Give State a couple more sure-stopping linebackers and just one, one, big-play receiver to stretch the defense and create isolation matchups for Jerious Norwood, and the scales suddenly look pretty darn balanced to my eyes. Though candor demands adding that if Alabama still had their September starting backfield both this 2004 SEC race and the B.C.S. rankings would look very different right now.
No, by ‘that' I obviously mean all the hype and hoopla surrounding Sylvester Croom, and building from the day he was hired in Starkville up to his return to Tuscaloosa. It's never going to go away entirely of course. And in fact, after the game Croom said he doesn't want the subject ever to end completely. But as I interpreted the press conference comments, he was talking in terms of building his own Bulldog program up to the point of ultimately competing evenly with his alma mater. And not from any lingering notion of payback over getting turned down by Alabama, but because if—or as he insists, when—Mississippi State reaches that status, then Bulldog football will be playing annually for championships.
But, Croom adds, that point is a long ways off. Years into the future. So the next step for State is to get right back to work this week, open date or not, in both preparing the '04 Bulldogs for their final two games; and in the next stage of recruiting, which will be a focus of the free weekend for the staff.
My point is that with the first ‘homecoming' out of the way, Croom & Co. and for that matter everyone else can indeed get back to the more typical work, without the distractions and interruptions inherent in the situation since last December. Put another way, from now on all media questions will be about this team and the next game, not an old snub and one particular contest. That one is in the books. Now Croom and the Bulldogs can expend all energy on writing future chapters of their own.
For a while, though, this team appeared intent on grabbing headlines for themselves and not their coach. For much of a half the Bulldogs went cleat-to-cleat and held their own, and don't think the home folk weren't sweating (and for that matter, SEC folk concerned about filling all available bowl slots next month). If I had to pick a turning point, it was the second-quarter completed pass to Will Prosser overruled by a motion penalty. And it was a penalty, folks. It was also a credit to the Tide defense's sheer speed, as Bulldog blockers were desperate to get any sort of jump all evening that they often fired a heartbeat too soon. One press box wag said if Richard Burch got called for one more penalty he'd foul out. That's just how intense Burch and the linemen were about their job, though, and they did a pretty good job under the circumstances.
Heroic, even. Take Brian Anderson; when he was helped off the field we all feared the worst, and indeed he had re-sprained that bad ankle. But danged if he wasn't back at guard and in the fight the next quarter. What a tough, tough kid. And Norwood…did anyone else observe him gimping to the sideline just before State's second touchdown? Few could have seen what I did in the locker room (had to use the facilities, OK?) as Norwood walked like a peg-legged pirate, swinging that left limb out and around on every stride. But he played, and ran, and took and gave hits with the best.
You can draw two facts from those examples. First, State has no depth worth the word. By all rights those guys ought to have been safely on a bench for the last period instead of risking further injury and loss for the last two games. Alabama can lose a quarterback, tailback, and fullback with 17 TDs between them, and still put a 200-yard runner on the field and make just enough pass plays to balance things out. State can't lose anyone without literally crippling the entire offense. Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting…
Second, and more encouragingly, whether hurting or healthy these Bulldogs continue to play desperately hard and, in many cases, increasingly well. We might and some indeed will gripe about ‘where was this team back in September,' but that's also in the past. And in a strange way, I wonder if years from now we'll look back at losses to Maine, Vanderbilt, etc., as ironically crucial in rebuilding a program. As if, the players had to be completely convinced of how much work needed doing before they could get any real work done. Or maybe that's just sportwriter psychology on a sunny Sunday afternoon. What do y'all think?
I do know that this is a most welcome open date and chance to get some kids healthy and work out a few final kinks…as well as recruit, recruit, recruit. These Bulldogs have gotten a healthy taste of SEC success, while still being reminded that the big overall job is still entirely in the groundwork stages. That fact won't change no matter how the Arkansas and Mississippi games play out. But it is encouraging to see that Mississippi State will go into those final contests with some new, and honestly earned, confidence in their coaches, their gameplans, and most of all in themselves. That, folks, is progress.
