"I Understand Our Fans Being Frustrated"

Technically, it was supposed to be a standard game-week teleconference about the upcoming opponent. As it turned out Tulane was mentioned only once, and not even by the coach. Instead Monday's media session was more about Coach Sylvester Croom himself, about specific Saturday post-game comments, and about the general state of Mississippi State football two games into the 2006 season.

"I knew as soon as I said it there was going to be some fallout," Croom told reporters this morning, when asked about strong statements following the 34-0 home loss to Auburn. "I was very frustrated, and one thing I've tried to do since I've been here is usually I go in and cool off and get myself calmed down." Instead this time the coach came quickly to the post-game press conference where he said he did not care about public opinion of State's struggles.

As expected there has been fallout, and not just among the fan base and media. "Believe me, I've been chastised by my wife," Croom said. "I've been punished enough, I hope there can be a reprieve on that!" More seriously, Croom wanted to clarify both the source of his statements and his attitudes.

"And I've been at this long enough to know that people say they want you to be honest, but there's certain things you can't say. And I'm an emotional person."

Emotions are running high on and off campus these days, following consecutive shutout losses to South Carolina and Auburn. Now the Bulldogs (0-2, 0-2 SEC) get a third homefield opportunity to get both on the scoreboard and in the win column, hosting Tulane. The first non-conference game of State's schedule kicks off at 6:00 at Scott Field, and all involved are hoping for a much better showing against an unranked foe. Like Auburn, which played like a #4-rated squad in all aspects.

"We've very disappointed of course with our loss to Auburn, even though they're one of the best teams in the country," Croom said. "We felt going in we had a chance to compete and win, and I still thought that at halftime." That feeling didn't last long into the second half, after a short kickoff and penalty gave the Tigers a short field for a fast, clinching touchdown drive.

Sunday review confirmed most gameday observations. "We played defense pretty well," Croom said. "But we missed two interceptions and had two balls on the ground we missed." State also lost, badly, in the field position category with a couple of turnovers—one at the goal line—and poorer than expected kicking. "I think we averaged starting on the 21-yard line, Auburn averaged starting on their 45-yard line."

As to kicking issues, "I'm still trying to figure out what's going on there. Keith Andrews should kick it off the field every snap, he did all week in practice but didn't when we needed it." Croom did say the blocked field goal attempt by Adam Carlson was not a kicking error, but that guard Michael Gates did not block the inside gap. And after a solid first game punter Blake McAdams was inconsistent against Auburn. Croom hinted at changes in some specialist jobs but did not elaborate.

This of course led back to the offense, which for a second-straight loss gained exactly 161 total yards and put up no points. "But we did some things better offensively," Croom said. "We did some things not as well defensively and in the kicking game. It's back to improving. The main thing is doing just that, improving and taking the things we do well on the practice field and getting them into the ball game."

There was surprising player that got into the ball game, as halfback Anthony Dixon shrugged off a broken left-pinky finger suffered Tuesday and played. This after the freshman had been ruled out of action all during the week. Croom praised Dixon's mentality, as well as his rearing. "I give credit to his Momma, I really do. He's a disciplined, mentally tough individual which is very unusual for a kid his age." By the same token Croom wasn't entirely surprised because in one August scrimmage he had Dixon carry the ball 35 times. "And it didn't bother the kid. What he did last week is impressive, he really wanted to play and he played well."

Dixon will likely start this Saturday, as sophomore Brandon Thorton's sprained ankle will sideline him at least one week and maybe two. Fellow freshman Arnil Stallworth is the #2 halfback for this week.

Croom is still baffled as to why State has failed to produce yards and points through the first two games. Actually, he knows why but can only shake his head over the reason. It always comes back to executing both the called play and taking advantage of situations, and the downfall is simply individual breakdowns.

For examples, there was a 3rd-and-3 play where one receiver was supposed to go a certain depth, spot up, and create an opening for a running back to catch and run. "We do that perfectly in practice, we didn't do that in the game and it cost us a 30-yard gain. That was a critical, critical play." More obvious was the blocking breakdown at State's five-yard line where Rutland was hit and fumbled on third down. "(Right guard) Brian Anderson got beat on a three-step drop," Croom said. "He had a good game but one play he missed caused a fumble. Each of these guys is making one mistake and that's killing the offense; start adding it up and ten plays is the game!"

