Hey, didn't I say to re-read it all? Go ahead, we can wait.
Now. Let's begin with the obvious truth that every Bulldog fan can and will put their own spins on Croom's statement, whether in total or by picking-and-choosing distinct aspects. Some separate points will stand out more than others, naturally. But I'd like for all of us to try to see the fundamental fact there to be read, or for those of there or tuned-in to be heard.
This is Sylvester Croom's team and program; he can, does, and will continue to call the shots. Those who don't like the game- and program-plans, or are dissatisfied to the point of dissension after just one-and-a-third seasons, can step away for the time being.
Let me also stress something that words displayed on a screen can't convey, specifically the tone of his voice. Croom was not being at all combative, nor even challenging. And he definitely was not the least bit defensive. This was not a man concerned about his job, even less his judgment of what needs to be done at Mississippi State. So please don't read that into the interview, though I've little doubt short sentences cropped from the whole statement will be interpreted that way elsewhere this week.
No, the coach was making an objective and entirely unambiguous response to the question. And it's equally clear to me and most peers Croom actually wanted to be asked this, and that he had measured his response as carefully as he scripts routes Bulldog receivers run. (Or at least are supposed to, a not-at-all unrelated topic for today's discussion.) Anyway, the coach had his answer ready and kudos to the student reporter who opened the rhetorical door.
Goodness knows the subject will come up again as soon as tomorrow's morning teleconference…and probably again and again for the foreseeable future. Or until the Bulldogs manage to net more than, say, 300 yards in a SEC game. They've come up well-short of that total against Auburn and Georgia, and while those teams of course are established conference contenders they are also the caliber of competition State someday must be able to match up with if Croom's oft-stated goal of bringing a championship to Starkville is to become practical. Notice the lack of mentioning the two upcoming opponents who as of this afternoon are the respective Divisional favorites. When in a rebuilding process of the depth the Dogs face, you try not to look tooooo far into the future.
And to be fair, Georgia is not so far behind the purple Tigers and Gators themselves. Not when their quarterback, an object lesson in personal patience himself, plays that well. If we'd known State would hold the other Bulldogs under a buck's worth of rushing, well, we'd have been pretty optimistic, eh? Guess it's true, be careful what you ask for because the Dogs surely got it. They forced Georgia to turn to the air game and paid dearly for it.
But by no means is this a criticism of a defense that by any standard did an admirable job and continues to show they are of SEC-caliber. And in world-class condition, too. Time-of-possession in the third quarter alone was brutal for the Bulldogs and they still forced Georgia repeatedly to settle for field goals. If only they could've covered those over-the-middle patterns just a couple times, or had enough lead in their britches to bash that &%$# tight end. Safe to say Georgia scouted the Auburn tape very well in that regard.
Enough, lest it seem like criticism after all. As we expected after spring and August drills, State has a defense of sufficient quality and depth to play in this league. The kicking teams have exceeded most expectations, and when Derek Pegues learns a few finer points to go with the raw talent there will be points produced here. Though I'm a bit worried about Jon Lowe's knack for fair-catching inside the ten…sorry, that sounds like criticism again.
Besides, we're here today to discuss the third link in the chain. The more cynical amongst us would call it a missing link and, statistically, it's not easy to argue otherwise. Which prompts one key point we all have to understand: Sylvester Croom could scarcely care less about the stats we college fans are too often obsessed with (meself included). It's part of his NFL background, see. Statistics are for fans and media who need numbers to crunch; pro people truly look at the data that makes the differences, the turnovers, the field positions, the penalties.
Something else increasingly evident is how Croom coaches like a pro. That is, begin by playing not-to-lose and let the game develop accordingly. Put another way, the team making the fewest mistakes is more likely to win in the end. So, don't take many early chances…such as going on 4th-and-1 on the first drive of the night. (Look back at Maine, 2004, too.) If I were to have one argument with the coach this would be it, since college ball has a much more emotional nature and converting fourth downs tips the psyche-scale almost as much as a turnover. BUT, looking at it from the coach's sideline point of view, let's also note how failing on fourth will turn the emotional momentum just as surely.
And the overriding fact going into October 2005 is that Mississippi State still doesn't have a team strong enough physically or emotionally to take frequent risks, no matter how tempting the potential payoff. Now I can hear the reverse proposition that, since the Dogs seem to have nothing to lose, why not take some chances? Go wild, unleash the puppies, throw the whole practice playbook (and yes, State does work on a good bit more than has been shown to scouts) on the field and let the ball fall where it may. Believe me, as a writer/reporter I'd love to cover a go-for-broke ball team.
