Before proceeding with State's sad September situation, let's make the effort to give a Tulane team and program that's been through, well, you know what they've been through, some sort of sportsmanlike applause. I wasn't even offended by the Waver who taunted State folk with the "thanks for the check" crack. Winners can afford to cackle, losers must listen.
But what Bulldog folk want to hear today is some acceptable explanation of why this team is where it is. Still winless. Auburn is understandable and South Carolina at least somewhat excusable. But Tulane? An opponent that's accounted for one-third of State's six victories in the current regime? For three quarters a club that scored only once against a Houston squad we know from first-hand observation can't stop anyone was able to shred a presumably solid State defense for three quarters. For those same three period a State offense that really, truly expected to execute managed a single score.
Yes, the fourth period was kind of fun, and the surprising share of the crowd that hung around for the finish had something to cheer. I say ‘surprising' because during the third period seats were emptying as if those fans had visited a California spinach-salad concession at halftime. Still a 25-point, four-score deficit was just too much to make up, especially with the new game-clock rules. And the mind boggles at the prospect of State's 2006 placekicking being asked to hit a long, late attempt to win one.
There wasn't much in the way of encouraging post-game commentary, either. Take Coach Sylvester Croom's own statement. "A couple of things I'm still at a loss for. Why we come out and play so poorly in the first half of a ball game is a mystery to me."
I doubt this is what anyone begging full explanation wanted to hear, but for better and worse Croom is one candid coach. He speaks his mind at the time, often to his own P.R. detriment (re: last Saturday) but never with intent to dissemble. As a writer I find that refreshing, but I can equally see how the paying fan eager for answers would find it disconcerting. If the coach doesn't know why his team lost…
One other thing to stress here: a bad start is rarely a reliable indicator of game preparation. I've seen veteran clubs come off a excellent practice week and effectively fail to show up for kickoff; and I've seen the opposite, and even participants cannot explain how this happens. It just does. That said, Croom admits he saw some warning signs last week that his team was relaxing after two conference games.
"Because we've had a tendency not to play at a consistent level against non-sec opponents. It's been that way for two years. (Ed. Note—Coach, it's actually been that way for too many MSU decades.) You change some things in practice to try to get that intensity up, yet we came out flat." And because of it, got flattened until it was too late to escape.
I understand what Croom means when he focuses on the first drive of the first half, with Tulane blowing downfield to take a lead they never lost. "Stop the first drive and the entire game is different," the coach said. I can see the viewpoint, if only because it implies that State's defense could've then stopped other drives. By the way, was it just me or did anyone else think that the Dogs were much more effective when lined up in the base 4-3 than when they put five, six on the line of scrimmage? Then there's Croom's comment on an unspecified quarter when he says the defensive staff was able to correctly call every play Tulane would run based on their formations…yet the Wave usually gained ground anyway.
"That's what is frustrating," he said, "when you know what to expect and don't respond like they've been coached to do."
I know, I know. You're as tired of hearing it as I am of repeating it. Believe me, Croom is even sicker of saying it, but the truth remains: State's immediate problem really, truly is execution. Or just plain finishing. Take what was clearly the evening's decisive three minutes. Tulane is on their 39 and quarterback Lester Ricard is in the grip of Titus Brown, who had turned in a brilliant first half. Finish the sack and Ricard doesn't somehow find a receiver (a feat in itself) and a 55-yard, TD-setting play doesn't occur. It's still a one-score difference.
Or moments later when Omarr Conner simply never gets the exchange from Royce Blackledge at the 50-yard line. A promising drive is over and Tulane goes for the throat with the deep strike. Don't forget, Ricard was regarded enough for LSU to sign him in 2002…which also is a depressing comment on other quarterback talent inked there, and not here. Another day. The immediate point is that neither TU TD should have happened or would have if a couple of Dogs just take care of basic business. That is exactly what Croom means by execution.
Because the Dogs just aren't doing it. Rather, not all of them on enough plays to beat a visiting club that, frankly, State ought to beat annually. Thus the open ire expressed by fans frustrated that their team is not progressing where it counts, in the win column. For the record, I not only went through but reported on 1988's Tech-and-10 tragedy. It has been worse around here, but right now all the public wants to hear is how bad things are. Maybe such catharsis can help, I don't know. Maybe I'm just numbed by now.
Even the bright spot of the evening comes with dark cloud. To wit, Conner's performance. How bitterly ironic is it that the only time he produced more passing yards than last night's 241 was his 250 in 2004…against Maine. Yes, Croom has already declared Conner will open at UAB, the third starting quarterback in four games and another key indicator of just why State's offense remains so in-offensive in the third year of this system.
And this, friends and neighbors, brings us to the fundamental issue of the hour. State only moved the ball against Tulane, a defense nobody really respects, not just when the quarterback changed, though that was obviously the first reason. Tray Rutland was, to be generous, mechanical in his five series under center. So determined not to make a mistake he looked like a robot, trying to be perfect and not lose the game on one bad play. It's not an absolutely bad approach for a redshirt frosh, of course; the last thing Rutland needs is to be asked to do too much on his own. But for mercy's sake this wasn't Auburn's on the other side of the line, so why the rigid tension?