"I'm trying to be careful not to put too much pressure on our offense," he admitted, pointing to the new faces in the current lineup including a redshirt freshman booked for backup duty this year. Two quarters into the campaign Tray Rutland is starting, and SEC defenses have come after the kid. Ditto two new starting tackles, as well as an unproven transfer receiver. "Yet I'm expecting them to go operate at a high level of efficiency," Croom said.

His expectations are the real cause of Croom's personal frustrations. But he admits that he has not handled similar expressions from fans well lately, such as criticisms of the offense received in the mail, posted or on-line. "I usually try to answer those things and I let a couple of them get under my skin," Croom said. "I let it get the best of me. I should not have said that. But I understand our fans being frustrated. I'm only going into my third season, they've been going through this for six years. They have more right to be frustrated than I do.

"But I'm also frustrated because I do want our fans to enjoy coming to ball games. That's why I came to this University in particular, because there is a great family atmosphere here and they're like family to me. I'll tell you, I have a hard time looking them in the eye. It's tough because I want so much more for them. I want so much more for our players. And the things that is getting me is our players are working hard and doing things right. They're doing things right against a pretty good defense in practice, but they're not executing them in the game. It's frustrating, because it's also encouraging because you're that close."

Finding encouragement in State's first consecutive shutouts in four decades can't be easy. And naturally fans have responded with demands for, well, for changes. Here the coach disagrees with both the observation, that the Bulldogs never adjust, and the attitude.

"I'm not going to change my basic philosophy of what it takes to win games. Discipline, being physical, not making mistakes, run the football and make plays in the passing game." As to accusations of failure to adapt, "We change stuff every week. We had to make changes when Mike Henig became our quarterback, we had to make a lot of changes when Tray became the quarterback." And State plans each game for specific opponents, within the larger framework of what Croom and his coaches prefer to run.

"I've made every change I think I can possible make. And I'm still researching other things." As to critiques of the offensive system, Croom notes that Auburn ran a variation of the same theme State does. "I could call every play Auburn ran because of the formations. Nebraska, UCLA, North Carolina State all run this system. We're just not executing at this part time. We have to keep working at it and get better."

Croom did make entirely clear his response to one popular notion of how to ‘fix' things. He affirmed Saturday statements that there will be no staff changes. "Now I'm emphatic about that because I see these guys working hard every day. I have the best guys available on my staff with the resources that we have.

"When I get suggestions to make changes, no, I'm being loyal to my staff. I've made a lot of changes with players, there's not a player out there that I don't want on this team. There's not a coach on this staff that I don't want. That's who I am as a person and I can live with that."

Croom said the most strident critics are a minority and their opinions won't change. "The bottom line is we have to get better as a football team. I've got pride, and I want our fan to understand this. It's about our players and about our fans, not me. My job is to do the best for our players and our fans. But I hope our people know I am honest. All I want to do is help us win. I want them to be proud of that Maroon and White. But I have to be honest with people. When the day is done I've got to be able to live with my own self."

Living would be easier for all concerned with success this weekend, and in this case there is reason for optimism. Of the six wins scored the past two seasons two have come at Tulane's expense. But until the Bulldogs put points on the scoreboard there won't be any victories. Thus Croom can only pound the same theme of consistent execution as the key to moving, scoring, and winning.

"We're so close on plays, but that's the difference with good teams," Croom said. "My biggest frustration is that we haven't been able to get our team to understand that every single play matters, that's the sense of urgency we still don't have right now.

"The pressure is internal. That's what makes you a better team, the pressure to do things right every snap. It has nothing to do with the other team, whether it's South Carolina, Auburn, or Tulane. The main ting is doing what you've been taught on this particular play because this play is going to win or lose the game. But I believe we can get it because our kids are good kids. If I didn't have that feeling I'd take a totally different approach."

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