Something everybody already knows is where State stands three games into this season. The third contest did see the Dogs finally get on the scoreboard, but a couple of offensive failures—combined with utterly unexpected defensive letdowns—meant another frustrating defeat and a 0-3 record. This is not what Croom foresaw from the first month of the schedule.
"Well, any time you lose it's a setback. Right now I'm disappointed because I thought we'd be at worst 2-1. As far as I'm concerned we should have won the South Carolina game." And by implication the Tulane game as well. Instead State remains winless going on the road for the first time, to face a 1-2 Blazer squad that is dealing with their own disappointments after a 34-0 loss at Georgia. But this time UAB is home, hosting a SEC team that just fell to a fellow CUSA club, and the Blazers are already strongly favored in the earliest projections.
Croom can't be bothered with forecasts. He is still entirely occupied with fixing his own team's failings and handling his own frustrations over the situation. And Croom is convinced the Bulldogs ought to be on the winning side of the ledger by now. The team has given the expected effort and played with discipline, as reflected by the low penalty count to-date. And the relatively few turnovers have mostly come from quarterbacks. So…
"If you'd told me that, with our defense, I'd have thought we'd have an excellent chance to be 2-1. Sure, I'm frustrated and disappointed. But football can go either way. The reality is it has to be done on the field and we're still not making plays yet. Our effort is good, that's expected, but we're still not making plays. We're still in the process of learning how to win."
Sunday review backed up Croom's Saturday comments on how the Bulldogs failed to win, and affirmed his opinion that it was still a very winnable matchup. "We had every chance to do so. Bottom line, we didn't make plays." In fact Croom is convinced that if State had made only one play at the end of the third quarter, in a goal-line setting, the Dogs would have come all the way back and won. It's a bold statement as at the time the score was already 32-7, yet Croom believes success at that juncture would have made the difference.
Of course it would have been a much easier evening if the Dog defense had not turned in a most uncharacteristic effort in the first three quarters. True, two of the third-period touchdowns came after offensive turnovers, a fumbled snap and a ricochet-interception. Still Croom says the tone was set when Tulane took the opening possession and drove 77 yards for a fast lead, and kept making more plays to build their winning margin.
"That we the first time in a long time we didn't tackle well," Croom said. "We looked slugging and didn't move around with the burst we have. I know it's not lack of effort but at key times they broke tackles or made plays in 1-on-1 situations that we had been making. We've got to get our defense back in the flow, I don't think it's anything we can't get back but we've really got to get their attention."
If nothing else the blow to their collective pride should get the defense back on track. And for all the frustrations Croom said there were encouraging signs in other aspects. "The kicking game was a lot better, we made some plays offensively when Omarr Conner came in."
That was the turning point for an offense that managed just one first down with starter Tray Rutland under center. The redshirt freshman had handled himself well in relief against S.C. and in his first start against Auburn, but did not look at all the same the third time out. It came down to basically looking like a freshman, Croom said.
"He didn't play well in those first series, his decision-making was poor. Physically he has all the skills, but we were in the wrong formations a couple of times, he just made some critical errors and it hurt us. We were not productive at the quarterback position until Omarr came in." Or came back, to the position he started 17 games at in 2004-05 before moving to wide receiver. With season-opening starter Mike Henig out for almost four more weeks with a broken left collarbone, and Rutland struggling, old Dog Conner was given the ball again.
"He stepped up and made plays," Croom said. "In fact one of our biggest plays (a late-game pass that Croom would not otherwise identify) was actually put in on the sideline, which we normally don't do. But with the coverage we did, and he executed it well. So much for practice!" Croom did say the play was in the playbook already, just not in the Tulane gameplan. Still pulling out an un-practiced play worked in that particular matchup, as well as demonstrated just how much experience means in this system.
"Tray threw well against Auburn and in the first game, but the inexperience really showed up this game. Omarr was only getting 30% of snaps, it was just the fact he knew what to do and had been in that situation before. It was very glaring, the inexperience vs. the experience." Conner will start at UAB with Rutland the #2 quarterback. Croom also expects to have the starting offense up to regular strength as fullback Bryson Davis (foot) and tight end Eric Butler (toe) should be back after missing the Tulane game.
