"Right now I'm more concerned about our team playing better, those other circumstances have no effect."
In short, the Bulldogs (2-3, 0-3 SEC) will be lining up this Saturday with no thought of what happened to the 13th-ranked Gators (4-1, 2-1 SEC) in a 31-3 stunner at Alabama. All that matters to the MSU coach at the moment is getting his team back on the practice field this afternoon to begin drilling for their own next challenge. Kickoff is at 12:30 Eastern, 11:30 Central, for regional telecast by Jefferson-Pilot Sports.
"I know they just came off a loss, to a fine Alabama team," Croom said. "But they're a big-time team so we have to get ready and it will be a big challenge. We played LSU coming off a tough loss and we had opportunities. I've got a great deal of respect for Florida and their talent."
Talent certainly told in State's homefield loss to LSU, as the Tigers—coming off a Monday night heartbreaker of their own—shrugged off an opening Bulldog touchdown pass and reeled off 37 unanswered points in three quarters. Croom had no nor offered any pre-game illusions about his team being able to match talent-on-talent with the Tigers. "We lost to a very good football team," he said. At the same time the coach says State could have and likely should have played the visitors much closer, after reviewing the tapes.
"I thought we had a good chance to win," Croom said this morning, "and we should have gone in 17-17. Offensively we missed three opportunities to keep the game in check. The second half they came out and pounded us." The third quarter seems to have bothered Croom even more than the missed chances before intermission. "I was extremely disappointed with how we responded in the second half."
So much so that by the fourth quarter wholesale substituting was underway, and while LSU also went to more and more backups as the last period progressed the coaching staff did like a few on-field signs. "We had some young kids come in and they showed some life and competed," said Croom. "Some of them will get more playing time this week." Such as, some freshmen running backs and offensive linemen that the coach singled out Monday morning.
"(Halfback) Brandon Thornton was the most obvious one, he did a good job. (Fullback/halfback) Brandon Hart did a good job running the ball, he sort of got us started in our run game and got positive yards. (Tackle) Calvin Wilson had some missed assignments but he did some things, (tackle) Michael Gates did a few things towards the end. I thought our young offensive linemen did some things, they made some mistakes but I liked the way they competed and finished the game."
Good effort does get rewarded. And judging by comments Croom made immediately after the loss, some veterans didn't give the right kinds of effort. This morning the coach followed up on that theme, without naming names. Presumably the guilty parties know who they are, and after today's practice the status of some might be more shaky than it was last week.
"It concerns me greatly that we're still making the same dumb mistakes now," Croom said. "And last week we didn't make any offensive improvement at all. We had some key players who probably played their worst games last week. I'm very concerned about that." But the coach did not come out and say if any jobs have been won or lost, yet. "I don't know of the start lineup itself will change, but there will be some increases in their (the youngsters) playing time."
One player's snaps are an early-week question, but not for effort reasons. Halfback Jerious Norwood was sidelined, then taken for hospital examination, after a wicked collision in the second quarter. At the time he seemed sure to have a concussion at the least; by Sunday the picture had cleared up. "He came out OK, nothing structurally wrong," Croom updated Monday. "But he's pretty sore and he won't practice today. He's basically listed as a neck sprain, what that means is he's sore."
The senior halfback will not practice Monday and his status the rest of this work-week is to be judged day by day. Croom does think Norwood can be in the starting lineup at Florida. "As far as I know he will. In fact he wanted to come back in the game. But there were some things that made our doctors feel that wouldn't be wise, they were taking extra precautions to make sure nothing was seriously wrong."
If there was any benefit from Norwood's absence, which allowed LSU's defense to entirely tee-off on State's quarterbacks and collect five sacks, it was that Thornton and Hart got some serious snaps. The coaches liked what both did well enough that as of now Croom cannot say which is the top backup to Norwood. It will probably depend on what sort of offensive package the series calls for. "Hart and Thornton will be our two backups to Jerious. Which would start if something were wrong with Jerious I couldn't say, but they'll definitely be our number-two backs."
This will be Croom's second meeting with a Florida team, and the 2005 Gators are going to hear all week about what happened to their '04 predecessors in Starkville. The Bulldogs scored a 38-31 upset of the #20-ranked visitors, the high point of the whole season at State and a loss that initiated a coaching change in Gainesville.
Croom isn't counting on any carry-over for '05, though. "Last year was last year. This is a new year." Not to mention a new Gator staff. And as far as any ‘old' aspects, the Bulldogs will likely hear just as often this week about not having won a game in Gainesville since 1965.
However, Croom does want his team to remember one fact from '04—not so much that the Dogs won, but how they did it. By converting on third downs, cashing in on offensive opportunities, and not giving the Gators many breaks. Those are areas State failed in against LSU.
"When you don't make mistakes and have turnovers you win. We had one turnover in that game last year, we were able to overcome that. That's what we're not doing right now."