Croom Wants Sustained Win Steak At Tide's Expense

The question gave Coach Sylvester Croom pause. "First time I've pulled against Alabama?" he wondered aloud in response to a reporter's inquiry. "I haven't thought about it that way," he said, smiling.

But what this Alabama alumnus-turned-Mississippi State head coach does know is he hopes to be smiling again Saturday night, after his Bulldogs walk off Bryant-Denny Field. Because setting aside all personal issues and ambitions, Croom knows what that would mean. "It will be a big win for our program," he said Tuesday afternoon as State prepares for this weekend's SEC slugfest in Tuscaloosa.

Those preparations were accelerated somewhat Tuesday, with practice starting over an hour earlier than usual due to the threat of wet weather later in the day. A 2:45 start allowed State to get some necessary outdoors drills done, work Croom said was essential if the Bulldogs are to put a full plan together for Alabama.

For the second day of prep-week the Bulldogs were not quite full-strength. "We're still a little beat-up," Croom said. Center Chris McNeil (concussion) was restricted again Tuesday and running back Jerious Norwood (sore left knee) limited. And defensive tackle Ron Fields (neck burner) wears a precautionary red jersey at drills these days. "Just little nicks. We'll get them some work in specific plays, new stuff we may introduce, but it won't be a lot of contact for those guys." Croom is counting on having all these starters ready by Saturday."

And the coaching staff will need every available body and likely then some if State is to keep the first winning streak of Croom's first season going. The Bulldogs are coming off consecutive victories over Florida and Kentucky, and though media and fans still talk of upsetting the Gators the head coach believes beating the Wildcats was just as big in the current context. "Right now every win is big." Croom said.

"We've been dealing with adversity all year long, we had a chance for the first time to deal with a positive situation and still win a football game." And now that the Dogs are 3-5, 2-3 SEC, and starting to show both success and confidence? New opportunity and challenge wrapped in one road trip. "To win a road game, a conference road game, and three conference games in a row, that would be a landmark for our program right now."

But a difficult landmark to reach, much less get past. Croom figures the Crimson Tide should be rested after an open date, and primed with their opportunity to earn a bowl bid after two year's NCAA sanctions. "So I'm sure we'll get the best they have to offer. I'm sure we will see some wrinkles in every phase in the game we have not seen and have to make some adjustments there."

Not that State's staff is looking for anything really radical from the Alabama offense, which has had the backfield positions ravaged by injuries this season. Croom has had some time to look at what new starting quarterback Spencer Pennington—who turned down MSU baseball to play football in his homestate—had done so far, and fits it into his previous grasp of Mike Shula's tendencies as a NFL coach.

"He wants the quarterback to manage the offense, not do anything to hurt them, to move keep the chains moving and make plays when he has the opportunity to do that. And he does a very good job."

A job made much easier by the group on the other side of the locker room. Alabama comes into this game with possibly the nation's best all-around defensive unit, one which Croom insists is the best he's seen in a Tide uniform during his football lifetime going back to 1971. "I don't hesitate to say that. It's going to be a tremendous challenge.

"Everybody totally understands what they do, they don't give you anything. They have great talent, everybody on that unit can run. Even when you get guys blocked they don't stay blocked, guys that get knocked down don't stay down. It's going to be a game of inches this week."

And how will Mississippi State get the inches, and hopefully yards and points? Whatever the temptations, Croom does not intend to get away from this team's fundamental gameplan or the general themes this staff wants to run every year. Specifically, keep pounding the ground and picking prime spots for passes.

"We don't have a chance of winning if we don't throw the football. All we've got to do is execute the passing game we do have. We know what we can and cannot do, and we're going to be who we are. We're going to run the football."

If the quick scouting report sounds like a matchup of mirror images, well, Croom doesn't mind. In fact he tends to agree with that assessment. "I think you're going to see two teams that are similar in the way they attack things. You guys might be bored with the game, it might be 3-0. But as long as we've got three and they've got nothing, I don't care."

Nor does State's ‘rookie' head coach care if his return to Tuscaloosa hometown dominates game-week headlines more than the teams involved. He's excited, he said, and his wife, daughter, brother, and other family and friends will be present for the event. His mother won't. "She'll be at home, watching."

And, hopefully, watching her son's team succeed in extending their first SEC streak. "With a little luck and some good things happening to us, maybe we can come away with a win," Croom said.

Tuesday, Croom announced Kentucky game MVPs as Fred Reid on offense, Michael Heard on defense, and punter Jared Cook. Scout team ‘service' MVPs were Chris Swain, Jamal Smith, and Dennis Little. He also reported that captains for the Alabama game will be offensive tackle David Stewart, Kevin Dockery, and Cook.

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