It was an evening in Houston that makes for mixed memories with Conner, who has his own reasons to remember. "That was my first night playing college ball. I got in as a receiver." Not that he had much to show for the trip other than varsity status. "I was a decoy!" he laughs about his utilization.
Actually that was Conner's second college game, coming a week after he made a brief and uneventful debut in the fourth quarter at Tulane on the ‘hands' kickoff coverage team. Since it was the only snap he was on-field, and the kickoff was a touchback anyway, it's easily and understandably forgotten. What Conner hasn't forgotten is the way State let a winnable ball game get too far out of reach.
Two seasons later, and now throwing balls instead of running routes, Conner sees his junior-year team in a similar matchup as they prepare for another Houston team. A significant difference in 2005 is that this meeting comes in the second half of a schedule, with the potential stakes higher for the 2-4 Bulldogs. "Everybody knows we've got to win four of the next five to get to a bowl game and a lot of guys want to go bowling," said Conner. "We especially want to do it for these seniors, guys who have been through tough times."
If Mississippi State is to continue thinking at all of the post-season this weekend has to end with a win. Put another way, the Bulldogs simply have to start the second-half successfully. The season's math might allow one more loss but the squad's mentality doesn't, not this week anyway. The team is grateful to have survived a brutal three-game SEC stretch before their open date in good physical shape, as well as surprisingly good emotional condition.
Now, says the quarterback, the Dogs have to re-start the schedule the right way. Holding thumb and forefinger maybe a half-inch apart, Conner insists State is that close to being a winning ball club. "Just that much. And a lot of guys are ready to get this right and headed in the right direction. We just have to do it.
"I think a lot of guys took (last) week off and just checked themselves. Coach always says look in a mirror and check yourself, a lot of guys have done that and they believe it."
Belief is good, encouraging even. Still there is the major matter of turning faith into effect on the field. While the Bulldogs have played competitive defense and, most of the time, well on special teams, it is the offense that has come up short. State ranks at or near the bottom in most conference categories and has scored just three touchdowns in four SEC games. Nor did the Dogs put on much of a scoring show against another Conference USA foe, barely beating back Tulane 21-14 a month ago.
So Conner understands exactly where the pressure will be the rest of this season. State has to score more points, much more consistently. "Like Coach says, we've got to execute better. We've been hurting ourselves, and hurting our defense by putting them back on the field three-and-out." And yes, the whole offense accepts their responsibility for what has gone before and what must happen from now on if the whole team is to succeed.
"Especially myself as a quarterback," Conner admits. "I had a chance to go home and just think, not watch football all that much. I decided to check myself and see what I can do best to lead this team. I know I've got the God-given ability, I just have to go out and do it."
Of course Conner isn't counting on the Cougars standing politely aside and letting the home team put on an offensive show for Homecoming. Houston has given up a pile of points, true, but at the same time there's much to respect from this defense. "They're aggressive," says Conner. "They're a cover-two type of defense with two safeties most of the time." Not to mention the first odd-man front he's had to read this season, and a variety of blitz packages. So while the Cougars are offensively-oriented, "They let their defense feed off that. So we have to establish the tempo early and let our defense feed off us for a change, show them we've got their back, you know."
Certainly Conner now knows a very different role with the Bulldog offense than the last time he saw the Cougars in-person. He's not on the sideline any more, nor is he a decoy. "I'm in charge now!" And thus most responsible for the offensive outcome. But, that does raise one minor question: if Conner is now the Dog in charge, then who is the decoy?
"I don't know!" he laughs.