From The Dawghouse

Well. There we were, worried about Mississippi State facing top-ten-ranked opponents on three consecutive weekends. It won't happen now according to the latest polls. Instead the Bulldogs have an even worse proposition: taking on another ticked-off powerhouse that has just suffered the first loss of their season and is looking for immediate redemption.

Talk about lousy timing…but that's the ugly hand dealt this season and the Dogs have to play it through, venturing into the swamp where the Gator natives won't be feeling very hospitable. Not that they would've been anyway after last year's upset in Starkville, even if it did result in the coaching change they wanted. I'd love to write that we'll head southeast this weekend with at least some hopes of returning happy. More than likely we'll return relieved to have an indescribably welcome open date to heal the physical and mental damage of these three brutal weeks.

But oh, heaven help any Bulldog that shows the least hint of thinking that way this game-week. While Sylvester Croom may strike some as pessimistic when he speaks candidly (and, unfortunately, too accurately) about differentials in talent between State in 2005 and the legitimate title contender, none should mistake this as the coach conceding a thing. Least of all his players, who would be well-advised to just tune out all commentary for the time being.

What they should be attending to are post-LSU comments from Croom which, I am confident, he told the players in-person before repeating them to us reporters. (This is not a man who communicates to players any way but directly, we must note.) Goodness knows one statement perked up my own ears, when the coach said, without prompting, "My biggest disappointment is we're an undisciplined team still, and what bothers me is a lot of it is with our older players."

Hmmm. Needless to add, Croom did not identify those players. But he did toss out some curious signs of ill-discipline starting with practice demeanor, such as untucked jersies and unbuckled chin straps. I can't say I've noticed any of that in recent practices but then again I wasn't looking for it either. Another reminder, as if needed, that this coach sees a heckuva lot more than anyone else every single time he's with his team. And since I've also not noticed Croom directly confronting said-offenders during drills, I have to assume he's been giving them the chance to take care of their own business without reminder.

Looks like things will change. "That's my responsibility and I'll get that squared away," Croom promised before taking questions.

Now, the frustrated fan might reasonably ask, how much can a jersey tail hanging loose matter compared to more obvious issues, such as an offense that has scored two touchdowns in three SEC games? The more cynical columnists would take that comment and run it into some sort of "if they can't play good at least they can look good" line. Me, I take the tack that Croom's concept of discipline and organization is so all-consuming it extends to, yes, such details. NOTHING is too insignificant to overlook. Put another way, sloppiness is a habit the Bulldogs can't afford if they hope to compete with, much less beat the better teams.

Which LSU still is, as are Auburn, Georgia, and Florida. Of course the first three graduated enough 2004 stars to start a decent NFL franchise, or at least one that can beat the Cardinals. The sad truth is that the best teams in the SEC would have to lose over half their rosters before Mississippi State's talent could be honestly compared. Or flipped to the other side, State is three really, really good recruiting classes away from having the sort of quality starting 22 and respectable depth to get back into Divisional contention. This is a topic for another, slower day and please, don't toss out the ‘juco' fix because it ain't there any more due to those blasted NCAA ‘progress' rules. Save that for winter recruiting talk, too.

For now let's hear what the man had to say specifically about LSU and generally about this mid-season murderer's row. "They're better than us. Those teams are better than us. We've just got to recruit some more players and get the ones that we have better, and keep getting better during the course of the season."

Along that line of thought, yesterday was the first of the three league losses where it was hard for us observers to spot any encouraging signs. We could take some consolation in the defensive efforts against Auburn and Georgia. No such luck with LSU, because once the Tigers shook off their Tennessee hangover and put blatantly superior athleticism to work the Dog defense was overwhelmed. No matter how many rushed or dropped into coverage, LSU had time to throw and found open targets…so much so that JaMarcus Russell set a school record for completion percentage. I was having flashbacks to '86 and Tommy Hodson.

And this third time the SEC-foe was also able to run the ball as needed. So last night nobody left Scott Field saying ‘at least the defense looked better' because it didn't. And the kicking games…all that needs saying is a couple of freshmen looked like, well, freshmen and did much more to hurt field position than help it. But I'm not overly worried there, those guys will do well much more often than not.

