached, and was considered—then turned down—for the head coaching position two years ago. This story will dominate pre-game reports and columns, something both programs have expected since Croom signed on with State last December.

Yet the man himself seems the most relaxed individual involved. "I have no problem," Croom said. "The great thing about being in the NFL for 17 years is I've learned how to stay on an even keel. I'm going to do the same thing this week. You focus on the game because nothing else matters. Winning a road game is all that matter this week, and advancing our program."

Advancing this week is no small matter though. Especially advancing the ball against what Croom says is by far the best defense State has faced in 2004. "This might be one of the best defenses that's ever been there," he said. "They're extremely fast, well-coached, they tackle well." Croom has long experience with Tide coordinator Joe Kines and knows there will be no secrets Saturday, on either side. Even then it probably would not help given Alabama's defensive speed. "They must have gone to the track team," Croom quipped. "They know exactly what they're doing, they're simple, and they don't make mistakes."

Nor does Croom expect Alabama's offense to make many errors. "They run the ball, they use high-percentage passes and they don't hurt themselves." Croom also knows well UA head coach Mike Shula from Tampa Bay days. "He did an excellent job of calling plays," Croom said, adding that with UA playing a backup quarterback he expects a basic but efficient gameplan.

"It will probably be inch-by-inch," the head coach said. " Our kicking game is going to be critical, we've got to maintain some field position. They know we're a nickel-and-dime outfit in passing game, we have to execute to perfection and our kicking game bail us out of some stuff."

The Bulldogs are coming off a 22-7 home win over Kentucky, which followed up a headline-grabbing and program-turning 38-31 win over Florida. Croom liked how his defense was able to follow up an emotional victory with a solid effort against the lesser Wildcats, and noted that missed tackles went from 17 two weeks ago to five.

But he was perturbed by lack of offensive production against Kentucky. Sunday tape-review confirmed that in effect running backs Jerious Norwood and Fred Reid essentially took the gameplan on their own shoulders and made things happen. The passing game was another matter entirely. "We didn't throw and catch as well, that's very disappointing to me. It was a total meltdown."

But it was also a win, a second-straight victory and another conference triumph. Croom called beating Florida "probably the cornerstone" in what he still sees as a long-term building process. "And we added to that with Kentucky." By whatever description, those wins have brought an entirely different and better attitude to a team that needed a mid-season shot in the arm.

"It just gave everybody confidence that we're moving in the right direction," Croom said. "Our players are playing with confidence and are starting to do what we really wanted to do the entire year, which is maximize our ability. I don't back off the statement that we're still not a very talented football team, in some areas. But you use what you've got the best you can, and usually that will work out."

Health-wise there was some encouraging results from the training room. Center Chris McNeil took a blow to the back of the helmet in the first quarter, landed facemask-first, and had to go to the locker room for examination. He did return for a couple of series but before halftime had to again be removed with a severe headache and grogginess. Croom was expecting an update in the afternoon. "As of Sunday it was positive and we expect him to work today. But he can't do any contact work yet. We think he'll be alright for the game, but I haven't talked to our trainers."

Norwood ended the game with an icepack on his left knee. "He'll do a little something today," Croom reported. "We don't expect him to miss any time. Our big concern is McKinley Scott's constant aggravated hamstring. That's a day-to-day deal with him always." Scott did not play against Kentucky after a big game against Florida. Offensive guard Johnny Wadley had to leave the game late, grabbing at his left thigh with what turned out to be cramps. "Johnny's always limping, frowning, but he just keeps on going."

With Norwood sidelined and Reid tired after a hard day, Croom used Derek Ambrose as the third running back. He said Ambrose's contributions on special teams gave the juco transfer an edge over such contenders as Rickey Wright and Demarcus Johnson for the place on the SEC roster, as well as Wright's fumbling problems in practices. That at times has been an issue with Ambrose, too, and Croom noted that he told the junior he had better have two hands on the ball at all times.

Croom confirmed his statements of early October that senior Ray Ray Bivines will likely not get to play this last college season. "He's done everything he possibly can to get well, no one has been more diligent as far as his rehabilitation. But it's just not working. We've tried to get him into the mix and it appears that's just not going to happen."

What is happening these days is a team that had lost five-straight games is putting things together in ways that are suddenly successful. Croom is also celebrating the NCAA's final ruling on a three-year investigation of the program under his predecessor. The sanctions and probation are not good things, of course, but at last the issues have been settled. Especially with regard to recruiting.

"Oh, it's huge. The worst thing is uncertainty. It was far worse than the penalty. A four-year probation is not an ideal situation but we'll operate under the sanctions. I'm disappointed for our seniors but I'm happy that the ruling is over, it's clearly defined, and we will have a chance to compete for a conference title the next four years. Now we can move on."

On to Tuscaloosa, that is, where the head coach doesn't mind drawing all the pre-game attention as long as his own team can stay focused on the real job. "I can zone everything else out when it comes to a game," Croom said.

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