But I'm also old and objective enough now to see this is not a way to build a team for the long-term. Oh, and don't bother using the "wide-open attracts recruits" argument. The head coach has made his position clear here. He courts on the merits of his own intentions and will live with the results. He's also made it clear that recruiting more and better talent is the only way to win in this league, so don't try to say Croom doesn't "understand" college ball, either.
He certainly understands better than anyone what his offense is practically capable of at this point. We all know well the deficiencies up-front, and in the last three games defenses that really, really wanted to come after the quarterback have. That's not going to change this year, save as the competition becomes more equal and as kids like Calvin Wilson and fellow frosh are forced to develop quickly. I'm already thinking about the projected line of 2006 and beyond as these kids mature, and it's quite enjoyable to ponder. For now State still has to, as Croom put it last week, scheme things up instead of just lining guys up.
My own September disappointments have been in other areas. I love Omarr Conner, and goodness knows the junior is the emotional heart of this offense. But goodness, he still seems prone to force things in set passing situations and lose timing just enough to misfire. That said, his intended targets have to take a big share of the blame also. Anyone else noticed how much trouble the wideouts have separating themselves from coverage? If not for Eric Butler and Will Prosser there wouldn't be a passing game per se, and the latter is having serious issues keeping a handle on the hogskin. How many of Prosser's forced-fumbles have been turned into opposing points?
So State is in a situation all-too-familiar this decade, with a one-dimensional offense that can be defended by very good teams and contended by more comparable foes. Bless Jerious Norwood's heart, he will never say an ill word about how defenses can stack up against him. Or how he had more second-half yards against Georgia receiving than running. Yes, it was good to see those catch-and-goes by Norwood and Bryson Davis last night, but keep in mind how at the time Georgia could afford to swap ground for time with a three-TD margin.
No, those swing passes are even more productive against a defense that must protect an entire field. Ditto for basic rushes inside the tackles or out (and we did see a bit more of the latter last night, too). I shouldn't have to repeat this, but the Bulldogs must have a true downfield passing game for this pro-style offense to work against an Auburn or Georgia, much less LSU and Florida. The coach knows it better than we, as does his offensive lineup. And for those convinced Croom is absolutely inflexible, notice how he's yielded to necessity and put Conner in a shotgun set at times. He also gives the quarterback freedom to adjust and, sometimes, create in broken-down situations. Which, I'll agree, has accounted for a fair proportion of the points State has scoreboarded so far. It's also a great way to cripple a scrambling quarterback, too.
And anyway all the scheming doesn't matter if the throws aren't delivered and caught. Thus, Croom's commentary focus on protection, passing, and receiving. We can all wish that the touted rookie ends were able to help right now, and they had their chances in August to claim a place. For that matter they still can with breakout practices. Until then, the best guys in daily drills will be the ones dressed for action, and it's up to them to do their jobs. Sorry, I have no quick fixes to offer here.
There are two things we just need to understand as the 2005 calendar turns pages. One final re-read of Croom's statement should tell us that the coach not only believes his system will work, but that things are closer than September scores indicate. Seriously. That's why the constant emphasis on execution. Put another way, while the roster isn't as deep, experienced, or gifted overall as Croom plans for the future, there are players in places who can make plays. Enough of them to win, even. Safe to say some fans will read this as shifting all blame to the kids, but I've worked with Croom long enough already to know better. If you don't choose to agree, that's fine with the coach, too.
And second, the Bulldogs here are buying what their coach is selling. Chris McNeil put it very well last night. "I think we're building something here that people at Mississippi State can be proud of for a long time," the senior center said. This from a guy who signed with a program that had been used to winning, only to see it all collapse almost overnight. Give McNeil credit for understanding that rebuilding is a far longer, harder process.
"The last couple of years we've caught our fair share of whippings," offered McNeil, without prompting. "But I think we're building a foundation of things that are going to be a turnover for this entire football program. Tonight showed me these younger guys will fight for everything, so as I leave this year I know we're going to have guys that will fight. I mean, I don't think there's anything any fan around here should have anything to have their heads down about."
Well, now. Maybe we should be re-reading that a few times in the weeks to come, too.