Mississippi State hosts arch-rival Mississippi in the annual Battle for the Golden Egg this weekend, with a 1:30 gametime at Scott Field. There will be no live telecast of the contest, even on a date with limited options for the SEC's network partners. The regional market for this matchup, pitting a 2-8, 0-7 SEC Bulldog squad against the 3-7, 1-6 Rebels is obviously limited.
But even if this 102nd edition puts an ironic twist to the adage of ‘throw the records out' the still-faithful followers of both teams won't care come kickoff. Nor will the participants, who have plenty to win—or more accurately, lose—in the last game of their respective seasons.
"Regardless whether it's 2-8 or undefeated, this game makes the off-season pleasant," Croom said. "That's the way it is every year. Unless you get to a bowl game which obviously we're not, this allows things to be peaceful during the off-season."
Things will be somewhat peaceful around campus during this holiday week as most students head home and the University shuts down for a couple of days. Not the Bulldogs who will be preparing for Saturday. "We're going to stay here definitely for Thanksgiving," Croom said. This is compared to last year when the first-season coach let those Dogs who could get home and back in a day depart for the holiday. State will practice as usual for game-weeks on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
"And the guys who are not dressing will go home Wednesday after practice. Everybody else will stay here. In fact it will work out well and give us some extra meeting time." It won't be all-work of course. The varsity players, along with coaches and staff, will celebrate Thanksgiving in the Seal M-Club center after that day's practice. "We'll just have a good family time together on Thursday."
What matters more is having a good team-time Saturday that the entire Bulldog family can celebrate. Croom did not enjoy his first Egg Bowl, with a 20-3 loss at Oxford. Both teams came into that meeting 3-7 but the home squad dominated the field all afternoon. State was so thoroughly whipped that frustrated fans openly questioned if the first-year coach had really ‘understood' what the game meant.
Of course Croom did, and all game-week injected as much extra emotion as needed to get those Bulldogs ready for the rivalry. But the coach admits now that once the team re-assembled for the trip to Oxford he could see something was missing. "No doubt about it, I thought we lost our focus," he said. "We didn't finish the week out. We had good practice early in the week but we didn't close it out.
"Those last 24 hours are critical before the game and that didn't happen last year." So look for State's staff to take full advantage of an extra meeting and motivating time that both having a holiday and playing at home allow. But then once the ball is kicked off it is entirely up to the Bulldogs to take care of their own business.
If State's players need a more recent reminder of what can happen by last-day letting up they only need look at the tape from their last game, a 44-10 defeat at Arkansas. Croom didn't really want to re-hash the rout this morning. "That's over and done with," he said. Still the subject had to come up in other angles regarding both preparations for the season-finale and the state of the current ball club.
"There are still some things that bother me about the game," the coach said. "The thing the film still hasn't told me is why things we practiced we didn't execute against the very same looks. I mean the plays worked well in practice. At times plays were run exactly right, and times they were not is what concerns me. I think I know the answer to that as well." Pressed to expound, Croom did. "Same thing I've been saying all along, we've got to make some improvements.
"And I have to constantly remind myself, we have to be better. I mean when we take our starting quarterback and he makes more plays in one game than we have made all year, that really shows we have to improve there."
This referred to Omarr Conner's day in Little Rock when the quarterback-turned-wideout caught five of the 11 receptions made by Bulldogs, for 47 of the 77 total receiving yards. It was a good effort for Conner, but also a reminder of just how little State is getting from the overall air game. And it was a ball not thrown to Conner that hurt most. In the first quarter, after a Razorback turnover, Conner slipped open in the end zone. But his replacement never got the ball off, as Mike Henig was hit in the collapsed pocket by a pushed teammate and fumbled.
This was not a critique of the freshman quarterback, who was 11-of-27 with one interception and four sackings. Croom also pointed to balls batted away at the line, missed protections, and wrong receiver turns. "He made good decisions for the most part," Croom said. "Several times he came close to making a play but had a better play somewhere else.
"At time he had guys open, then times not open because route not run as should have runs. Mike took some hits that that should not have been there. His backup, Brett Morgan, took two more sacks in just one series, showing how freely the Razorbacks came after State's quarterbacks.
The yards lost on sacks cut deeply into the team rushing total, as Jerious Norwood and Demarcus Johnson ran for 91 and 65 yards respectively and both had a breakaway dash of over 50 yards. In the game Norwood became the first Bulldog to run for over 3,000 career yards, and he needs 68 yards this week to break 1,000 for a second-straight season. Croom certainly wants his senior to finish strong, both for the team and himself.
"He's handled it well, run the football well. He's gotten a little inconsistent of late as far as being patient and trusting his offensive line, because they have done some things well in recent weeks." The fact that here late in the season the coach is critiquing the best and often only play-maker on offense points to just how seriously Croom wants the Bulldogs to approach both the game-week and the game itself. He certainly is on-guard to prevent the same Friday-fade as last week. "That's where I noticed it. By that time it's a little late.
"As a season wears on it's a lack of mental toughness and discipline and doing the little things right all the time. As it becomes habit you get to doing it right all the time." But, Croom adds, there comes the time where the players must be able to focus themselves. "It's recognizing a problem and taking care of a problem. Your seniors have to take care of that within the team, and we haven't gotten to that point yet."
The Arkansas trip cost State two players for this final week. Starting defensive end Titus Brown suffered injuries to knee and ankle and is out, as is special teams regular and backup halfback Brandon Hart with an ankle injury. As of today Croom is not sure if nine-game starting defensive end Michael Heard will be back after a hairline fracture of a leg in the Alabama game. "We're not sure yet. Beyond that it's just day-to-day on everybody else."
And there are only five days to daily prepare for State's last chance to score a SEC victory in 2005. The Bulldogs haven't been able to get it done in seven tries and only one of those games could even be called competitive by the fourth quarter. But as the head coach says, "It's time to get ready for Ole Miss. It's the only one we can do anything about.
"And it's the most important one."