My last previous solo road-run to Gainesville was in, sheesh, was it really 1989? Yep. There've been some changes for the better, such as quality of roads and more late-night radio options. And many more for the worse—gas prices obviously, particularly since now I must pump 89-octane into the Kraut hatchback. There's a heckuva lot more stoplights, too, nullifying any advantages to new bypasses. Traffic? Let's just say that while the general level of driving skill is still the same (pitiful, in other words, with lane discipline and turn signals still beyond the comprehension of most American females) the 2000% increase in vehicle volume clogging the superslabs seems intended just to puncture my patience.
That said, I still managed to shave nine minutes off my 1988 personal mark from Florida, reaching the Hwy. 12/Russell Street intersection at 3:50 this morning after a time-in-transit of…you don't need to know. And I'll never try it again, or at least not after making the run in reverse the day before and after covering a football game. At least my driving was better than my writing, as that game story had to be one of the worst-organized yet from my PC.
But before getting to business, let me recount one en-route incident that explains why I still like driving my own self around the region. Stopping for fuel and caffeine just across the Florida state line Friday afternoon, I noticed a fellow at check-out in a maroon colored cap. He turned and sure enough, there were the block ‘MS' letters. "Nice cap," sez I to the gentleman, I'd guess late 50s-ish, African-American, name V.H. (at least I think that's what he said). An OTR driver based in the panhandle who goes often to south Mississippi and bought the cap in Hattiesburg. Likes Mississippi State and the state itself, and wished the football team well. Sir, it was a pleasure to meet you and I hope all your roads stay clear.
For their part the Bulldogs are glad to be off the road, and just plain off. Any open date would be welcome after six-straight games, but the past three weekends have been far more stressful—and painful—than any still-building program should have to endure. As Coach Sylvester Croom notes, any team in a ‘power' conference is going to run through tough stretches at some point. But even elite teams would be tested by facing Georgia, LSU, and Florida without a break. As the scoreboards showed, and as we all expected, Mississippi State is not in that class. A half-step closer to being able to compete with such SEC powers, perhaps, but still a long way and more recruiting classes from being able to think of more than a 2004-Florida style upset.
Croom did have some kind comments after Saturday's setback to a Florida team that, in my humble opinion, didn't play like a contender in the first half and didn't play like a Gator offense all day. Nor did they have to with the Bulldogs self-destructing on special teams. What the coach liked was the heart his Dogs displayed in a hostile setting, at the end of a brutal three-game run. You could translate that this way: State did not ‘mail' it in as some preceding squads have in similar situations, even at some points last fall. It's yet another half-step of perceived progress.
Now, what fans naturally wish to know is when do the Dogs begin making full strides ahead? The second half of this '05 schedule would certainly seem to offer much more potential for greater progress. That's how quarterback Omarr Conner sees things. "We've got a new season," he said, his chest still aching where a Gator had stuck his helmet two hours earlier. "That's how we look at it, we just have to start something new and hope we can put a smile on some people's faces." Bless the guy, it's hurting just to breathe and he can talk about making other people smile. There is plenty of room to critique the execution to-date and some decisions made under pressure, but is there any doubt how intent Conner is about doing what he can to make plays? Not from me, though I'm admittedly prejudiced in his favor.
Nor should there be any doubting amongst us that Croom sees the situation far more clearly than we. Hear what he had to say about the rest of the schedule. "Now we put the first half of the season behind us, hopefully we can come back the second half and do things a lot better on offense." No media-prompting was involved, the coach brought up the subject himself. Anything Mississippi State can hope to achieve in the second half of the schedule hinges on major offensive improvement. Or as Croom added, "We've got to get some points from somewhere. It's obvious."
Indeed. In their four SEC games, admittedly against two-thirds of the league's contenders, State has produced 207, 254, 229, and now 243 total yards. Heck, they just netted 225 against Tulane in victory. And while Croom cares little for stats, he is very much aware his offense has scored three touchdowns in four league contests. The points just aren't coming from anywhere, and the coach admits disappointment.
