Bulldogs Turn Attention To Opening Game

Yes, there are much larger matters to consider this week, and a number of Bulldogs—players and staff alike—have at least a portion of their thoughts on family, friends, and home. Still the weekend will come and along with it a football game that is going to be played.

So the work goes on at Mississippi State as preparations for Saturday's debut against visiting Murray State settle into at least a semblance of game-week routine. "It's finally here," Coach Sylvester Croom said. "We're looking forward to playing and there's not a whole lot left to be said."

Not that the Bulldog coach has nothing else to say about the ongoing crisis in south Mississippi and Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In fact Croom was relieved Tuesday to hear his daughter's home in Mobile had suffered only modest storm damage, and that his wife had arrived there safely. Still inability to communicate directly with family in the devastated coastal regions, or less-affected areas of the state that still have no phone access, on the whole Bulldog staff and roster.

"And our thoughts and prayers still go out to all those people who had serious damage and loss of life," said Croom.

What the coach did not say, nor need to, was that trying to get back into as much of a regular season rhythm as reasonable is one way to keep spirits up on campus and around Starkville. By Wednesday most of the area had power, town traffic was getting back to speed, and some thoughts were turning to opening game-day. Scott Field and Davis Wade Stadium came through the storm-force winds and blowing rain with minimal damage and MSU administrators expected all to be in working order in time for the 6:00 kickoff against the Racers.

Thus, the Bulldogs are back to something approaching normal working days. "We'll be on our regular schedules as far as practices and what we do," Croom said.

"Game week comes and you get focused on what you've got to do, final details, and we have a lot of details to take care of as far as our assignments. We've still got a lot of young guys that need all they work they can get, but at the same time we want to get everybody healthy, feeling good, and ready to play."

There is a whole lot to get done before Croom is comfortable about this battle of MSUs. "When you're getting ready for a team you haven't played, and it's a first game, there are a lot of unknowns. You have the unknowns of your own team and of their team." The abbreviations are the same but the teams play in entirely different leagues, if not worlds. SEC-member State is hosting a Racer squad that plays in Division I-AA, and in the Ohio Valley Conference.

The schools have not met since 1946, but it might not matter if they had played last fall in terms of preparing for this matchup. The State staff has scouted every scrap of Murray State tape they can get and still are in the dark about key aspects to the Racers, which graduated 19 lettermen from their 7-4 squad of 2004. The basic outlines of the Murray State squad are reasonably clear, though…especially of an offense that might just be one of the most potent in I-AA ball this fall.

"It's time, our defense has really got to step up," Croom said. "And they've got a great challenge with those two fine backs, the quarterback, and two big receivers. They've got their work cut out for them."

Mississippi State is ironically familiar with two of those skill players, both of whom began their college careers as Bulldogs. Halfback Nick Turner was maybe the most-touted recruit of State's 2002 class, and after running afoul of the law as a freshman he ranked second in SEC all-purpose yards as a 2003 sophomore. He was dismissed by Croom two months into the new regime for not meeting team rules and ended up at Murray State, a program that thrives on transfers from D-I programs all over the country. Now he is the feature runner in a backfield that piles up yards on the ground.

Another one-time Dog, Ken Topps, left after a year because he wanted to be a college quarterback and not a receiver as State coaches projected. Murray State offered the opportunity and now junior Topps is operating a quality offense. He not only has Turner to tote the ball but power back Chad Cook. He can target several talented wideouts, such as Dan Rumley, Hattiesburg native Jonathan Eiland, and Kentucky transfer Dan Rumley.

"I'm very concerned about the two big receivers they have," said Croom. "They have a new quarterback in Topps who is an excellent talent. That makes them very dangerous. If you try to load up to stop the run they've got two receivers to go to on the outside."

As for the ground game, "We know Nick Turner is a good player, Ken Topps is an excellent runner, and having a big back like Cook with a skill guy like Nick is a nice combination. Two different styles of runners, that really complicates matters for our defense."

The Murray State D doesn't get as much attention as the other side of the ball but Croom is taking this bunch of Racers seriously, too. "Defensively their scheme is a problem," he notes. "They've got eight or nine men at the line of scrimmage and can run all kinds of blitzes from a multitude of people." But the Racers will also drop into a more conventional setup and just cover the passing routes without a lot of personnel changes. "The scheme causes you problems," said Croom. "We've got to know our assignments in detail, and not only know them but be able to execute them."

The Bulldog coach is not just fluffing up a visiting I-AA foe…and as he said Monday, Mississippi State learned a lesson about what lower-Division teams can do in last year's loss to Maine at Scott Field. And Croom is entirely serious about the uncertainties in his own lineup. Not the depth chart, which is set for the opener, but how cohesive these lineups will be in the first live test. There is more confidence about how the Dog defense will perform in the opener, though they will certainly get a testing. "We've got to be able to stop their offense. Our defense has practiced pretty well and they've been pretty healthy, that's where the experience is. We've got to start on defense first."

Offensively there are more questions and more concerns, particularly up front. While that stacked Murray State front might not be as intimidating physically as most SEC units, the scheme and speed are plenty enough challenge for a group of Bulldog blockers that has not taken a serious snap together. Croom has particular worries about the right end of the interior line. "Avery House will probably be the starter there," he said, but added that he expects left tackle Brian Anderson to swing over to the right end at some point. That would presumably promote true freshman Michael Gates to the open LT spot, in the three-tackle rotation Croom announced last week.

"And they're going to have to get it done. They're going to have their hands full because they've got some good people playing those ends, they'll be bringing a lot of blitzes off those ends. We have to do a great job protecting to have any chance for our quarterbacks to operate." The three guards booked for game-one use are starters Johnny Wadley and Anthony Strauder, right and left respectively, with freshman Anthony Dunning in the rotation and possibly guard/center Dio Herrera. Chris McNeil will start and hopefully go all game at center, with Royce Blackledge and Herrera in relief.

Speaking of hope, Croom certainly wishes some other tackles were healthy and available. Both freshmen Calvin Wilson and Craig Jenkins are out this weekend with knee injuries and junior James Redmond is still recovering from a lower back disc operation. The veteran is out at least another week or two; Wilson could be cleared to play by next practice week. "We'll just take it a week at a time and see what happens."

For that matter the whole staff is understandably anxious to judge what will happen when the offense lines up against a different defense. The one this group has faced all August is more than tough enough, but then State should be quite competitive on D this year so maybe the offense has been well-prepared. Or, maybe not. There is no way to know until the ball is lined up and the play-clock started. "I'm anxious to see what all our players do in a game," Croom said, adding that the play-calling will have to strike a balance between not being too basic, and thus predictable, and too ambitious for a first evening out.

"So you really have to go into the game and try to play fundamental football and be ready to make adjustments. And you try to cover as many what-ifs as you possibly can and expect the unexpected and be prepared for anything that could happen. We've tried to do that through our training camp, try to practice ever situation.

"But what makes football so exciting is no matter how many situations you prepare for, you're going to have to make some adjustments, think on the run. That's just the nature of the game. You make sure your fundamentals are sound to get you through it."


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