Play-making, most obviously on the offensive side, has been in short State supply so far this early season. Saturday's 34-0 loss at Scott Field to Auburn came ten days after a 15-0 blanking by visiting South Carolina, giving State consecutive shutouts for the first time in 39 years. In both games the Bulldog offense generated exactly the same total yardage, 161, and only once have they driven the ball inside an opponent's ‘red zone.' That one, to the Auburn 16 in the fourth quarter, ended in a blocked field goal.
Against the Gamecocks a game-opening interception resulted in State getting to the 21, where the field goal was merely missed. But placekicking, or the lack thereof, is not the topic on most minds at the moment. It is frustration over Bulldog struggles at moving the ball and scoring points.
From his vantage point Croom saw more encouraging signs in today's defeat than a week ago. State ran the ball with some authority against a better defensive team, and quarterback Tray Rutland—who replaced the injured Mike Hening in the second quarter against USC—showed admirable poise under first-start pressures. At points the run-blocking seemed respectable and a couple of plays there was even sufficient time for Rutland to throw the ball.
As Croom said, "And we executed better. But when it came to the clutch plays to keep drives going, we didn't make them." State was 5-of-15 in third downs, with no third-quarter conversions and just one in the fourth long after the issue was settled.
One in particular bothered the coach. Trailing 7-0, the offense got the ball on their own one-yard line thanks to a great defensive effort by safety Jeramie Johnson to strip an Auburn receiver on his way to the end zone. It was a tough situation of course and turned into a 3rd-and-5. Rutland was to take a short drop and throw quickly, and the play developed as intended…almost.
"On the three-step drop we've got a guy wide-open and one of our linemen tried to cut," Croom said. "And he misses." The result was a dive into Rutland's waist, a fumble, and Auburn possession at the one where they scored two snaps later for a 14-0 lead. "You can't miss, bottom line," said Croom, and old lineman himself. "How do you miss a cut-block?
"You have to make that play when those things are there." He pointed to other junctures where State showed some drive by moving the ball and the chains with consecutive first downs in the first half, mixing the run and pass nicely. Nothing came of all that offensive effort. And even when the Dogs got a gift on a fumbled punt and pushed into the Tiger red zone for the first time it led to further frustration. Rutland overthrew tight end Eric Butler in the end zone—"We've got to make that play"--and Adam Carlson's kick was rejected.
Croom did not downplay Rutland's own errors. "A couple of times he had guys open." But he had no criticism for the redshirt rookie's demeanor or desire, nor most of the unit for that matter. The issue is that attitude isn't enough to score against SEC competition. Aptitude is the question. "And we have to do things right," Croom said.
"Yeah, we've got to score points. But the way you score points is executing plays. It's blocking, it's catching, it's running, it's throwing the ball to the right place, all of that stuff. And we're going to keep working at it and keep doing it and it will come together. Right now we have a couple of kids in places, and some older ones, who are not making plays."
The emphasis on play-making was meant to make clear Croom's own attitude on another subject. Specifically, play-calling. Consecutive shutouts have fans, paying or otherwise, howling. The coach knows this is part of the game…but not one he was hired to address other than on-the-field.
"Here it is," he told media post-game. "Those two games are over. I've learned after three years of being at this, particularly at the level I've been at, it hurts but you move on. That's the only way to get better. I'm not going to sit around and cry and I'm sure not going to sit around and worry about the criticism and what fans think. I don't have time to worry about that.
"I've got a bunch of young kids out there fighting their guts out and trying to get better, and I'm going to keep working with them. That's what I'm supposed to do. That's exactly what I'm going to do. I could care less about what anybody thinks about what we're doing, OK? I'm not concerned about that."
Blunt talk, but from a man who hasn't been shy about giving clear comments on any situation. Still Croom realizes that the queries will only increase and not just from media professionals. "We have a call-in show and people are going to call in and ask questions. But hey, nothing is going to change. We're going to try to get better at what we're doing. I don't want to hear about the play-calling, I don't want to hear about getting rid of my coaches because I'm never firing a football coach. If it comes to that I'm going to fire me. I want to get that clear so when I get to the show…and I don't want to do the show anyway, I need to be working trying to get our team better instead of sitting around listening to those questions."
The show, Dawgs Talk, airs Monday evening from 7:00-8:00. And even the most infuriated fan has to accept that the only response that matters will come from the entire team—offense, defense, and specialists--next Saturday evening against Tulane (6:00). Everything else is just, well, talk.
"It's frustrating," Croom agrees. "But there is no lack of effort. All I ask our kids to do is give total effort and that's what they're doing. They're young, I expect them to get better. They've got the night off and I want them to enjoy the weekend and come back Monday and let's go work and get ready for the next ball game."