Besides, we saw what happened following the last open date, right?
Let's Tip This Thing Off…
Taking advantage of a chance to ride with someone holding a really good parking pass—as well as to get a lot of writing done on the drive back—I left campus around 2:00, having watched about twenty minutes of exhibition hoops at The Hump. With all the pre-game folderol the ball didn't tip off until 1:20 anyway, but it was worth it to watch SEC Championship rings handed out to the 2003-04 Bulldogs. Only Timmy Bowers, trying out for a spot on a Developmental League roster, couldn't make it, and his mother accepted the jewelry. Branden Vincent was on-hand, and he envies future teams for having their highlights on that great, big, excellent scoreboard/message center now hanging from the rafters along with Bulldog championship banners.
As to the play itself, nope, the visitors from South of the Border weren't so hot as competition for a revamped and, for that matter, currently-repairing State lineup. I suggested to Coach Rob Kirby that a sign be posted on the locker room door, stating that any freshman who injures Lawrence Roberts from now on loses his scholarship. Two rookie forwards, Charles Rhodes and Jerrell Houston, have hit our All-American harder than any foe did last season, and the latest blow (no pun intended) to his nose will need midweek surgery to repair. He'd have missed Thursday's opener anyway after the NCAA finally ruled a violation of amateurism rules, and a rather odd ruling it is to some minds in-the-know. But it's done, and by coincidence will cost State nothing a practice injury did not force anyway. If State gets by a good Fairfield squad, no sure thing the way Stansbury explains it, likely second-round opponent Birmingham-Southern will throw a lot of zones and three-point shots at the Bulldogs.
So this early tipoff to the season and now the absence of Roberts made yesterday's exhibition more than a warm-up act. That was the starting lineup and player rotation we're going to see in Birmingham this week. I certainly think it's a group that can win the first two rounds and advance to New York, where presumably the big Dog will be able to rejoin the lineup. If Shane Power keeps shooting as he has in preseason—not just last year's set shots but real jumpers off the move or on spot-ups—and Marcus Campbell shows the same increased intensity demonstrated against PanAmerica (6-of-10, 12 boards), we might not miss Roberts so badly for a week after all. We all know just how vital it is that Campbell finally, at last, put potential into play if this team is to achieve championship results. I think he does, too. Marcus also obviously sees how much Wesley Morgan has improved and how tough, even mean, the 7-2 kid is playing now that he's added some bulk to the frame.
Oh, and all y'all lucky enough to watch both last week's scrimmage and yesterday's game have seen the surprise of the preseason. Walter Sharpe is good. I mean, much better than anticipated and far better than he showed in fall conditioning. He's also the lone rookie frontcourt guy not to hurt Roberts…so far. He'll hurt other people in the future, though, and his accelerated development makes me wish I could re-write some of the November issue's preseason article to allow for Sharpe's likely contributions.
There are some questions yet to be settled. Piotr Stelmach has a good grasp of the game and will fit in with the veterans this week well, but still seems a bit, oh, mechanical is the word that comes to mind. And for all Gary Ervin's up-tempo talents, in the exhibition he and the other four guys on the floor weren't always running at the same speed, so Stansbury is going to have to figure out a happy medium here if the turnover total is to shrink. Depth at point is the glaring concern; there ain't any as long as Dietrick Slater (still awaiting fall semester eligibility) and Jamaal Edmondson (reported hamstring injury) are out of uniform.
But those are issues to take care of over the course of November and into December. And it's not as if we are talking about the difference between being competitive and being a contender. This team is clearly the latter already. We're talking about the margin between contending and winning another championship, and that's as fine a statement as any about the status of Stansbury's program. Just take it easy on Lawrence, OK?
See y'all in Birmingham.