"We're going to handle that," Croom said Monday morning. "No question everyone is going to be pulling for Tulane and we've got to understand that. It's not that they hate us, they're reaching out to Tulane because of what happened."
What happened of course was Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the Gulf Coast and devastated southern Louisiana and Mississippi. The city of New Orleans was flooded, including parts of the Tulane campus, and their city ‘homefield' at the Louisiana Superdome left unplayable and perhaps unrepairable. The Green Wave football now resides hours north in Ruston, and last week was the Tulane administration able to secure a deal with the Shreveport stadium to host the Mississippi State game on the scheduled date and time, if on the opposite corner of the state.
So naturally the ‘home' team will have folk who barely knew about Green Wave football before cheering them on in their belated season-opener. "And my heart goes out to the people involved," said Croom, who spent a year coaching pro ball in New Orleans. "But this is a football game and when the whistle blows it's us against them."
Which means the Bulldogs have to set aside human sympathy and play to win. State is coming off a 28-0 loss at Auburn that evened the early-season record at 1-1. Tulane is fresh and eager to kick off their delayed campaign. "I'm very concerned about that," Croom agreed.
"It's their first game, they will be in an emotional state much like the New Orleans Saints were yesterday. They've got a lot of pent-up emotions. Physically I'm sure they're probably healthier than we are right now, because we've played two games. At least they are healthy, I'm very concerned about that."
The Mississippi State staff is also concerned about a lack of information on this opponent. "We don't have a lot to go on," Croom said, since there are no Green Wave game tapes to break down this week. State does have some ideas about Tulane, which just happened to be Croom's first opponent—and victim—in his debut as Bulldog coach in 2004. The Green Wave does have the same coaching staff and quite a few familiar names and numbers. Still, Croom pointed out, "I'm sure they've made tremendous changes since last year. And I'm sure they've talked to our previous two opponents and have things on us that we don't have on them."
Of course the other side of the early-season coin is that Mississippi State has indeed played a pair of games, both at home and on the road. Even if this allows the third opponent more scouting insight, the Bulldogs have the benefit of being tested in real competition, at real game-speed, with real hitting. And when Croom looked at the Auburn tape he came away with mixed feelings.
"We lost the game and that's the first thing. The reason I'm disappointed more than anything is the way we lost it. It breaks my heart that we had a chance to beat a big-time opponent, a conference opponent, on the road and we let it get away because of basically pre-snap penalties and turnovers." In point of fact the Dogs had three turnovers, two leading immediately or ultimately to Tiger touchdowns; and eight penalties, five of them before the ball was hiked.
At the same time, day-after reviews offered some more positive signs. "I felt we did some good things," Croom said. "The fact we were still in the game at the half; that our defense went out the second half and shut them down; and the offense in the second half ran the ball down their throats is every encouraging." So were some individual performances.
"We had a lot of guys play very well, Andrew Powell, Quinton Culberson. Demario Bobo had an excellent game, he made hits we didn't anticipate when we put him at safety. He's hitting people like crazy the second half." Croom even saw good things from the much-criticized offensive line, pointing out the play of Brian Anderson, Chris McNeil, and Avery House. "There were a lot of bright spots once you look at the film. But the glaring thing is we didn't win the game."
There were also some Dogs who left Auburn hurting. "We're a little beat-up right now," Croom said. Most notably, halfback Jerious Norwood, who bruised his left shoulder in the first quarter trying to block. Norwood wore a sling out of the locker room and Croom said the senior will not practice Monday for sure and maybe not this week. "But we expect him to be ready by game time. That's what the trainers tell me." In turn it's up to the offensive staff to tell who would be used in what order if Norwood isn't 100% on game day. "We've got to wait and see, " Croom said. "Derrick Ambrose will get a lot of work this week, but we won't know until we've practiced."
There is hope this week that converted wideout Jonathan Lowe's shaky shoulder, separated in August drills, will be ready for full action now. Lowe did return punts at Auburn, his first action of the season. As to where he would fit into the halfback depth chart "That's part of what we'll determine later in the week," said Croom. The coach is equally concerned about tight end where Eric Butler, Jason Husband, and Jeremy Jones are all shy of full-strength by varying degrees with different ailments.
"We don't know if we'll have a tight end, we might have to play four wides against Tulane. Hopefully they'll be ready by the game but it compounds some things because some guys won't get reps in practice." It was also reported that tackle James Redmond, who came off back surgery in three weeks and played at Auburn, sprained his knee and is out at least a couple of weeks again.
The injuries are worrisome but just a fact of football life and Mississippi State will adapt as needed this week. And Croom had an interesting observation after what, on the record anyway, looked too much like some of the thrashings of 2004. The coach finds evidence of progress even in defeat now.
"When we started the season I knew we were better than last year. How much better I didn't know. Now I know, we can be a decent football team. The reservations I had before are gone now. We're going to get back to work and we'll be a good football team before the season is over."
That is a long time away. The season continues this weekend and while State's revised situation can't compare to what Tulane has endured there must be some temporary adjusting. "We'll be off our routine a little bit, but they've been off theirs for some time," Croom said. The Mississippi State administration decided once the game had been re-sited that for this trip the team will fly in on Saturday, play ball, and return home without tying up any local lodging needed for displaced storm victims.
"We'll get there a little earlier than normal, three hours," Croom said, "so we know we have plenty of time." Dogs a bit hungry for action will have some locker room snacks; others blankets to lay on the floor and relax if that's their appetite. But when both teams get on the field, it's time for Mississippi State to go about their business…even if it makes the Bulldogs the bad Dogs with folk who naturally wish something good for Tulane in these stressful times. Croom understands.
"Our feelings won't change when the game is over about the tragedy," he said. "But for 60 minutes we're going to do everything possible to win the football game."