Certainly this lidlifter was much more enjoyable than, if not nearly so historic as, last year's opener. Croom could afford to admit by Saturday night that Murray State was a game his team could be optimistic about (obviously you never say such things in advance). Last September the coach honestly wasn't sure his first MSU team could score a point, much less beat Tulane. We can only imagine the relief Croom felt in the third quarter when his second State squad took total control against a quite competitive I-AA team.
For that matter let's give credit for resisting any temptation to run up a score. Though, with 38 points on the board sending in the subs for the whole last quarter was a clear enough message anyway. Also worth noting is that while August camp was brutally grueling at times it was just as obvious that State's starters were still in good enough condition to go the whole four frames if necessary. It wasn't, but that's good to know all the same.
No, the relief Croom felt after this 2005 debut win was entirely different from last year. Actually just getting to play football after last week was relief enough. Yes, saying much of anything about the aftermath of Katrina by now is saying too much, so this portion will be short. But it's worth reporting Croom's commentary on what last week was like even here, over 200 miles from the Gulf Coast.
"This week it hasn't ever been all football," Croom said. "You can't get away from it. I know I didn't." Fortunately the coach's family is safe in Mobile and suffered modest property damage.
Some Dogs weren't so blessed. New Orleans area kids Derek Ambrose and Jeremy Jones can see clips of their neighborhoods still drowned by storm waters. Mississippi Coast natives Eric Butler and Adam Carlson lost their homes. Charles Burns' Hattiesburg home is wrecked. "Everything they've got is gone," Croom said. "And I was very impressed with the way they went about the week."
Without intending any insult to all those just trying to put a semblance of a life together today, Bulldog football is content to have gotten through their opening week and weekend alike. Successfully, too. No, Murray State is not Louisiana State, though the Racers have some (pardon the pun) hosses and could do good things in I-AA. I don't think the presence of Nick Turner would have altered the outcome in the long (sorry again) run; in fact the former Dog would likely have just motivated MSU's defense to even greater efforts.
The Dog D did well enough as it was. Sure, there were early anxieties when Ken Topps was skittering around like an uncatchable video game figure. Even Croom agreed that the defense got off to a slow start. "I was disappointed in us early." But State adapted, particularly by using mobile line guys like Titus Brown and Avery Hannibal for pressure. More than that, the safeties played a smart game and almost never lost their heads—or containment—by racing up to help chase the passer. The one such gaffe led to Murray's only score, otherwise the whole defense played a smart, steady game when they easily could have gotten carried away in first-game excitement. They kept poise, stayed patient and let superior size and strength ultimately tell as the visitors wore down.
And, got scoring support not seen last season. I'm not downplaying the obvious fact that the two most crucial touchdowns of the game were not entirely the work of the offense. State's first scoring drive continued only because of a dumb hold by a Racer before a punt got airborne; the automatic first down seemed to put some spark into the Dog offense and produced points. Then came that game-changing fumble when safety Jeramie Johnson rattled the ball loose without knowing it. His safety partner Demario Bobo did, recovering a yard inside midfield. One play later Keon Humphries made Omarr Conner look brilliant by catching a dying duck ("I'd have shot that thing" said Croom) and the Bulldogs were in control, even it took the third period to clinch the matter.
Croom was honestly surprised at the offensive effectiveness this first time out. "It looked better than I expected. No question our Bully-ball offense threw them off-balance early." That comment had us scratching heads post-game, since the coach never used the term in August. Was he talking technically, or technique-ally? Did he just mean lining up and bullying the smaller Racers in the trenches? Or has this year's playbook been given a new title? Expect that question to be asked in Monday morning's teleconference by us curious scribes.
Opening night also showed the maturing of Conner as a college quarterback. Not that he's a finished product in any rating, least of all his own, after just 11 games on the job. Conner offered an interesting comment Saturday about being "suspended a year from quarterback," referring to that freshman season as a wideout. It's idle speculation now to ask how much more developed he would be now without that ‘suspension' since the whole offense has changed since 2003 anyway.
