Not that the Mississippi State coach was looking forward to reviewing tape on the #4-ranked Tigers, who come to (an unscathed) Scott Field this Saturday afternoon. Kickoff is 1:30. The game will not be televised by any SEC broadcast partners, but will be shown live in Louisiana markets on Tigervision and on tape-delay by Cox media.
In fact, the State staff will get to some fresh film of LSU this evening as the Tigers take on Tennessee in a re-scheduled Monday evening meeting at Baton Rouge, on ESPN and 6:30. Croom, who has his regular Monday evening call-in show from 7:00-to-8:00 to attend, won't be tuned in himself and actually would rather not. "I like watching it on film myself, where I can rewind it." The coach will be doing a lot of winding and re-winding well into the wee hours Tuesday, too, then get to his office around 5:00 a.m. to start serious breaking-down of units, positions, and overall tendencies.
This is especially critical because until tonight the Tigers (1-0) are the lone D-I team with a single game under their belts, due to the ravages of Hurricane Katrina and ensuing disruptions throughout southern Louisiana. LSU's one game was a good one, a 35-31 thriller at Arizona State on September 10, and Croom said that tape has been well-worn in the weeks since. "I've watched everything already since 5:00 this morning. It's not doing a lot of good to be honest, I'm really going to have to watch the Tennessee film all night.
"It's pretty tough game-planning, particularly on offense because we haven't seen an offense similar to our (against LSU's defense) this year. We'll know more after tonight because Tennessee is a two-back team and it will help us with our gameplan."
Even if some details have to be filmed-in this week, Mississippi State (2-2, 0-2 SEC) doesn't have to watch anything to know the fundamental facts about this week's matchup. Croom still recalls all-too-well what he saw of the Tigers last September when the 13th-ranked hosts blasted the Bulldogs 51-0. While LSU did graduate a portion of starters and regulars from that lineup, most of the roster returns including a collection of young cats who got to play in the fourth quarter of that blowout.
"I just remember their athleticism," said Croom. "They're bigger and more athletic than Georgia is." That's not an encouraging thought for a State team that just lost 23-10 to the UG Bulldogs, and were beaten by a team bigger and more athletic than MSU.
Mississippi State is revamping this week's preparation schedule, partly to protect players as much as possible in this grueling stretch of Georgia, LSU, and at Florida, and partly due to the weekend weather that soaked the practice fields. In fact, there is the strong likelihood that today will see the Bulldogs hold their first drills in the nearly-completed Palmeiro Center. But then, State's problems are miniscule compared to what Louisiana State has endured this past month. First their opening game with North Texas was rescheduled, then the home game with ASU moved to Arizona.
And when Hurricane Rita threatened, the SEC moved Saturday's evening home game with Tennessee to tonight. Hectic is a mild description of the season's first month for LSU, but Croom downplays effects on a veteran Tiger roster. "They're such a talented team, I don't think any of that stuff is going to bother them. If we were a great team we might have a little edge there, but we're going to be fighting an uphill battle." Even the fact that LSU will have to recover from a Monday battle and play Saturday afternoon isn't all that helpful to State's cause…though Croom did quip "Hey, maybe Tennessee will beat them up so bad they won't feel like playing us!"
Certainly Croom expects his own team to have an entirely different attitude about taking on the Tigers in 2005, compared to the club that went to Baton Rouge already beaten for all intents and purposes. He doesn't think the scars of '04 will show this Saturday. "I don't think we'll be playing scared. Last year we totally played scared, we were thoroughly intimidated. I don't think that's going to happen this year."
The change in attitude is good; now, if the Bulldogs can change how they play their game against SEC competition, that would be even better. Before putting LSU tape in the machine, Croom went through the usual post-game analysis of how State performed against #7-ranked Georgia. It was a mixed review.
"After looking at the film I felt the same way I did after the game, I'm proud of our players for the way we fought. Our execution has still got to improve on both sides of the ball, but we gave a tremendous effort. Sometimes we didn't play as smart but the intensity and effort were there."
Two-out-of-three ain't bad but is not good enough to beat a top-ten opponent, either. The same 2/3's score could also be the grades given to the respective team units. Mississippi State played a sound defensive game on the whole against Georgia, though the other Bulldogs did show a knack of converting drive-sustaining plays and cashing in on opportunities. The kicking teams performed to satisfaction as well. But offensively the home Bulldogs came up short.
State tallied 254 yards Saturday night, and two weeks earlier were held to 205 yards at Auburn. In those losses the ground game was essentially shut down and halfback Jerious Norwood managed just 43 and 39 yards, getting 3.4 yards per carry. In fact Norwood only ran the ball three times in the second half, and got more ground after intermission by catching passes. It's not how Croom wants to operate this offense, but the ground game just was not there.
"They were kicking our butt up front and we couldn't run the football. So we had to get it to Jerious some kind of way. Right now he and (tight end) Eric Butler are the only ones who can make a big play."
Yet tape-review also showed the coaches that there were more openings for big plays Saturday, and not just for the halfback and tight end. Georgia ran exactly the defensive schemes expected, and State called the sorts of plays that any other SEC offense would attempt. So why didn't those plays produce? "It's things we didn't execute," Croom said. "Just little things."
"On our first weak-side run the wide receiver is supposed to block the safety, and he blocks the corner. We got four yards, it was a nice gain but it should have been 15 yards. It's little things like that. We've got patterns where receivers are supposed to run one route and run another. The quarterback misses on a ‘hot,' Georgia brings an extra guy and he (Omarr Conner) has got to hit the open guy. We called a protection wrong, left a guy unblocked and had the tight end open in the flat for a first down. It's little stuff like that."
Little stuff that shows up big against quality opponents like Georgia, or LSU, or Florida. That's why execution is the word of the week and probably the rest of this 2005 State season. As Croom said Saturday night, the offensive schemes will not change beyond the natural tweaking to account for specific defenses. The coach is clearly confident that these plans will work with proper execution by a team still learning on-the-job.
Four games into the year the only offensive changes are in some personnel spots, particularly up front. Saturday night State activated true freshman Calvin Wilson, who subbed in for starting right tackle Avery House and ended up taking over a third of the snaps. The rookie lineman is recovered sufficiently from a June knee injury to play, and Croom was satisfied with Wilson's debut.
"Calvin made mistakes as you'd expect, but one thing, he's not intimidated. He's a physical presence, the power, the athleticism. He's a guy that really wants to be good. We've got to keep pushing him, he's not in great shape yet with all the time he's missed. But he's going to be everything we thought he'd be. He's going to play a lot, he may even start this week. I'm not going to mess around with this thing, he could very easily start this week."
The Bulldogs also got through the fourth game with no injuries of note, or at least none the coach reported this morning. "We played a physical game and hit them pretty hard, and we came out with nobody who's not going to play this week. Almost everybody is practicing today." That ‘almost' allows for some players, such as flanker Will Prosser, who is typically given Mondays off to protect the repaired foot fracture. Among the regulars only tight end Jason Husband (shoulder separation) and tackle James Redmond (strained knee) were supposed to miss Monday.