Have mercy, has it really come to this? I've been party to some pretty unimposing matchups in a quarter-century of these intrastate bloodlettings, but off the top of my fast-thinning scalp I can't recall an Egg Bowl where fans who remain outside the gates tailgating, cooking, and drowning shared season-sorrows are likely to see more excitement than those in the seats. (And hey, aren't TV execs who passed on picking this epic looking smart today?) Put another way, as of now we could combine the teams and their records and still not be bowl-eligible. For that matter I'm not sure we could put the lineups together and produce an offense capable of scoring a first-half touchdown against any serious SEC contender. Oh, and remind me in a couple of weeks to take off on a tangent from there and discuss the surest way to evaluate where a lineup truly stands in a conference picture, will ya?
Now. Enough venting for one Sunday. Besides, having spewed all the above foolishness, I now should not be entirely shocked if State-Ole Miss #102, dissolves into some sort of shootout. Seriously, both teams surely have a season's worth of unused scoring stored, right? Why not open all valves and toss a lit match? We might get an explosion after all. Certainly by 4:00 somebody will be scorching under fan-fire as a dismal season ends on the worst possible note. Sorry, venting again.
I guess I'm still trying to grasp what was witnessed yesterday in Little Rock. Not that I expected the Bulldogs to win, y'understand; my own outlook was something like 17-10 or maybe a field goal's margin favoring the Razorbacks. But when Arkansas responded to one forced red-zone turnover with a sack/fumble/recovery of their own, then drove the distance, well…we knew what was coming. What we still can't figure is why, and this included Coach Sylvester Croom. Maybe by tomorrow morning's teleconference he'll be able to explain things but in the immediate aftermath he was as unsure as the rest of us.
"With all we've been through the two years the one thing we have established is we'll compete and we don't quit," he said. "Basically we took a huge step backwards in 30 minutes."
Or take what Willie Evans said when asked how Arkansas was able to run all over, or more often around, State and score on seven of eight first-half series. "You tell me!" said a senior whose had to explain more than his share of career setbacks. Hmmm, maybe that's an answer that says nothing while expressing everything that has happened to this program since the calendar turned over an hour after the 2000 Snow Bowl ended.
Along that line, for all reasons professional and personal with which I need Mississippi State to end this '05 campaign with a win that matters, I have one overriding wish. Dammit, I want Jerious Norwood to walk off Scott Field a winner. I say if State can pull this one off Norwood should tote the Egg to the locker room, out of the stadium, and to his home as a permanent reward for…well, you know for what. Has there ever been a Dog who has done more and received less? Maybe D.D. Lewis, who had a zillion tackles and seven career wins in three seasons. I don't want J-Rock to go out that way, Egg-less after rushing for 1.7 MILES in four seasons, with ten victories total.
Not that the guy would complain. Hell, (sorry, it's the cumulative effects of a long season) yesterday outside the L.R. locker room Norwood even gave credit to his offensive line for helping him become the first Bulldog with 3,000 rushing yards. Myself and the one other scribe recording it were too stunned to respond in disbelief, which would've been wrong anyway because that's just the kind of great guy and team player Jerious is. But if there was ever a time for Jerious to get greedy, it's this Saturday. And this game matters to him more than any he's ever played or ever will play.
"I haven't never beat Ole Miss," he said, "but hopefully this year we'll put something together and come out on top." Did you catch that? He said WE, as in the team, wants to win. Ohhh, if only he'd redshirted in 2002 and been able to get a better shot at at least one successful season next fall.
As his two-year head coach said of Jerious, "He's done a good job for us for two years as far as leadership and work ethic. I'm very proud of that. And I hope we can go out on a positive note next week so he can end his career in a positive fashion, because he deserves it."
But as we know too well already one great Dog can't win on his own. And until yesterday I'd have written about a bunch of these guys deserving some season-ending success to reward their own efforts and sacrifices, their daily (and I do mean daily) decisions to be a part of this program and all that such a choice entails. Until yesterday, when the team just fell into individual pieces almost immediately. If you think an observer was shaken, consider the coach's reaction. "I never anticipated us getting down that early," Croom said. "I know most people didn't give us a chance, but I thought we could (win) and I thought our players thought they could."
