From The Dawghouse

"So, tell me what I missed?" says the reporter, drained after a long day at the ball field. "You didn't miss a thing," says the coach, himself a bit weary after a long week dealing with tummy trouble while getting his new-look team ready for their first exhibition game. In fact the only bright eyes and bushy tail present belonged to Isaac Stansbury, gleefully ‘reading' Dad's stat sheet. In other words, we weren't a high-energy bunch in the interview room.

And judging by my own stat sheet I probably did not miss out on a whole lot in Mississippi State's exhibition win over West Georgia. See, I didn't get away from the Scott Field press box until 8:55 after filing the gamer and participation list (the latter needs checking as I've got one too many extra guys dressed). That meant walking into The Hump just as a few thousand folk were exiting, stage-left. Few of them exhibited a lot of energy, either, though nobody seemed unhappy about what they witnessed in the 80-66 outcome.

Naturally I'd liked to have watched the exhibition, not so much for the result as the process. Most obviously I want to see all these high-flying frosh that are being counted on to both rebuild the current team and become the core of title contenders for ensuing seasons. One of them, Jamont Gordon, did start last night at small forward. Veterans got the other four tipoff jobs; Jamall Edmondson and Dietric Slater at guards, Piotr Stelmach at big forward and Wesley Morgan in the pivot.

Apparantly the starting unit didn't exactly get off to a roaring, well, start; they were a combined 5-of-17 in the first half. If not for Charles Rhodes' work off the bench State likely would've trailed at halftime, though a 30-25 lead over West Georgia feels like a deficit anyway. But then that's what exhibitions are good for, putting not just starting groups but various combinations together on the court, against a real foe, and evaluating both from the sideline and later on the videoscreen. So we won't be surprised if there's a different starting five against West Florida; nor, if you know anything at all about Stansbury, should you be surprised if it is the same tipoff team. This coach has never been terribly concerned about ‘setting' a starting team for pre-SEC games, remember.

And the Dogs did win the exhibition as Rhodes and Stelmach just took over inside and ‘Mal chunked in a few jumpers. Be honest, did Stelmach's 6-of-7 shooting line and seven boards catch your eye? It did mine. Rhodes' 7-of-11 shooting and eight boards stood out all the more…though I couldn't resist asking Rick what Charlie was doing taking three three-point tries, all missed? Stansbury scowled and muttered about stressing wiser shot selection this week. I also noted aloud that Morgan, who has every chance to seize a larger role this season, did not take a single shot, did not get to shoot a single free throw, and failed to secure any rebounds in 14 minutes. That had the coach shaking his head, too.

But then the evening wasn't about picking holes in a team fabric that has yet to be woven in the first place. Sheesh, I must still be tired to type gibberish like that line. All-in-all the coach seemed content with most of the evening's efforts, and he honestly did not expect great execution this early from a team that by most any measure is being totally restructured. It's the subtle aspects Stansbury wanted to stress in postgame review. Such as the way Rhodes went to war all evening and showed signs of the sort of maturity that can turn his awesome physical potential into pure SEC presence. Or how Stelmach took advantage of opportunities, not to mention taking makeable shots, and hit the boards with vigor.

Or, that Slater reverted to old form and put up some of those out-of-control shots he's sworn NOT to this year. And how rookie center Vernon Goodridge simply forgot a month's college training and, when the first whistle blew, simply played what Stansbury called "rec ball." Rick wasn't as surprised by that as he was disappointed, but the kid can be taught better. And will.

Hmmm, what else did coach have to say. He loves the Delks already and they're going to play real roles as rookies. Rick didn't have to say much about Gordon because he's been saying it since summer how much of an impact he will have. His line would've been much better if Jamont had not picked up three fouls in less than 11 minutes after tipoff, but in this case they were fouls of effort that bode well for the future. Let's see…Michael Boler's injured shoulder might keep him out of the second exhibition, too. And Jerrell Houston's unspecified suspension holds for one more week, which means the redshirt can play in the real opener. "If nothing else happens," Stansbury said dryly upon my query.

