Stalking through the press box, frustrated out of professional demeanor, I vented to longtime friend Charles Bloom, who also happens to be an associate SEC commissioner. "I know y'all want eight teams in bowl games," fumed I, "but that's incredible."
I immediately felt bad about it, of course. And by the third-quarter kickoff I'd settled down, admitting the obvious fact. There was no ‘plan' to make sure Arkansas stayed bowl-eligible. The botched business at the scoreboard end of Scott Field was not from intention, just incompetence. That was a non-TV game, so we got a non-prime time crew to officiate the Dogs ‘n Hogs. Which is a double-tragedy, because if ever this season State needed some network camera angles for reviewing close calls this game was it.
Not that it would have changed the calls. Nor do I ever want replay in college ball. Just send us some competent, dedicated officials to call the #$%& games, will ya? I ran into a MSU assistant coach this morning, both buying a Subway for lunch. Won't ID the guy, but he said when he was coaching in a non-major conference a couple years ago their officials were better, more efficient, and motivated. Naturally, says I; those guys were trying to prove themselves and get ‘drafted' into the bigger leagues. Where, sadly, it is almost inevitable they will become comfortable, then lazy, and even sloppy. Not to mention old and out-of-shape in some cases…could that have been Elvis guarding the football with the seconds running away and not letting State get lined up for a clock-stopping snap? And as bad as Croom's knees are he was still able to run down Bigfoot the crew chief en route to their locker room.
Ah, well. Maybe some find it comforting to believe Saturday's results were ordained. Me, I'm more interested in Croom's response to how the game was called…or more accurately, how his first season back in the SEC has been officiated. In just three months Croom has learned to talk the way we Bulldogs have about league zebras for, oh, 50 years now?
Saturday, fresh from the fight, the coach was doing some venting of his own. "I want to know why we don't get out-of-bounds calls," he said, "I don't know why we don't get the fumble when the ball comes out before he hits the ground, we've got the ball." (I can vouch for that one, being 20 yards away on the sideline with a good view of the uncalled turnover.) "Why isn't that a fumble? I want to know why they don't get holding calls when Willie Evans' jersey is being pulled on all day long." (Almost as bad as in the fourth quarter of the Florida game). "I want to know why we get called for pushing off. I just want to understand what the rules are. Maybe it's my fault, maybe I should be teaching that technique."
You had to be there to appreciate the sarcasm in that statement, and the total frustration in his perception of an unbalanced playing field. Join the club, Coach. Griping about officiating is the second-most popular topic of discussion after any Mississippi State football game. Quarterback play is first. Though after Omarr Conner's splendid effort in defeat Saturday the sophomore received only hosannas. Imagine what State's record would be right now if Conner had been given a year to learn this offense in practice, not on-the-job as he's been forced to. Or if the line had been healthy and experienced enough to gel in August, not October. We're finally seeing the kind of offense Croom has been preaching since he arrived in town, and boy, is it fun to watch.
It's not yet seasoned or solid enough to win games outright, though. After punching out a pair of first-quarter touchdowns the Dogs should have been able to pad their lead further before halftime, no matter how long the Hogs held the ball in that grueling second quarter. And as remarkable a playmaker as Matt Jones (thank heavens we won't see his like on a college field again) is, you'd think the defense could have made at least one drive-halting play in that crucial quarter. Though, again, a slightly generous fourth-down spotting of the ball did help Arkansas put their first touchdown on the board. Did anyone else see the spotting official take an angular track before placing his toe? Maybe it was my imagination. I surely wasn't imagining a quick trigger on the play clock after McKinley Scott's big catch set State up for an infuriating failure. Croom is on to something with his belief college ball should go to a NFL-style 40 second clock and solve a lot of spotting-and-starting inconsistency.
And as aggravating as the pre-half gaffes were, the blocked field goal and touchdown return was the real back-breaker. By the way, I have no beef with Croom's decision to kick for a tie when the needed distance was maybe a ball's length. That looked like what I'd call a ‘NFL' decision; as in, pro coaches are inherently conservative in such situations. Croom has made a few other such choices over the course of this first year, where a longtime college coach is more likely to take a chance. It will be interesting to see if his philosophy adapts along those lines next year.
There were also a few penalties and less-obvious mental busts in other settings that contributed to eventual defeat, the coach acknowledged. "We're just not at a point where we can make mistakes and overcome them on a consistent basis. We're not at that point yet."
What I'm really saying is officiating did not lose the game outright for State. Nor is Croom showing a full-blown case of Mississippi State paranoia about refs. He just wants to know what the rules are, both the published and unwritten variety. "We've been dealing with this all year," he said. "We've been fighting uphill all year. Very little if anything has gone our way the entire year. We have not gotten breaks. Our kids are fighting as hard as they can fight, and we're not getting any breaks.
"I'm not looking for anybody to hand us anything, I'm just want things to be even. You can't go through an entire season and everything go against you."
Hopefully nothing goes against Mississippi State this weekend, officially that is. Yet even if the whistles sound sour again I don't expect the Bulldogs to go into a sulk now. If we can look for a silver lining to yesterday, it's that the players never seemed to let bad calls get to them. Well, the no-call on the fumble did fan a few flames. Still this team has spent a hard season developing some very encouraging attributes. That's why their coach almost took affront when asked if the Bulldogs could handle this setback. "That's one thing, we are a mentally tough football team. And we are physically tough. We have to be just to get this far."
In fact, how many of us thought oh, back at the end of September, that this team would be this far along in the rebuilding process? Two SEC wins, and two coulda/shoulda games, have to be seen as real progress considering how State began the year. That's why even in his frustration Croom had some good words for his players.
"I'm proud of the guys that are here, because they have been through a tremendous ordeal. I have been on them all year and made it very uncomfortable for some of them. And they have kept going and battling and fighting, and I'm proud to be a part of them." That pride didn't stop the coach from making his players watch the Razorbacks celebrating on State's field, by the way.
Which raises an interesting question for the week—would the first-year coach mind if the Dogs did a little celebrating in Oxford this Saturday, should the Egg Bowl turn out the right way? There's no way to know until and if that happens, but we can certainly hope for the best, can't we? Certainly the Bulldogs head into this season-finale with a degree of hard-earned confidence and a much-improved chance of prevailing in the rivalry game than they would have had just a month ago.
And should any of y'all wonder if an Alabama man appreciates what the Golden Egg means to us natives, well, here what Croom said. "It's Ole Miss. There's nothing else to say."
OK, so there is a lot else we can say. But for now I'll let the Bulldogs say it. Such as McKinley Scott's comment. "Nothing gets bigger than Ole Miss." Or Darren Williams, seeking his first win over the archrival. "Everybody is excited about this one this weekend. We definitely have to go out with a bang."
The team now believes they can end 2004 making the right kind of noise. "We're a completely different team," Williams explained. "We've played well in adversity and showed people we'll never quit."
Quit? This team is just getting started, even if it is the end of a season. There's always 2005, though, and a victory in the 101st Egg Bowl is the best imaginable momentum-builder for the off-season.
As Jerious Norwood put it, "Hopefully we can pull out the winning and carry it over from then to next year." Now, about that mystical NCAA letter that's allegedly been sitting in Oxford for the last three years…d'ya reckon the Loch Ness Monster ate it?