Initial review of how the new twists worked against Houston were admittedly mixed. Those modifications in the gameplan resulted in a record-setting afternoon for halfback Jerious Norwood, who smashed the MSU mark for rushing with 257 yards. It was the 13th-highest single-game effort ever by a SEC runner.
But in the bigger picture Norwood was setting a record in a losing cause as State was beaten 28-16 on the scoreboard. Thus Croom's frustration outweighed any satisfaction from the obvious progress in making greater use of his best playmaker. "After watching the tape it's still very disappointing we lost the game," he said.
"I'm encouraged some guys played extremely well. It's not to take anything away from Houston, but to be honest we should have won by three touchdowns. We didn't take advantage of opportunities."
Certainly State did not make the most of Norwood's great day, nor the best first quarter the Bulldogs have played all season, or superior punting and kicking. In fact the Cougars were able to turn some of those strengths against State, such as converting an excellent Blake McAdams punt into a touchdown return. And sizable margins in possession time and snaps in the first half were negated both by that runback and a Houston offense that needed only a couple of minutes to score points.
Thus State was saddled with a fourth-straight loss, and the coaching staff left wondering what else can be done to turn plans into points. "It's nothing from a strategy standpoint to change," Croom said. "To be honest I thought it was the best gameplan we've had all year. Everything was there. Certain guys made plays and certain guys didn't."
Besides Norwood, the coach pointed to fullback Bryson Davis and tackle Brian Anderson as play-makers on offense. He also commented on the efforts expended by wide receivers Joey Sanders and Will Prosser. "They probably played as well as their ability will allow. On defense (tackles) Deljuan Robinson and Andrew Powell played well. We did some things very well, but we had some chances to make plays, and we didn't. Some people didn't execute things."
Specifically, in the air where quarterback Omarr Conner struggled again. He was sacked four times, though most of those came in the fourth quarter when Houston led by a dozen and could rush the passer freely. More troubling was a lack of accuracy whether from the pocket or on the roll; or when the quarterback had time, failure to secure catchable balls. The ground game did their part and more this time. "Our offensive line and Jerious played as well as they have all year," Croom agreed. "Where we missed the chance to make points was in the passing game, that's it in a nutshell."
And the gameplan did call for frequent throwing no matter which way the scoreboard leaned. Norwood got all his rushing yards on just 24 totes; there were plenty of pass plays called because State wanted to keep a balance to the attack. And they still do the next four games, says Croom. The problem is that the throwing and catching alike have not been up to the opportunities. Croom points specifically to two first-half cases involving tight end Eric Butler. The postgame stats might have looked as if Butler was not part of the plan, but that's a misconception. "The effort to get him the ball has been there all year," Croom said. "We had a chance to hit him for a touchdown (in the first quarter) and didn't. We had a chance on the goal line (in the third quarter), he's open, and we didn't hit him."
"We're doing everything we can as far as play designing and play calling to give our receivers chances to make plays. Joey and Will did the best jobs of route-running, they were open. Those two guys made plays when they had a chance. Tee Milons did not." It's rare that Croom singles out individual players for breakdowns, but this indicates the degree of disappointment in the play of several offensive veterans.
Naturally that does not include Norwood, who has opened eyes the last two games. He had a 76-yard touchdown run at Florida, and broke a 66-yarder against Houston. Those were on routine rushing plays where the senior reads the field and picks his lane. Many more of his yards this time came on some newly-added items—"just a couple of gadget plays," Croom called them—to let State's best player try to make plays.
That prompts the obvious question of why such plays weren't run until now, or for that matter why State is expanding the attack at this point of a season. Adding plays sounds simple enough, Croom agrees, but actually requires the sort of time not available during normal game-weeks. It also needs a healthy player and after straining a knee in early August Norwood has not truly been 100% since. A minor hamstring strain on that TD jaunt in Gainesville even set State back during the open date. "He's been hurt all season and doesn't practice much during the week," Croom pointed out.
What really needs understanding, the coach says, is what installing one new item in a playbook really involves. The new things Norwood tried against Houston—a slotback-reverse, for example—had to be run at least "10 to 15 times in practice to get him in the rights spots." That's correct, he said spots and not spot. Because every play State runs has to be adjusted at the line of scrimmage and during the opening seconds to match up best with the opposing defense.
"What you have to understand is it's not one play, it's at least five or six because you have to run it against every coverage and every front they could play, so you know exactly what to do."
Croom has a pretty good idea of what Kentucky will try to do this week when the Bulldogs line up in Lexington. "I'm sure they'll have eight or nine in the box, they'll press our receivers, and take the approach to shut down Norwood and make us throw to our wide receivers. That's not going to be any surprise, they've got tape and they're good coaches, they're not stupid!"
Certainly the State staff is not ignorant of some unexpected issues in another facet of the team, that is the breakdown of some kicking squads. After a miserable afternoon fielding punts at Florida, the Dogs were scorched on punt coverage twice by Houston's return man. "The most glaring things was the punt return (touchdown)," Croom said. "we had breakdowns in coverage and have got to get that corrected." State will also, probably, be using a different placekicker at Kentucky. Keith Andrews aggravated a groin strain in the second half Saturday and is not expected to play this game.
"It would be a remote chance," Croom said. "Right now we're preparing as if he'll not play. Adam Carlson would be our kicker and backup punter with Andrew Gambrell the backup kicker." Carlson won't be just thrown into SEC fire, though, having booted a 20-yard field goal in relief Saturday and kicking off. "He's been in a game and he's a good kickoff man," Croom said. "We've just got to practice him in some game situations during the week."
The Bulldogs are back on the normal practice week schedule, and will be in full pads Monday.