So that's the second-hand report from Exhibition A. And I will be on the site, ready to write, for Ex.B this Saturday at 2:00. Though honestly, I wouldn't object to spending the last non-football fall Saturday of 2005…watching football. Much as I enjoy the indoor game during the winter month, mid-November is still just too darn early to shift the mental gears from gridiron to hardcourt no matter what the respective scores are. I can't wait until the NCAA finally makes the long-anticipated ruling and requires all college sports play the entire season within the bounds of a single semester.

I also can't wait for Mississippi State football to put a productive offense on the field. Well, alright, there is little option other than to wait for that day, is there? Besides just giving up entirely and finding something else to do with fall afternoons. I'm under no illusion that a tithe of Bulldog folk, and not just the naturally impatient, have already done so for the balance of this November. Those seats at Scott Field either empty or filled by the wrong shade of red attest to the hard facts of the 2005 matter.

Such exodus was accelerated yesterday upon realization that changing quarterbacks is no instant panacea. Well, duh, as my too-cool teenaged nieces would say. If fixes came this quick State's staff would've pulled that trigger a month ago. No, as we've said often—but apparently not often enough—rebuilding this football program will take years of work, and it's clear now two will not be sufficient. Though, at the risk of appearing either completely cracked or slavishly supportive, I'm strangely beginning to think it is a closer thing now than I'd have imagined in September. (Yes, all who've made up minds that this staff will never get it turned around may be excused the aggravation of reading further.)

Let's be clear right here that I've no objection to yesterday's gameplan. No matter who was under center, State had no real choice but go with the ground game first. Why? Oh, because that Norwood guy IS the offense. I'm eternally baffled by fan's willingness to believe that coaches call plays they know won't work just for the sake of ‘philosophy' or whatever. Do you really, honestly think these coaches don't know what their kids can and more importantly cannot do against specific defensive styles? Well, the only chance State had against Alabama's defensive speed was to pound the middle and attempt to set up a situation on the corner, and guess rightly.

The only chance for this offensive lineup, that is. Give State one, just one tall, fast, physical wide receiver who can suck two defensive backs his way and keep the free safety honest, and EVERYTHING changes. And not just against Alabama, for that matter. But that phenom is not on the roster. He's in junior college, or at least that's what the experts say. More to the point, he's supposed to be eligible and willing. I'll let my partner chase the specifics as this is as deep as I choose to get involved in recruiting reporting. But it can't be any coincidence that in recent weeks Sylvester Croom has commented several times about his experience as an assistant in the 1980s when simply by adding one big-play receiving threat Alabama went from in-offensive to a contender the next year.

I repeat this only because, while the scoreboards aren't looking any better, there are signs, hints, suggestions of an offense in the making. There's promise in the pack of underclass linemen; for that matter the guys here have been blocking better lately, if not great by any means. No, Jerious can't be replaced by one back. But the more we see of Brandon Thornton the better we feel, and it's no secret State is going to sign at least a couple of ‘fast' high school runners and one juco back. Tight end obviously is in good shape.

Quarterback? Let's just say that no matter what plays out the rest of this month, the job if Officially Open come spring camp. Omarr Conner isn't giving up his job without a fight; Mike Henig has gotten a taste of real action now and shown some encouraging signs, though growing a couple of inches isn't likely. No wonder we sideline scribes have found ourselves watching the scout offense a lot lately, specifically young Tray Rutland.

But that's a change-of-calendars away. What matters at the moment is for State's staff to figure out something, somehow, some way, to put points on the remaining scoreboards, within the restrictions of what there is to work with. And Croom was characteristically blunt yesterday after the second shutout loss of this SEC season. Once State fell behind by double-digits that game was over, he said.