"The thing is they (Arkansas) didn't do anything different than what we practiced all week. We didn't execute the things we practiced as well as I anticipated we would going in, and that was thoroughly disappointing. The thing is figuring out why." I certainly don't know why, though I've got an uncomfortable suspicion based on…well, on too many years of experience with too many Bulldog teams of all sorts and systems. These guys still don't expect to win ball games. OK, that's not the sort of revelation written in burning letters on stone tablets. And honestly Croom knows there is a level of legitimate doubt in MSU minds two years into the most serious building--after five years we can't call it rebuilding--project since the 1960s. It's only natural.
Yet results in the second half of this schedule have the coaching staff wondering what it will take to cross that unwritten but utterly real line between uncertainty and confidence. State absolutely should have beaten Kentucky and, probably, Houston, though I never had that one written down as a ‘W' in preseason. And yesterday ought to have been much more competitive than how things played out. Instead the Bulldogs haven't won since the trip to Shreveport, and have just one homefield victory in the season debut.
During the return drive, while weaving through astoundingly long trains of trucks on I-40 (I also saw regular unleaded at one station for $1.92), I recalled an August conversation with Croom. He said that this team would be better but could have a worse record than last year. It was a statement later repeated in other media settings, and at the time you could tell most took that as ritual coach-speak. Ditto for about 95% of the fan base hearing such preseason pragmatism. Not those of us who've learned that this is not a man trained in P.R. arts. He says what he means and means what he says, and leaves the spinning to others.
Well, three months later it turns out the coach was on-target, though Croom does admit he truly anticipated this team would come back after the first open date and win a couple of October games. Those losses frustrated him; this latest defeat has Croom confused about why the Bulldogs still aren't putting training into action. Yep, the E-word again, and it's still accurate. "When we executed we moved the ball," Croom said. "When we didn't, we didn't."
Upon hearing which an increasing number of frustrated fans are openly asking if this team is at all capable of executing each game's plans in the first place. It's a legitimate question, if raised in relation to both specific and general levels of talent/experience/depth needed to run these systems, and that would lead us into the ‘R' word if I were in a Sunday mood to go that way. I'm not, we'll talk recruiting after the season ends. But in regard to the original question, might as well focus entirely on personnel and give up debating the plans. Because as Croom repeated Saturday, the system is not changing.
"I'm not worried about the scheme, I know the scheme works," he said. "We've just got to protect and get the ball to guys that can make plays."
That's how Mississippi State will go into the last and now most important contest of 2005. Same plan, same schemes, same personnel. Can the results be any different? Sure, if the Bulldogs can finally, faithfully, and fully execute as ordered. The cynics (and boy, will they be out in force this week on BOTH sidelines) might posit that just on odds it has to happen sometime. The devout will respond well, why not now? Why not this game? Why not this team?
And the rest of us will wait and watch how Croom's second Egg Bowl plays. In case you're wondering and for whatever it's worth, the previous four State coaches all split their first two meetings with Them, and three of ‘em got their first win on the second try. In fact we have to go back to Darrell Royal to find a MSU coach who lost his first two Egg Bowls, as the next three all at least managed a tie the second time around. Try THAT bit of trivia at your next tailgate party.
Of course Croom has no such option of playing to tie. Nor do the Bulldog seniors who simply must claim one victory in the ancient feud to feel a measure of career fulfillment. And if it can only be one, why not the last one? Look, no one win will make or break a program's progress, not even one in this rivalry. And as I know the inevitable annual topic is a'coming this week, please consider: if beating the rival ‘guaranteed' complete recruiting success, why have we seen the series swing back-and-forth over the last 15 years? Ooops, there I go trying to inject logic into a subject ruled by passion. No wonder I'm still a bachelor.
The real point of the moment is that the current Bulldog veterans need to earn their Egg to validate everything they've invested in Mississippi State; and the younger pups can use it almost as much to encourage them in sticking with the long-term plan for the program. Even if it takes a safety in the third overtime to get it done, this is a contest for both the present and the future.
And Jerious, we owe ya this one. No joke.