"Offensively we're not where I thought we would be at this point," he said Saturday. "If we were where I thought we would be offensively I would feel good (about the season second-half) right now. I think our offensive line has stabilized and we have some depth at running back with three guys we can depend on." Yes, you read aright—Croom is encouraged about the blocking! It's still not anywhere close to an overpowering unit of course, and execution remains a week-to-week issue. But the starting five is mostly healthy after six games, James Redmond and Anthony Dunning are coming back soon, Calvin Wilson is getting in game-shape, and converted defensive tackle Anthony Strauder is now getting the hang of life on this side of the line. "We have settled on the guys we're going to work with," Croom says.
With the Brandons, Hart and Thornton, settling in as backups to Jerious Norwood the backfield is in better shape also. At quarterback Conner is The Man and Mike Henig the backup, case closed. But it's an area where we all anticipated improvement that is letting folk down. "We just have to start making some plays with our receivers," Croom said.
"People are stacking against our running game, they figure if they stop Jerious we can't move and that's pretty much been the case so far." Now I can hear frustrated fans leaping to their feet, howling how State's whole gameplan seems to be crashing Norwood into the line twice before tossing an incompletion or, just as likely, taking a sack. That's oversimplifying an offense more varied than most admit, given the glaring statistics, but the criticism is inevitable. Croom also has a response. "The only explosive play (against Florida) came with Jerious Norwood." Zing!
Yet Croom really does want explosive plays from other Dogs, especially those supposed to catch a pass and do something afterwards. "We're not making big plays in the passing game, the throw is a little high or we're not making the catch." See, Conner isn't being excused his inaccuracies, either. Because there are no more excuses left for a passing game that hasn't gotten close to a passing grade so far.
"I mean, we have to be able to throw the football," Croom said. "We've changed protections around a great deal, we run a lot of two-man routes now to try to give our quarterback a chance to get the ball off. You can't get but so far with that because then you don't have a chance to dump the ball off." Think of the few times State was able to run, and execute, short tosses to Norwood, Bryson Davis, et.al. (even if one such play nearly ended Norwood's year in the LSU game). Fans ask why not more of that? Because, those backs have to hang in a second longer just to block blitzers and can't release in time to get out in the presumably-open flats.
I say ‘presumably' because the bigger issue is with wideouts unable to stretch defenses and suck back the supporting safeties. I had really hoped for more from State's long-route runners this fall, and so had their coach. But they're just not getting open, though one can always riposte that when they have Conner hasn't had enough time to locate and unload, either. Thus the extra blocking duties for the backfield boys. "You can't keep everybody in (to protect) and move the ball in the passing game," Croom said. "But that's just the situation we're in right now."
More generally, "We're still having to play almost perfect to stay even with people. That's just the way it is." But don't make the mistake of interpreting this as despair, because to Croom's mind the first and biggest hurdle has been crossed. The team is still intact and making daily efforts, individually and collectively. "Our guys played their hearts out today."
There's no reason to think the Dogs will do any differently, according to Conner. "We've got a whole ‘nother five games left. At times you're going to get down on yourself, but a lot of guys' heads are still up and a lot of guys still believe. The last couple of years we'd have threw the towel in completely. But a lot of guys are still believing."
The guys will still be working this week, if not on game preparation nor every day. Croom has scheduled "pretty hard" practices on Tuesday and Wednesday, then again on Thursday morning before he and the staff hit the recruiting road that evening. The players themselves will run Friday before taking advantage of a free weekend. Interestingly, the football team is supposed to have a Monday afternoon seminar on, and I'm not making this up, etiquette, as will all other MSU athletes on Thursday. Please, no jokes about extended pinky fingers and which side of the plate the fork goes on…though when Croom explained what the seminar was about, he asked if we reporters needed to attend, too.
Of course after the three-week run they've just finished, the Bulldogs won't mind reading a few pages of Emily Post instead of a gameplan. This is one welcome break in all aspects. "It's going to help a lot of us get healthy," said Conner. "It's going to help us reflect on all the bad things that we did the first part. All the good things, too. We're going to take the bye-week and come back stronger."
Which only leaves two questions for the moment. First, which finger should one use to encourage that Dothan, Ala., woman ‘driving' her Tahoe while yakking on a celphone to signal first before cutting right across two whole lanes when the light turns green? And second…on which side of my paper plate does the plastic fork go?