Certainly State (0-1, 0-1 SEC) is about to play a very good, perhaps great football team as they host Auburn (1-0, 0-0 SEC) this Saturday. Kickoff from Scott Field is 11:30 with regional telecast by Lincoln Financial Sports, formerly Jefferson-Pilot. The Tigers are coming off a rout of visiting Washington State in their opener, and kick off their SEC schedule favored by many to take both the Western Division and overall conference titles. Croom isn't one to dispute that forecast.
"Auburn is one of the best teams in the country. I've been watching them a long time and it doesn't seem to change. You have different people with those blue jerseys on but it doesn't seem to change. It's a great challenge for us to play this team, it will definitely give a measure of where we are right now."
At the same time State hadn't intended to be where they are after the opening game, with a home shutout loss on the record. With raised pre-season expectations of this squad the defeat was a natural letdown. Yet the loss didn't impact the Bulldogs as it could have; instead of deflation the coach sees determination in the locker room.
"We're not going to cut our throats right now even though we're disappointed losing our first game," he said. "There's no question we're better than we were at the end of last season and far better than at the start of last season."
This was the staff verdict after game review. Some of it any observer would have known, such as the stout effort by the Dog defense. "We played extremely well defensively," the coach confirmed. He singled out the performances of such individuals as FS Jeramie Johnson, DT Antonio Johnson, and MLB Quinton Culberson as exceptional, without diminishing what the entire unit did. "Overall our defense played well enough to win."
Croom also liked most of what he saw from the special teams, such as punting and Derek Pegues' kickoff returns. The failure to prevent the USC punter from turning a tackle into a first-down run was something of a fluke but still a mistake; and "Of course the missed field goal was the most disappointing thing." Not so much to cost kicker Adam Carlson the job, though, as Croom said he will start this week also.
But of course most questions focused on an offense that netted 161 yards with no points. While not excusing the results, the coaching staff found some encouraging signs. "Offensively we actually did some things better than I'd thought," Croom said. "We ran the ball well, our first-down run efficiency we did well. Our overall protection was better when the game was still even, far better than last year." Fullback Bryson Davis got the highest marks individually, though freshman halfback Anthony Dixon came in for praise as well. "He ran well, some techniques and steps were not where it should be but again he's still a freshman, he's going to get a lot more playing time this week."
The real Monday subject though was who will be handing off and throwing the ball this week. Redshirt freshman Tray Rutland, who took over for injured starter Mike Henig, is now the #1. Henig is out for at least six weeks with a broken collarbone. Rutland had been scheduled to play some in the opener anyway; now he has all the responsibility for running this offense on his young shoulders.
"Tray actually did better than I thought," Croom said of Rutland's emergency debut. "He's going to be our quarterback and Omarr Conner the backup, and Ty Evans the third guy."
The trick now is fitting a SEC gameplan, against a world-class defensive team, to what a second-fall-freshman is capable of. "We will look closely at what we ask Tray to do," Croom said. At the same time Rutland surprised the staff somewhat Thursday evening, not acting like a kid thrown into the fire.
"He's impressed me," Croom said. "He showed more poise in the game than he had in practice, that surprised me. He was very confident in what he was doing, nothing rattled him." Not the pressure of playing a SEC team in his first action, nor missing some early opportunities. Such as Rutland's first college play. Croom said a deep corner-route was called because South Carolina surely wouldn't expect such at that time, from that sort of rookie. And if a teammate had done a better job taking care of the cornerback—who did get a finger on the throw—Keon Humphries would have come up with a strike inside the USC ten-yard line.
The point now? "That was a big-time throw," Croom said. Even more was the big-time attitude shown by the new kid. "I asked him at halftime is there anything you don't like, give me a quick list," Croom related. "He said just call the game!"
By no means did Rutland earn an ‘A' in his first college test. Croom pointed to a couple of glaring mistakes, such as overthrow for Conner that was intercepted. "He had two big plays he didn't execute very well, for the most part he did better than I thought he would have done going in." So Rutland will start Saturday, while Conner spends most of this week prepping as backup in his old job. Croom said Conner "probably" will not start at the X-receiver, but spend Tuesday and Wednesday practicing at quarterback and Thursday at receiver.
"But he's going to have to delve more into quarterback right now and his role at wide receiver be reduced."
