And what is it the Bulldogs still don't entirely grasp after 23 months under this staff. "The discipline it takes day in and day out to win football game," Croom said, "and understanding that every play is critical to winning the game. You don't know which play is going to determine the outcome of a game, there's no breaks. There are no days off, no plays off. You have to execute every time the ball is snapped. They haven't learned that yet."
Mississippi State will be tested on those subjects again this Saturday as Alabama visits Scott Field for a SEC West tiff. Kickoff is just after 2:30 for telecast by CBS. The MSU campus will also be hosting another TV crew as The Weather Channel will broadcast game-day conditions as part of their live Saturday programming.
Croom's frustrations at Kentucky were a result of seeing a game he said he expected to win get away. And the biggest slips came in the opening half as State fell behind 10-0 and allowed a vulnerable opponent to build some confidence that carried to the final horn. The Bulldogs were much better in the third and fourth quarters yet could not make up the entire deficit and failed to come away with any points on two decisive trips into the end zone.
"We did some good things, particularly in the second half," Croom said. "I was not pleased at all with our intensity in the first half, it picked up in the second. That's what is disappointing, we should have played with the same level all game."
If the Bulldogs had run as well all game as in the last half, they would probably have run away with a win. "We made some plays," said Croom, "not enough but it was a definite improvement." Halfbacks Jerious Norwood and Brandon Thornton ran for 121 and 66 yards respectively, and the latter scored the lone MSU points on an impressive 19-yard gallop through traffic and contact. This after a combined 37 yards and scoreless first half.
The Dog defense also came in for criticism. Poor tackling in the first two quarters were the biggest issue with the coach. "We had some missed assignments and some missed techniques that we do every day in practice. That's where those comments came from. I was concerned about us not executing the fundamental things we've done for two seasons. It was lack of executing all we have done previously. We did execute in the second half and that's an indication that if we'd done it the first half we'd have shut down their running game." Instead UK ran for 183 total yards as halfback Rafael Little skittered through arm-tackles and vacated gaps.
"We played harder, we were a lot more disciplined in the second half except for a couple of penalties," Croom said. "Which looking at tape are questionable, but they're judgement calls."
Early in the game the coaching staff judged the time had come to make the most obvious change, with redshirt frosh Mike Henig replacing junior Omarr Conner at quarterback after two series. Henig finished with 200 yards and completed 16 of 31 throws without an interception. After the game Croom pronounced Henig the starter for this weekend, and nothing has changed since.
"It will be a week-by-week situation," Croom said today, and he doesn't foresee any internal issues resulting. "Those two guys get along very well, and no question the team comes first with them. They know we're going todo what's best for the team and be fair with them."
Conner seems content with the way the decision to change was made. "He and I talked together yesterday," Croom reported. "He understands. Omarr is a team player, winning is important to him. As I said after the game and I still believe, his shoulder still bothers him." Conner has showed signs of tendinitis this season and the coaches admit he overworked the throwing arm in August. "He has not complained," Croom said, "but I've seen him grab his shoulder in practice. It's something we have to look into next week (during the open date).
"And he's aware of that, we talked last week and he knew Mike was going to play. He even knew I considered starting Mike, but I wanted to talk to him and be very fair because he's a team player." Croom did say this morning there are no plans to use Conner at any other positions. "No, he's going to be our #2 quarterback."
Which makes Henig number-one for the whole game-week now. While the second-year freshman hasn't had the game experience of his elder, the coach knows what Henig brings to the gameplan. "He's mobile but not as fast as Omarr. He has a strong arm and quick release. He has this knack for making plays, that s an intangible quality. He can take bad situations and turn them into good things, even when he's wrong he somehow makes it come out right. He's earned a chance to have a start in this game."
There was one starting-lineup change at Kentucky as true freshman Calvin Wilson opened at right tackle, after alternating with senior Avery House for four games. "He did some good things. He's got a lot of areas to improve in. The ability and the physicalness is there, but the time he missed in training camp has hindered his progress. He's way too heavy, we're still spoon-feeding him and there are certain things we don't ask him to do. But the ability is there and he'll be a good player in time."
Croom could even point to progress from the often-criticized wide receivers. Tape review proved there was only one real ‘drop' of a catchable ball, when Will Prosser missed a slant-pattern. But the junior more than made up for that lone gaffe with five other grabs and a game-best 78 yards, including one superb fourth-down conversion. And senior Tee Milons responded to a harsh post-Houston evaluation with his best game yet, a four-catch, 51-yard effort. "Tee made some nice catches. Our wide receivers stepped up and made some plays they haven't been."
Nobody came back from Kentucky with a new injury, and as of today Croom hopes placekicker Keith Andrews will be back in action by Saturday. A groin injury kept him out of the Kentucky game and while backup Adam Carslon kicked off well and hit his lone PAT try he also missed a 26-yard field goal that would have cut UK's lead to 13-10 with plenty of fourth quarter left.
So there were some more signs of continued progress in specific areas, Croom noted. But… "We still have a lot of room for improvement and of course we need to win a ball game." That's a tall order now with league-leading and undefeated Alabama coming to town. The one small comfort about this year's edition of the annual matchup is that the spotlight is off the respective coaches and fully on the field, though Croom knows the topic of his not being chosen by his alma mater two years ago will be raised on each side of the border.
Still, "The game is not about me, it's about the players. All this other stuff sells papers and keeps people interested but it comes down to the game." A game that could give the Bulldogs the biggest possible boost going into November. Croom isn't happy about a second-straight losing season, but by the same token he remains objective about the job he was hired to do.
"Well, I think we're just about where I thought we'd be now, except I thought we'd win these last two games. We've played as well as we probably could up to this point, and I was really anticipating we'd win these last two games. But there's nothing we can do about that and we have to be ready to play one of the best teams in the country this week.
"We've come a long way, our record doesn't indicate that and I'm sure it's disappointing to our fans. But we only have four seniors starting. Alabama has eight senior on their defense. I remember two years ago there was a lot of discussion of Alabama not being good and (defensive coordinator) Joe Kines receiving all kinds of criticism. Now Joe's a genius. Amazing, isn't it?!"