"Right now we can't overcome it because we don't have the explosion, the guy that can catch a five-yard pass and make a guy miss and go 80 yards for a touchdown. We don't have a receiver that can just run by a guy and we throw the ball downfield. It's not because the kids are not trying, we just don't have those kinds of people. So what we have to do is try to chip out first downs." Do you now see why the gameplan was what it was, and will remain? Norwood is the hoss this offense has to ride to the end of the schedule.

Croom would have liked to take some Saturday satisfaction from holding Alabama without an offensive touchdown…but even that bright spot was dimmed because it forced the coach to ask why that Dog D didn't show up for Houston and Kentucky? "If we had played like this the last two weeks we'd have won both those games easily. Easily." This from a coach not given to overstatements. And I have to agree. UK's Rafael Little is a fine back but he's not Kenneth Darby; yet the Wildcat ran through tentative tackling and helped create just enough points to beat State. Darby was held in closer check. Thus Croom's frustration, which was further aggravated by the pair of penalties called on Jamall Johnson and Anthony Strauder. Croom initially lit into both alleged offenders…only to apologize after seeing the jumbotron replay. He's also sure to receive a reprimand from the SEC this week for calling those penalties wrong and unfair. (This career Bulldog must resist the wise-guy temptation to wonder if the former Tide player/coach now understands how it feels to be on the wrong sideline when the league's good ol' refs throw flags in an Alabama game.)

Besides, Croom has far bigger issues ongoing than officiating. Three weeks shy of two years on the job and he still finds attitude aspects in need of changing. Playing competitively this time only points up to the lost opportunities of the preceeding weeks. "We've got to not play based on the level of who we're playing. We played five of the best teams in the country toe-to-toe, yet we lost two games where if we play like that we win easy. What I hope we learn from this is to play our best every week."

And unless I heard wrongly, there have been tones in Croom's voice lately that would lead one to think he is seeing better signs from a team that gave every effort asked yesterday. "For the first time since I've been here our seniors stepped up and gave some leadership," noted the coach. "They were still trying to make some things happen."

Or, take this post-loss comment about the state of State's mentality. "Right now everything is going against them, but that's alright. You give your best effort and sometimes things just don't go the way you think it ought to. But what choice do you have, you quit or keep fighting. Men keep fighting, and we've got some men in that dressing room." Well, now. Praise after a defeat? We haven't heard a lot of that this year. Yet we also should know by now this coach doesn't toss around compliments carelessly.

Well, we'll see what Croom has to say this week after open-date practices (there are no regular press conferences, FYI). Certainly we'll watch how the quarterbacks line up in drills, as the use of Conner in some series yesterday shows Henig hardly has a lock on the job. Other than that, don't expect any major changes at this late date. Which brings up another comment Croom made Saturday. Yes, he's heard the howls of fans over play-calling. The coach understands the frustration, but wants fans to understand the reasoning in turn…if they're willing to listen.

"Offensively right now we're very conservative, far more than I'd like to be. But the time will come, we'll get some big-play receivers in here and we'll air it out. I'm pleased for the most part where we are now and with the effort and fierceness our guys played with tonight. We wanted them to play it one play at a time and the best they could, and not be worried about mistakes." Now, in case any of us don't get the point, Croom continued with…

"That's why our system isn't ever changing. Those people who have questions about the system don't even bring it up to me, because the system isn't ever changing while I'm here." If any of us miss that point, well, I'm not sure what else could be said. Or needs to be said.

Other than this. While Croom can come across as hard, even harsh in his honesty, never get the notion that this coach is belittling his players. Only a privileged few got to watch spring practices, see what these Bulldog endured just to be on the 2005 roster. All others have to take our word that these guys have earned their place, and all this fall have confirmed personal commitments to the way their coaches demand the game be played. Sure, there is individual and collective pain that they won't end the year with a winning record…but there is also the sort of attitude that with all-out effort and a modest dose of luck they can end this year winners. Having come this far, why give it up now?

Or as Croom says, "I've been in the NFL where grown men would have thrown the towel in with the struggles these kids have had. But they haven't. If anybody is ashamed of the way they played tonight, that's alright with me because I'm proud to be their coach."

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