Still…"I didn't get the chance to watch all of the games, I watched some in the afternoon but I mostly worked on my gameplan." Because, Croom's own focus is getting his own ball club to the point they can play good football against good teams, too. The Bulldogs are 2-4 overall, 0-4 in SEC play, and are coming off a brutal three-game stretch against ranked conference clubs. Thus the open date could not have come at a better point in the '05 schedule.
Certainly Croom and staff welcomed last week's opportunity to do something other than prepare for a specific matchup. It was a change-of-pace this team needed right now. "We sent a lot of time on some fundamentals and a few adjustments we felt we needed to make," Croom said. "We didn't change a whole lot, we're just trying to make sure we get the ball to people who can make plays.
"And we had time to rest and get some guys well. Everybody is reasonably healthy, (fullback) Bryson Davis has a back strain but he's supposed to practice today. Everybody else should be ready to go." Davis was abruptly sidelined Tuesday by back spasms and took it easy the rest of the week, wearing a red-cross shirt along with other ‘protected' players such as wideout Will Prosser (foot) and re-habbing offensive tackle James Redmond (knee). All were supposed to be cleared for work today.
State also hopes to get offensive guard Anthony Dunning back this week, after the freshman needed corrective knee surgery two weeks ago to clear up an existing condition.
The staff could afford to be generous and have a short work-week before turning the players loose, because the University is still on mid-fall break and there are no Monday-Tuesday classes. This also means that, with no classes, there is no formal limit on practice time, though Croom has no plans to abuse this privilege. Practices these two days start at 2:45 and should end around 5:00. However, the Monday plan is different than usual for a game-week.
"We'll get an extra day today (to work on Houston)," Croom said. "Our gameplan is pretty much finalized so instead of scrimmaging Monday we'll work on the gameplan. This is an important game for us and the key to this game is eliminating missed assignments and being able to execute on both sides of the football."
Along with emphasis on execution, the coaching staff has had time to consider adjusting not just aspects of the fundamental scheme but the personnel used in their plans. This is particularly true with an offense that has sputtered through five games with D-IA competition, and scored only three touchdowns in four SEC contests. Croom says the plans are not the issue, it is execution and consistency that has been missing. That, and getting potential play-makers in situations where they can make plays.
Those looking for dramatic changes in lineups last week were likely let down as nothing looked different on the first and second units from the starting teams at Florida. The lone noteworthy switch so far has been assigning starting halfback Jerious Norwood to return punts, hopefully giving State's best offensive player a few extra turns with the ball each game. Asked this morning if lineup moves are in the making, Croom demurred.
"There's a possibility, but I don't care to go into them today. As we work today and tomorrow I'll probably decide something Wednesday." What the coach did make clear was any moves would be on the offensive side. "Nothing on defense, I don't see any changes there."
There was one change made at Florida, with soph Royce Blackledge taking over right guard from senior Johnny Wadley as starter. The two essentially alternated there, much as senior Avery House and frosh Calvin Wilson have been doing at right tackle. Blackledge's emergence has been a mid-season surprise all the same. "The thing I look for in an offensive lineman of course is consistency, Royce brings that to us," Croom said. "He needs to get stronger but you can count on him, he's a good technician. This time last year I would never have thought he'd start a game, but he's developed and continues to. He's still inexperienced and not as physically strong but he has a good future with us."
These weeks have also given true rookie Wilson more time to get in ‘game shape' after a shortened preseason kept him from full conditioning work. Croom is pleased with what the big kid has done so far but really expects greater things as Wilson tones up to the point he can do more than just rotate in and out.
The Dog defense doesn't need any lineup and rotation changes for this week. And though Houston (3-3 after a 35-20 loss to Memphis) is not in the same league as Florida, literally or figuratively, Croom said the defensive staff doesn't have to entirely switch gears from their most recent gameplan to get ready for this week's matchup with the Cougar's version of the ‘spread' offense. "They do some things similarly," Croom said of UH and UF. For that matter, "Everybody in that conference does, Tulane did some of the same stuff." The Green Wave did score a pair of touchdowns on State a month ago, though the Bulldogs held Tulane out of the end zone on the last series to preserve a 21-14 victory at Shreveport.
Now with two games against comparable schemes in the playbook Croom thinks his defense should be well-aware what they must work on this week. "It helps us because the first time you look at them it scares you to death with everybody spread around all those ways. The more you play them the more you see their core plays and everything else that develops off that. There are certain things you have to stop first, and certain things you can concede. I don't think we'll see much more wide-open than we saw against Florida."
Looking past this weekend, Mississippi State expected to hear by 1:00 what the SEC televised-game schedule for October 29 will be. There are four conference games that day, but there is no assurance all of them will be selected by the league's broadcast partners. If the MSU-UK game is not televised, Kentucky officials have already scheduled a 7:00et gametime in Lexington so as not to conflict with the final day of the horse racing season.