One other bright spot in the loss was the breakout by wideout Tony Burks, with four receptions for 130 yards. This is just what State expected from the transfer wideout all along, once he got a feel for his place in the schemes. "Tony has been in a little bit of transition," Croom said. "The skill is there, he works awful hard, but he missed most of spring is just learning the system and adjusting. It's almost as if he's a freshman as well, but the playmaking ability is there.
"We told him he was going to be our go-to guy, for different reasons the ball didn't come his way near as much as it should. But he's stayed patient and he's a team player. That shot Omarr gave him up the seam (for a 78-yard gain) was big-time." Croom also praised freshman halfback Arnil Stallworth's work in rotation with fellow rookie Anthony Dixon, without saying which will start at UAB. And "I thought our offensive line played better."
Most of the special teams have also raised their play, thanks to a better general level of skill. Croom pointed to true frosh Marcus Washington's conversion of a Tulane fumble into a touchdown on a punting play. And soph Derek Pegues had a splendid night returning with 192 total yards on punts and kickoffs. "He made one bad decision in the end zone (on a fourth-quarter kickoff) but he gives us some ‘juice' as a returner," Croom said.
"Our coverage was better, we kicked it better. Adam Carlson was good on kickoffs and his rhythm on PATS was better. Our kicking game gave us a chance to win the football game." Most particularly on the field position provided by Pegues in the first half. Only once did his runbacks produce points. "Offensively we had a chance to get a really good start early," Croom said.
And defensively State should have been much better early. "We did not play well defensively, and a lot of it was just fundamental tackling. We're going to work on it even more so this week, we just got away from being who we are defensively and didn't set the stage early in the first drive." Croom added that linebacker Jamon Hughes (hamstring) and safety Demario Bobo (hamstring) could be ready for their first 2006 action this week. DT Quinton Wesley (ankle) is probably still out.
Physical health counts of course, but after three tough losses Croom is more concerned now about the emotional strength of this squad. The players have done what was asked in spring and fall drills but the wins have not come, and the coach understands the danger here.
"That's a great battle, it really is, because of our past history and years of losing. That's my biggest concern, because our e kids work so awful hard. If you're not mentally tough you start thinking I've worked hard but I'm not reaping any benefits.
"This is the biggest problem since coming here, is changing the way we think. We have enough talent to compete with the teams that we're playing, but changing an attitude is the most difficult task, the way the kids think about themselves. Especially when you're young and inexperienced, to keep going and understand just how close it is. Our older guys are fighting but they haven't won before."
Which gets back to that fine line, of keeping the players focused on the task at-hand without letting the frustration keep them from finishing the plays that Croom says are oh-so-close to coming. He pointed to one particular lapse, again that goal-line opportunity at the end of the third quarter. Tulane was caught with the defense loaded the wrong way and Dixon supposed to run to the weaker side, and a Bulldog jumps the gun. On second down Conner was to sprint to the end zone and would have had an open lane except a teammate stepped the wrong way. And so on, with the same letdowns that let the South Carolina get away.
Croom says inexperience and changes at quarterback have been an obvious factor through three games, especially losing Henig so early after he was groomed for a year to run this system. But injuries are just a part of the game, and the coach still expects whoever starts and plays to execute. "Yeah, it's frustrating to all of us. But I know the thing to do is keep going and keep trying to get better, and as soon as we start to click…if we can get a couple of more guys to step up in those critical situations, then you start getting confidence."
And until then? The head coach will keep working and planning. Oh, and praying, too, a subject he didn't mind addressing this morning. "Let me tell you something, baby, I pray all the time! Just asking the Good Lord to give me the wisdom to say the right things to these players and keep ‘em going.
"Losing hurts me very deeply, but it's not about my hurt. It's about these players and getting them to see and understand what they're capable of. They're capable of so much more than what they see themselves as."