Bulldogs Prepare For First Road Trip, SEC Test

Mississippi State passed the first true test of 2005 impressively, racking up a 38-6 victory over Murray State on the home field and getting the 2005 schedule off to a satisfying start. So, what next for the Bulldogs?

"We've got to get ready to go to Auburn," Coach Sylvester Croom says, simply.

Maybe that's all that really needs saying at the moment, since the coach's statement sums up both the schedule and the situation for State. The Bulldogs had Sunday to savor their debut triumph; now it's Monday and nothing matters but preparing for not only the next game, not only State's SEC opener, but also the first road trip of '05.

This league lidlifter for both teams will be televised regionally by Jefferson-Pilot with kickoff at 11:38 a.m. CT at Jordon-Hare Stadium. The Bulldogs will arrive with a win on their early-season scoresheet, while Croom figures the hosts won't be in a happy mood after falling at home to Georgia Tech in their debut, a defeat that will likely cost Auburn their preseason top-20 ranking.

"They lost, so there won't be any sneaking up on them. It'll be a real challenge."

Maybe it's because the State staff is just wrapping up their in-depth scouting of this year's Tiger team, but as of Monday morning the initial challenge Croom talked about is getting the Bulldogs ready to play away from home, period, and especially in conference competition.

"We haven't won a road conference game around here in a long time," the coach said. "So we're looking forward to it."

That is an interesting way to look at the weekend, since it implies a sense of optimism on the State staff that there is the chance to score the first road success in years. Specifically, the last Bulldog road win of any sort was at Memphis in October, 2002; and the last road SEC victory was at Kentucky in November, 2001. Croom's first MSU team only ventured away from home four times and did not come back with any wins.

Yet judging by player attitudes post-Murray State, and the head coach's outlook to begin the week, Mississippi State is looking forward to playing on the plains of southeast Alabama. At the very least Croom expects his second team to be much more competitive against the Tigers than in last September's 43-14 rout at Scott Field. "We were horrible, it was downright awful," Croom said.

"We're coming back with some of those same guys, it's just we look so different this year. I don't know how good we are but I know we're a lot better than last year."

Certainly an opening-night thrashing, even if it was of a I-AA visitor, confirms Croom's evaluation that these Bulldogs are a better ball team. A relieved one, too, as the win produced almost all the right answers to nagging pre-season questions. "We were happy we were able to win our opening game, and by a margin that allowed us to play a lot of people." In fact the whole fourth quarter was taken care of by backups and reserves after the varsity had reeled off five unanswered touchdowns in the second and third quarters.

State dominated the scoreboard and the stat sheet alike, even if the coaches don't look first to the kinds of numbers media and fans enjoy. "We ended up a plus in every category, except our defense gave up a touchdown in the red zone," noted Croom. "We didn't have any major busts, which is pleasing with as many new people as we had in.

"The only stats we (coaches) keep are turnovers, penalties, and scoring in red zone. Those were our key stats, the only ones we care about. If we can end up in a plus category every week well be in a good shape."

Speaking of which, Croom reported that the lineup came through the first game in good physical shape, if not entirely unscathed. "We came out with no major losses at this point. I wouldn't say injury-free. (DT) Andrew Powell broke his hand but it's nothing to keep him from playing. (OG) Johnny Wadley is a little hobbled but he's been hobbled since he's been here, he'll line up and play." Wadley came off the field favoring a leg in the third quarter but x-rays showed nothing damaged.

Croom also said this morning that the team is getting healthier, as OT James Redmond is to return to practices this week after mid-August surgery to relieve pain from a ruptured disc in the lower back. "That definitely strengthens us in the line." How quickly Redmond can contribute will be judged these early week-days; Powell and Wadley will start as usual. "I don't think our starting lineup would change going into the game. If Redmond is healthy and trainers say he is we probably would not start him, we'd work him into the game and see how he gets in." Halfback and kick returner Jonathan Lowe was held out of the opener to let his separated shoulder heal fully.

A healthy Redmond will quickly impact the tackle rotation. As expected State started Brian Anderson at LT and Avery House at RT, and by the second quarter true freshman Michael Gates was subbed-in at LT so Anderson could go to the other end of the offensive line. The three-tackle rotation worked well enough the first time out, as did work at the other interior jobs. "The line played better than I anticipated going in," said Croom. "We held our protections, we ran the ball well in our critical variable sections."

Halfback Jerious Norwood obviously ran well himself, gaining 123 ground yards on just 19 totes. He also ran hard, bowling into and often over Murray State defenders and showing no ‘rust' after not taking practice contact for three weeks. "I wasn't concerned at all," Croom commented. "The guy's been playing for four years, believe me he wasn't going to get hit again before the first ball game. I don't' believe in your top quarterback and top running back getting hit before the first ball game, once they've proven to me they're winning players."

Norwood and quarterback Omarr Conner did have winning nights, and the latter tied a Mississippi State record with four touchdown passes to open his junior season. The numbers were outstanding for both, but again the coaches looked at more than stats. Croom said both veterans looked like different Dogs now, and for that matter just about the entire offense.

"I noticed that before the game. They know what they're doing, they know the details of what we're doing. It's not just the assignments, it's being precise and paying attention to details." And, taking care of the ball. Conner and Michael Henig did not have a pass picked; and the only time a Bulldog put the ball on the ground, halfback Derek Ambrose fell on his own fumble on the next-to-last snap of the night. All the practice segments spent on protecting the pigskin paid off, as did working on creating turnovers. It was forced fumble and recovery at midfield that set up State's second touchdown and truly turned the game's momentum the right way.

If his offense needed a reminder of the difference turnovers can make they would have seen it in Kentucky's loss to Louisville, when the Wildcat quarterback just let the ball get loose as he was brought down at the Cardinal two-yard line. Interestingly, that sort of fall was something State's ball-carriers work on.

"We do ball securing drills in practice to try to get them conditioned to going to the ground, taking falls. That's where a lot of early season fumbles are caused, not protecting the ball as they go down."

Croom also answered a question in MSU minds resulting from a post-game comment on how successful the offense's ‘Bully Ball' was in setting a first-half tone. The coach chuckled when asked, saying he did not even realize he had used the word Saturday night. "That's for our no-huddle offense," he said. "We just had to have a name to communicate we're going to it. We had to have a name for it, so we named it for Bully!"

Now the Bulldogs have to take their Bully Ball and the rest of the playbook on the SEC road. Naturally Croom is eager to get his first MSU victory away from home, and the chance to do it at a league and West Division rival's field makes the challenge that much more tantalizing. Besides, the coach points out, for all the disadvantages inherent in playing in an opponent's house there is something about leaving home that a team can try to make use of. At least that's his hope.

"When you go on the road it's a matter of getting in a routine, not having distractions. I know from my experience in pro ball if you're good you play better on the road because you don't have as many distractions. I think it's somewhat the same in college, players are lot more focused on the road. The bottom line here is we haven't been any good around here."

Good at all, he meant. So now that the 2005 Bulldogs have shown they have the makings of a better ball team on the home field, it's time to find out just how good they could be on the road.

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