Conner is clearly a different player this second September under center and in this system. He said three of his four touchdown tosses were on reads of the defense before and after the snap. "Some of them weren't meant to go that deep but I took what the defense gave me." The first TD, a 37-yard strike to Tee Milons barely ahead of the defender, typified the difference. "I saw a chance to make a play, that just comes from knowing the offense. Last year I'd probably have gone with the (called) play and tried to force a throw. This year I know how to read defenses better and I took what they gave me."
Also worth noting is that Conner's arm was not full-strength due to August over-work. We allowed to observe the last week of practices noted privately (but not in print!) that his throws were not at all crisp; turns out he had a sore shoulder from throwing too often the first weeks of camp. Croom commented that next August the #1 quarterback total passes will be charted (a ‘pitch count'?) to prevent similar soreness. Not that Conner would've missed this kickoff. "I told Coach I was ready." Ready to tie a program record with four TD tosses.
Obviously Auburn's defense will be far harder to read or beat. Yet the quarterback now has a few more tools to use against SEC Ds. One of his scoring throws was to soph Eric Butler who tied a record of his own with a fifth touchdown as a tight end…in only his 12th college game, at that. Split end Tee Milons showed his own progress by making a beautiful move, and under-pressure catch, for State's first TD of the season. And while Will Prosser is still a bit rusty from that foot fracture the hands and smarts are clearly OK.
Now these vets have at least one precocious pup to expand the aerial repertoire. Humphries got a taste of play last September before redshirting with a bad wheel. His second chance at a first game was fantastic. Not only did he suck in a textbook strike for one touchdown, he adjusted to that aforementioned duck of a pass and scored it. And Croom only expects more from the kid.
"Keon is not full-speed yet, to be honest with you. He is an excellent route-runner, really improved over last year. He has the ability to run by people and run routes."
Humphries is also an obvious beneficiary of this second year of the State system. The 2004 team just had insufficient opportunity—and in many position cases, personnel—to be more than bare-bones. Now don't get the idea that Croom has installed even a third of the playbook he eventually intends to. But we did see some nice new pages Saturday, didn't we? There were more varied formations and sets, entire series run without a fullback and the next possession with. One and two tight ends, three and four receivers…and on the whole everybody seemed to know what they were doing before the ball was hiked. Croom isn't happy with seven penalties but few of them produced outright wrath.
"We're coming along," said Humphries. "The line was excellent, they gave time for Omarr to put the ball where he needed to." And I can think of only one really muffed pass play, when Conner lofted the ball a bit high for Bryson Davis. Croom saw another, a low toss to Humphries who had to go to his knees for a screen pass that the coach thought should have been a touchdown. Then again, the coach is a perfectionist.
Humphries had another comment of interest. He said the reason the offense is more efficient now than last year was "Play calling. The plays were designed to make the defense think a certain way then we'd come with something else." Now that's something for the fan to ponder in terms of potential over the next ten game days.
"Going in we wanted explosive plays," center Chris McNeil reported. "Things that actually give us and the fans a little extra incentive or whatever." Mission accomplished. The crowd (no, there weren't 41,000 there, but it was a darn good turnout for the situation) responded in kind. "We wanted to start fast and end fast, and we pretty much got that accomplished," said senior McNeil. "But we also had some penalties we shouldn't have had, some mental mistakes. We'll think of that Monday. We know we have to get ready for next week."
Yes, next week. It's a great long stride up the competition ladder from I-AA Murray State to SEC-Auburn, and the hosting Tigers are not going to be happy hosts after getting whipped in their own homefield debut. We can spin it any way but I have to think that in this case the loss just might leave the Tigers shaken in team confidence, especially on offense. That is, they are less likely to be angry as they are upset and looking for fast answers going into SEC season. Maybe.
Meanwhile the Bulldogs have a much-needed affirmation that things are on a better track this September. Linebacker Quinton Culberson put it very well. "It's a great confidence booster going into Auburn, that we can go out and win some games."
After last season, and last week, what else could we ask for Mississippi State at this stage of a long rebuilding process? Their coach might not have wanted to discuss the second game-week of 2005, but his players were. And their comments are encouraging in a big-picture sort of way.
"We have to throw this game away," said Humphries, "have fun tonight or whatever, but Monday morning it's time to go back to work."