From The Dawghouse

OK. We've had two chances to observe this Bulldog team in action. First against a respectable lower-Division victim, then against a pretty fair SEC Western Division foe. Different leagues to be sure, if not at entirely opposite ends of the football world spectrum. Still Murray State and Auburn offer a reasonably accurate ‘yardstick' to measure Mississippi State against after just two games. And the verdict?

It's nothing any objective fan couldn't come up with, or for that matter have forecast back in August. These Bulldogs can play good, at times even excellent defense; and offensively still find advancing the football and moving the chains consistently a challenge. I know those aren't deep words of deathless wisdom, but in these first two cases the scores tell the story.

Or, do they? Yeah, yeah, the only numbers that matter in the end are in the W-L columns. But the end of '05 is nine more games away and there is more to the Mississippi State situation than the first two finals. Does anyone who was there, or watching via M2M, disagree that the Bulldogs were at least two more touchdowns better than Murray State, and only wholesale fourth-quarter subbing kept the margin down?

Of more immediate point, are we in agreement that Mississippi State played Auburn a whole lot closer contest than how the 28-0 shutout read around the rest of the country? Guess what I'm saying is that while the score must look ‘same old State-ish' elsewhere, the game itself had some encouraging aspects. And, naturally, those obvious areas of continuing concern, almost all on the offensive side.

Oh, and I apologize for not mentioning special teams much to-date. Amazing how much the addition of two precocious pups can make, eh? Derek Pegues was a half-stride from scoring his first college touchdown, on a kickoff return; and Blake McAdams has found his punt-footing quickly, so much so that Brooks Crabtree did not even make the road-roster this week. That's confidence. By the same token we must add that while a 47-yard field goal is not ‘routine' in college ball, with a veteran kicker 75% of the time that should have been three points for the Bulldogs. Six more inches and the ball would've have caromed forward, not bounced back off the crossbar.

Regardless, I'm becoming quite confident in almost all aspects of State kicking teams for now and years to come. And regarding Pegues it's also interesting that Coach Sylvester Croom acknowledge if he weren't back on kickoff return Jerious Norwood would have the extra role. Interesting, because I just cannot help wondering—as do many of you and not a few fellow scribes—if turnabout might not be a bad idea at the moment. That is, could there be an offensive role for Pegues until he's ready to be the starting cornerback? He might well be the second-best running back on this roster. Heck, remember how Ray Ray Bivines got used occasionally as a short-yardage ‘quarterback'? Pegues is a lot bigger, far stronger, and at least as fast. And that's the end of my personnel second-guessing for this Sunday…

I am definitely not about to hindsight-snipe on the defense's day in Auburn. The TV view had to be the same as mine from the press box, affirming faith in the sort of D the Dogs are developing. The tense used there is intentional, this squad is already competitive and only going to get better every week. Sorta like Saturday, where after giving up a handful of painful plays (dangit, we told you in the scouting report how Tommy T loves to throw to tight ends!) State settled down and shut down the Tigers, in spirit if not entirely in second half score. I'll absolutely give the #2 defense a pass on that last touchdown as Auburn still had a smattering of starters on the field.

By the way, even backups are cut no slack. I happened to be on the sideline with a perfect view when reserve S Jonathan Hill saw something on first down and cheated up towards the line. Auburn's quarterback noticed and the counter-handoff went right through the region vacated for a major gainer. Poor Mr. Hill was immediately replaced by Marcus Hunter, but now that close to the goal the Tigers went ahead and scored. I claim no love for Auburn's coach but this wasn't the same sort of running-it-up as we saw at the end in 2002. Now if they'd passed it I might have lost my cool and my SEC media credentials forever.

The home team likely felt fortunate just to be able to score something on offense by then because the Bulldog defense had made a real statement. "I was very proud of our defense in the second half," Croom said. He had reason. State solved most issues with between-the-tackle runs and got better coverage downfield. Candor demands wondering if things would have been the same if Auburn had not gotten that gimme touchdown in the third quarter, and the Tigers were attacking more intently.

But we'll let that angle go for now. What matters is the Dogs corrected some first-half weaknesses. Croom said Auburn's first-half successes came on simple breakdowns; a blitzer didn't blitz, or a stunter was in the wrong gap. "In the second half guys went where they were supposed to go," he said. And we saw how those guys could perform in proper positions. The Bulldogs also just got more physical with their foes after intermission, at least on defense.

"Our offense didn't," Croom said, flatly. Not that the coach really expected his offense to manhandle a big, disciplined Tiger defense. But neither did he let this squad off the post-game hook. Not just because the Dogs didn't flex muscles enough, but because of inability to make the available plays. This is where a coach's eye sees things most of us can't. Croom and the offensive staff really saw opportunities at Auburn which were lost…or (literally) dropped and thrown away.