Then again Rutland wasn't supposed to be there anyway, save in relief or at most rotation. Mike Henig was supposed to be running this offense, a detail some seem to have forgotten after watching a second-fall frosh struggle and a senior step in and make things happen. But here's the second aspect of said fundamental issue. Croom himself said "We went to a semi-hurry-up type offense and he just made plays. Guys made catches."
Catch that? State became productive by changing, or at least adapting, the scheme. It was forced but it worked, at least this time and against this team. State used the tools on the field for what they could do, not in an absolutely set script. Remember that what we generically refer to as the ‘west coast' offense isn't designed to scramble, much less intentionally run the quarterback around all the time. State's basic philosophy even frowns on shotgun sets. Yet Conner was all but free-lancing at times which is his essential strength.
Now, am I arrogantly recommending the State staff dump the plans derived in spring and summer drills and just wing it? No, not at all, not least because the life expectancy of a running quarterback in this league on a team without blocking groomed to work this way is counted in quarters. Conner could outrun Tulane tacklers; LSU will be a whole ‘nuther matter.
But…can anyone seriously dispute that what State has been trying to do is not working, scoring, winning? Croom rightly defends his preferred system, if he didn't he would not be true to his history and himself. When he tells us, media and fans alike, that he believes in this offense, he knows it works, he is correct. This offense indeed can work, with two absolute essentials. First, that there is the talent to fit the system. And second, that said talent has the training and experience to make it work.
I believe State has a little bit better offensive talent than the scores, or lack thereof, shows. I actually continue to think the offensive line is showing signs of solidifying, no small feat for a bunch with only ONE starter in the same position he opened the 2005 Egg Bowl (left guard Anthony Strauder). So why are the sackings still coming? Because defenses know they can afford to take chances against State almost at will. No line can withstand such pressure for long, much less one where the parts are still learning themselves and each other. I also thought Henig had the right stuff to run this offense, the awareness and poise. Then he took a brutal lick on the first snap of his soph season and everything went to perdition.
But let's not overstate this case either. Our appreciation of what Jerious Norwood accomplished in 2004-05 only grows, because State didn't and still doesn't have enough of a legitimate deep-passing game to stretch defenses. And there ain't no Norwood on the roster this year (by the way, we can't criticize the former regime for playing Jerious as a true freshman so he'd be a 2006 senior, not with two true rookies working at halfback this fall). For all his strengths Anthony Dixon doesn't ‘burst' on a first step so defenses have time to react; he has to have a seam opened by textbook blocking and defenses can still stack the front for reasons noted above.
Another BTW. I confess, there was a point in the third period last night I turned to the other two-thirds of our reporter troika, Gregg and Mike, and posited what fans have for two years: with the lack of speed in the backfield is it worth giving, say, Derek Pegues a look? Must be lack of sleep speaking there. Besides, that goes against the ‘experience' portion of this equation.
But without game-breaking speed this system isn't likely to work any better anytime soon, and the offensive Dogs are still as a whole a step slower than most in the backfield and at wideout. There are possession guys; defenses know it and allow for it now. They can be beaten with timing, good hands, and a good first step. If that sounds like Tony Burks you get the idea, though you also saw him get caught from behind short of the end zone. Sheer speed, no; hands and moves, yes. That is how this scheme is supposed to work.
Which finally gets us where I ultimately intended when this lengthy (gad, I'm passing four Word pages) written ramble began. This offense can work when the parts cooperate, but there is almost no room for in-play error. Especially not with defenses unthreatened by impromptu plays and players. So here is my own fundamental issue with this pro-style scheme: that it demands much more collective precision than this group of players is capable of.
Croom might've admitted as much last week with his comment about how, in the Auburn game, so many Dogs played well but each made one key error at a critical time. Or his previous statements that all eleven offensive players have to do their job to make a play work. Well, since things aren't working, does that imply this lineup cannot—rather than just does not--execute consistently enough to make the system function as schemed? And if the margins are too fine for this group, how can they be loosened at this point, with no open date work-week in sight?
Time and experience is the answer we'll hear, and it's objectively true. This offense only started, let's see, two seniors last night, so if they survive this year unscathed they'll be collectively the better for it. But talk of time only sounds like writing off the rest of this season, and State's staff cannot afford to give that impression. At some point failures are bound to create uncomfortable questions in the minds of this good-looking commitment class, and they are absolutely crucial to making any future progress. There's also gonna be a heckuva lot of defensive jobs to re-fill come spring, so it's all the more imperative that Mississippi State's offense get something, anything done right now.
I've got to think the Dog defense has been sufficiently humbled that they will show up at Legion Field on time Saturday. The offense? They're going to have an intense week of work, too, and with Conner now in charge it will be interesting to see (not that we'll report any of it, you understand, so please don't ask) what the offense focuses on in practices. I know this scheme doesn't care for spontenaity and with the QB depth chart diminished telling Conner to ramble and scramble is unlikely. But there's got to be some serious adjustments, not just same-old/same-old, right? Croom promised that playmakers will be the guys who play this week, so we'll who they are and then if they can. It's the ongoing MSU mystery this coach is still trying to solve.
"Looking for an answer, I can't look at anybody else but me," Croom said. "I've got to find a way to reach them and understand. Nobody is going to give you a victory, you've got to go out and take it."