There will be more offensive adjustments in the aftermath of the first game, specifically on the offensive line. But nobody is being demoted; instead the staff is now satisfied they can line up the front they had planned to all along.
"We're definitely going to move Brian Anderson back to guard, and J.D. Hamilton to left tackle," Croom said. "Calvin Wilson will be the ‘swing' guy and Craig Jenkins, who played well, will start at right tackle. That will give us what we think is our best offensive lineup right now." In fact this is the exact group the lined up as first team back on August 2.
"Then J.D. missed a lot of time in camp, he didn't go through spring either so he really hasn't had but ten days of real work and even some of that he was hampered," Croom said. "We had hoped this was the way the lineup would turn out in the first place, with Brian at right guard. That was the original concept but it didn't pan out because of JD's injury and Craig came back heavy." In the months since Hamilton has gotten healthy and Jenkins in better shape.
And Croom on the whole liked a lot of what the blocking Dogs did in their first appearance. "I'm very pleased with those guys' effort up front, I thought they blocked well in the runing game. We missed some assignments and had a couple of missed reads by our young running back that hampered us. Late in the ball game when we had to throw every down, then we had some mistakes in pickups and some of that was lack of work on JD's part."
It also reflected some stunts and shifts by the South Carolina defensive front-seven. State had anticipated this but still the young and raw blockers didn't have the game experience to cope…yet. "Particularly (right guard) Mike Gates, because he just hasn't seen those things." Now true soph Gates, a 2005 tackle, can go back to backup duty behind Anderson and learn under less pressure.
Croom said there were other issues to address in the offense, without naming names. "We had some guys that were not executing like we did in practice. I have concerns about a couple of individuals that I will address today," he said. He also noted missed opportunities in the air game that cost State dearly. Still he has hopes for the personnel, including the receivers.
"I've got confidence in Keon Humphries, a young guy in Keith Mills who has been doing well in practice, we just didn't get opportunity to put him in the game. We didn't use Will Prosser, he'll be a role player there. Omarr is still going to play wide receiver but it will be in a role where he is of the most value to us." Croom has also noted the need to make use of transfer Tony Burks. For sure, State must convert when the ball has to be thrown, quickly and precisely. At the same time the Dog runners have to balance it out.
"We have to do some things to keep (Auburn) honest and don't let them tee off. If we get where we have to throw it every down it will be a long afternoon." It was certainly a long afternoon last September in Auburn when the Bulldogs were blanked 28-0. The challenge is at least as great again this year, though on the home field.
But this related to something else Croom spent his holiday weekend doing. "It's funny you ask," he said. "We were looking back at some of the people we played." Such as blowout games in 2004 and '05 when the Bulldogs were utterly mis-matched. It didn't make for fun viewing, Croom admitted. "It was almost nauseating." Yet it was also strangely encouraging.
"We're not a great team by any stretch of the imagination, but we're much improved. It was good (to watch) because you have a tendency to forget certain things, especially the bad things. We're not where I wanted to be at this point but to watch LSU two years ago was a nightmare. There were a lot of good things we did the other night. There was no lack of effort, we didn't have any discipline penalties, we had one pre-snap penalty which was declined. I'd say that's a huge improvement. Our defense played well, our kicking game was improved. So there is definitely improvement.
But again we have to make plays, especially in the passing game when they're there. That was the most disappointing thing. Tehre were plays we should have made which we made in practices against a pretty good defense. One touchdown would have won this ball game."
A touchdown State could not manufacture. After the shutout Croom made clear that any blame for the loss should come to him, not his team because effort was there on the whole. So was the attitude, from guys who had not been so mentally tough in the past. Such as defensive end Michael Heard, who Croom said was held on the rush all evening. "But he didn't complain. He'd have whined in the past but he kept his poise and kept coming." It reflected a pleasing poise from the defense in particular and team as a group. "I like the guys on this team," Croom said. "My opinion hasn't changed, they have bought into what we're doing.
"But still offensively we've still got to have a sense of urgency that every play is the difference in winning and losing the game. That's what is lacking, that ‘this play and what I'm asked to do is the difference in the game.' We have on defense but we haven't on offense."
The Bulldogs will not practice as a team Monday but will be involved in individual and group meetings with their position coaches. Other than Henig there were no injuries to report from the first game.