"We beat ourselves to a large degree," Croom said. "From start-to-finish we didn't do some things well that I anticipated we would, we had way too many turnovers and penalties. We can't beat Starkville High with that kind of penalties and turnovers." No insult intended to any offended Yellowjackets, but State really expected to gain ground and score points against Auburn. So a shutout stung, especially since it was to some extent self-inflicted.

Those pre-snap penalties were the most glaring fact. I mean, when the first offensive play of each half produces a false start you know the day is not going well. I counted five pre-snap violations by the offense and most on first downs. Few gameplans are built around 1st-and-15 situations. "We played dumb football, and that's my fault," said Croom. Yeah, maybe, but it wasn't the coach jumping the snap count.

Nor did Croom lose any fumbles, throw to the wrong color jersey, or intentionally grounding the ball. Honestly, that was not the same Omarr Conner as a week before. Of course it was a whole lot better defense coming after the quarterback too, and the down-line was exposed as still not up to SEC snuff. That said, Omarr will admit he didn't handle the pressure as a veteran. "I took my reads and tried to get the ball to the right people. It's my job to make plays, we just had a couple of mistakes."

Bad ones; yards lost to grounding made the difference in Keith Andrews' missed kick, and put State out of range in the second quarter. The third-quarter interception (note, on another 2nd-and-8) looked too much like last year as, with a blitzer grabbing his legs, Conner flat-footed forced a throw downfield. The arm strength was impressive, but the ball sailed and the chance to cut the deficit in half and make it a game was gone. Naturally it did not help that Norwood banged his shoulder early and played hurt all day. He did play tough, and I loved that sideline stiff-arm, but J-Rock wasn't 100%. This did give Derek Ambrose, a Louisiana kid devastated by the hurricane, his chance to let off steam and he might've vaulted to #2 on the halfback depth chart in the process. Hey, did I mention that kid Pegu…never mind.

Croom agreed the second game was not up to Conner's standards. "We had some protection problems," he added, "we understand we have some limitations offensively. But the bottom line is when we do have opportunities to make plays, we have to make plays." And not just by the passer, but by receivers who missed on their end of the connection. That bobble/fumble by Tee Milons that turned into a three-touchdown Tiger lead was the backbreaker, and symbolic of the situation.

"We have very little margin for error on offense right now," Croom said, noting his team fought from start-to-finish unlike last year's complete rollovers against Auburn and LSU. "That's a step in the right direction." The coach also said the game's plan was sound. "There was nothing wrong with the schemes, on either side of the football." I know a bunch of fans might find that odd, particularly come second- and third-downs when the call was a delay handoff or counter-rush. Fortunately the subject came up and Croom took time to tell some things we Bulldog fans might find instructive.

"If you're going to run the ball sometimes two or three yards is good on first down, you come back and get three or four more. All we want is to get third down to five (yards) or less, and we should be able to convert because we can stay in our base offense and do the things we want to do. When it starts getting over six we've got a problem because we can't protect against those good pass-rushing ends. That's why we ran the ball several times in long-yardage situations. I call it bailing out and sometimes you have to do that and live to fight another day." Or down.

The point is as Croom said again. "We wouldn't have had the scheme if it was bad in the first place, it's executing the scheme." That is indeed the bottom line of how and where Croom sees his second State team. They now have a plan and understand it. And while there remains a differential in talent between State and good SEC programs, it's not nearly as great and not even necessarily crippling.

The Bulldogs truly don't have any margin for errors in league play, but at least now they believe if they can play near-perfect ball they have the weapons to win. And that, folks, is a huge difference from '04 when there was about as much self-assurance in the State locker room as there are leftover chicken legs at a Baptist's Sunday dinner. I speak from experience of course.

Not that there isn't a lot left to improve there (in the locker room, not at lunch). Croom had a pointed post-game comment aimed at the players. "We've got a lot of young guys who have got to do some growing up. We've got a couple of guys we still have to find out about. I still think some of our older guys don't quite believe in themselves, that they can win just yet." Those unidentified older Dogs had best start believing because there are some pups evidently willing to grow up ahead of schedule.

Speaking of schedules, the Bulldogs left one road-locker room knowing they are headed for another this weekend, in Shreveport. Yes, I immediately noted the irony a week ago when the stadium became a frontrunner option for re-siting the scheduled game; how CBS.sportsline predicted in August that Mississippi State would play in the Independence Bowl, and now the Dogs really will, if a few months early. At least it won't snow this time of the year…will it?

It's a strange game with Tulane having found a home-away-from-home, and while the Green Wave's schedule has been blown to perdition by Katrina their players surely will have all sorts of motivation for the delayed opener. Not to mention a hunger to forget about the off-field chaos with on-field action. So State players have an idea that they will have their paws full Saturday night.

"We really don't know what to expect from Tulane," cornerback Kevin Dockery said. "We'll be their first game and we won't have much film. We'll just go on what we know from last year, we'll have to focus on our assignments and execute."


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