No, the offense remains anxiety #1 for the foreseeable future. There's no need to hash over the blocking situation as it is what it is. I'm more bothered lately by problems elsewhere. I really expected to see more from the wide receivers in the form of defense-stretching abilities, and goodness knows that stuff was practiced all camp. But since the opening night win defenses have been able to cover the guys who, we thought, would be getting open downfield. I can still see two Tulane DBs running stride-for-stride with Keon Humphries at the same time. I can also still see the ball go off Aubrey Bell's hands yesterday when State was still in the game; sure, he was jumping and facing backwards, but the ball was on his hands!

Of course that (ball on hands) was not a sufficiently common occurrence because Omarr Conner had a miserable day. I don't pretend to be an authority on mechanics and execution and such, and without knowing what the play was supposed to be any analysis is risky. I mean, only those involved know if a guy ran the right route in the first place. And that turning-point interception that effectively cracked MSU morale before halftime was a case of the receiver doing a huge no-no by turning back to the middle of the field where coverage always is.

But…if Omarr throws a bullet instead of a floater (two of his passes had better hang time than a couple of State punts and were at least as long) there is still a chance. For that matter he had the first down in front of him running and plenty time on the clock to cut into a 17-7 deficit. Then again, recalling how there was no flag when Conner got late-licked into the LSU bench, he might've been wise to throw the ball anyway.

Even then Croom wasn't happy how the ball was thrown and not-caught. "People have to make plays. I know of three drops in the first half, if we just catch them we keep drives alive." And, to take some of the heat off Jerious Norwood, whose status for this week we won't know until Monday morning's teleconference with the coach. Yes, he's heard the griping about what seems an insistence on always crashing Norwood into the line on any and every first down. That's not the real issue; it is lack of any balance to the offense regardless of what plays are called. Right now good defenses have little to fear in sending the whole gang into MSU's backfield on any play they choose. And as the sack totals show, they're choosing it a lot.

Croom says the only answer this year is to try to seize any opportunities for what he calls "explosive" plays of double-digit yardages. That gets back to execution when the time is right…and that in turn goes back to the core philosophy of on-field discipline where a team is prepared and poised when those unpredictable situations arise. Do you begin to understand that ‘discipline' to the coach isn't something that, at the core, can be enforced by a staff but must be entirely internal to the players themselves? Take care of that, then the rest is, as he also says, "doing what you're coached to do." That is to say, execution. See how it all fits together?

Pressed yesterday, Croom would agree that there has been some progress since 2004 if measured by somewhat closer games. Or closer losses, if you wish. As bad as a 30-point loss to LSU hurts, it wasn't a 51-point pounding of a team that had given up by intermission. If that's small consolation, so be it. Croom wasn't exactly consoled either but he was objective, as always, when he said "We have made tremendous improvement in a year's time. But we're not as good as these three teams were playing right here in a row. We're not as good as they are, that's the bottom line.

"All I want us to do is play as good as we're capable of doing, not make dumb mistakes and have dumb penalties--things we work on every single day in practice…and play with heart and character for 60 minutes. If we play as good as we can play and lose the game then walk out with your head high. But in neither game did we play as good as we can play. That's what disappoints me."

Something else upsetting the coach was, again, the lack of complete discipline shown by those unidentified folk. He even mentioned some are missing classes, which by now verges on unforgivable given how much emphasis State puts on the concept now. And speaking of unforgivable…"It won't be any more," Croom promised.

"At some point you've got to play for pride and believe in yourself. No matter how much I believe in them, if they don't believe in themselves and they deserve to win because of the work put in, if they don't believe Mississippi State can be better than these teams we're playing, there's nothing I can do. I can't put faith in a guy's heart, I can't put courage in somebody's head. I don't know how to do that."

I have a sense, make that a certainty, that the preceeding comment (specifically "nothing I can do") will be misread by many, especially if not reprinted entirely and taken in context. So re-read it and see what he's saying: that just as all the coaching in the world is useless without on-field execution, all the encouragement and faith Croom can express means nothing if the Bulldogs cannot begin to believe in themselves as competitive SEC athletes. The thing is, I really can see some signs of such faith from quite a few Dogs already, and not just the newer kids but a handful of veterans whose pride has survived some awful years.

As for the rest? Well, consider this an alert from the boss. "We're going to get our young guys out there and give them opportunities to play and see if we can get better."


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