Conner Takes Flight To Land Dogs A Victory

Asked this week how he has coped with the professional and personal frustrations of the season thus far, Coach Sylvester Croom simply said prayer. It must be working at last, because Saturday evening Mississippi State apparently got some timely outside intervention. Or that's the good word according to Omarr Conner.

With the Bulldogs and host Alabama-Birmingham tied 10-10 in overtime, and State facing 3rd-and-6 at the 21-yard line, the senior quarterback took it upon himself to gallop around the left end and go for it all. "I said I could get in the end zone," Conner related. "I leaped and God pushed me on through there."

Whether with a helping hand or not, Conner's vault from around the four-yard line did conclude in the Blazer end zone—and withstand review—to give Mississippi State the 16-10 victory at Legion Field. The Bulldogs notched their first win of 2006 in the process, improving to 1-3, while UAB fell to the same record. It was State's first true road (at an opponent's field) win since 2002, and the first overtime success for a Bulldog team since the 2000 Snow Bowl.

"Finally some good things happened tonight," Croom said.

Several good things in fact, and not just on offense. After forcing overtime with a 37-yard field goal by Starkville native Parker Mullins at 1:57 of the fourth quarter, the Blazers had first crack in overtime when the toss-winning Dogs chose to play defense. State came out in a nickel package which was perfect, because UAB's first play was incomplete. The second was picked off when Blazer quarterback Chris Williams tried to pick on substitute cornerback Adron Chambers with a fade pattern in the end zone.

Chambers, who got burned on the first series last week by Tulane on the same play, did much better this time. "I mean, for some reason I figured they were going to come at me. The receiver (Sylvester Mencer) ran the fade route and as soon as I turned the ball was in my face. I jumped up and made the catch." It was the redshirt freshman's first college interception.

The turnover meant State only needed a field goal to win in OT. After runs by halfback Anthony Dixon and Conner netted four yards conventional thinking was the Dogs would run to the right and get the ball centered for Adam Carlson to try for a second three-pointer on the evening, having hit from 47-yards out before halftime. Instead State's offensive staff went for the first down, with Conner taking off to the short left side of the field.

"That's a designed play where there are a couple of options," said Croom. "And he made the right one." Just not the exact called one, though. "It was designed to give the ball to the running back," Conner explained. "And the ball should have went to him, but I said to myself that players got to step up and make plays. And I'm the quarterback and I felt I just had to make a play."

With that helping hand, too, as Conner literally had to clear a waiting linebacker between him and the goal. Just in case he stuck the ball out ahead to break the plane; he'd have done better to try to break the fall which left him with a bruised hip. "It'll be OK." The review was only to confirm Conner had not stepped out of bounds en route.

Conner, making his first start at quarterback since last fall at Kentucky, had an efficient evening. He threw for 115 yards on 14-of-23 passing with no turnovers, and ran for 45 yards on eight carries. The stats don't fully reflect his impact on the evening, particularly in the second half.

"Omarr makes plays," said Croom. "He made plays all night. Getting the first down on the goal line, that's the difference."

In fact, it was an earlier Conner keeper that made State's win possible. Trailing 7-3 in the fourth quarter the Bulldogs had driven to just outside (and this would matter) the Blazer ten-yard line. Freshman halfback Dixon was the workhorse on the drive but the tiring rookie netted just seven yards on three attempts leaving a 4th-and-2. State also burned two timeouts in the red zone, so points were absolutely essential now. "Coach Croom was going to kick a field goal and I told Coach to keep ‘em back," Conner claimed. "Coach trusted me."

UAB likely knew what was coming but Conner took it on himself anyway, dashing for the right pylon. "I was like first down, touchdown, or check down!" He was knocked out just shy of the goal…but after initial cheers the home crowd had to watch the chains move after measurement showed Conner had a full ball's length of margin.

With just a half-yard to go Dixon was given the job of finishing the drive, itself a show of faith by Croom because the rookie had twice been stripped after solid gains for turnovers. Not this time. He hit right tackle, was grabbed, and made sure he rolled out to the right and fell across the line at 9:11.

"I didn't even want to celebrate, I just wanted to make sure I had the ball in my hands!" His teammates did the celebrating as at 10-7 State had the first lead of this season. Dixon finished as the game rushing leader with 81 yards on 19 runs. He got more work than planned because fellow freshman and starting halfback Arnil Stallworth banged an ankle on a late sideline hit in the third quarter, after gaining 43 yards on 14 rushes.

Until Dixon's go-ahead lunge the Bulldogs seemed doomed to more disappointment, having played a solid enough three periods with only three points to show for it. The first series of the evening was typically frustrating, a 10-play drive to UAB's 32 yard line with three third-downs converted. Dixon had bulled inside the 25-yard line when, in a pileup, end Kyle Bissinger stripped the ball—"I thought I was down," Dixon said—and Chris Felder dove on it. State also lost a timeout appealing the call, too.

The next six series all ended in punts, though State wasted a possession starting at UAB's 47-yard line. An offensive facemask and sack produced a 4th-and-33 and another kickaway. That was when the Blazers, starting at their 27, managed to string a drive of their own together with a change of quarterbacks the key. Chris Williams took over from Sam Hunt and directed a 12-play, 73-yard surge. On first-and-goal at the nine Williams did the honors himself with a delay-keeper right up the middle at 3:43.

Williams also drew a celebration penalty on his score and the yards were assessed on the kickoff. It didn't matter as a hold on Derek Pegues' return to near midfield made State start at their 26 anyway. Maybe it was the self-imposed setback that kept the Dogs from going farther on a smart, and quick, drive. Stallworth ran for a dozen, Will Prosser pulled in a sideline pass for twelve more, and a second-down dump to Stallworth was good for 16 yards to the Blazer 33. All that took only 59 seconds.

Things stalled there though Tony Burks nearly came down with a third-down throw in the end zone, safety Felder breaking it up. With 4th-and-7 Adam Carlson was sent in for a career-long attempt of 47 yards and he hit his first field goal of the season, at 1:32. The Dogs still trailed 7-3 but Croom knew how things would be played after intermission.

"When we came back out the second half I said OK, let's line up and do what we do. Be physical and go right at people and just out-hit them and use our conditioning." The strategy would serve, barely.

State should have at least trimmed the deficit in the third quarter on a 10-play drive, aided by a short Mullins punt just across midfield. After two first downs confirmed by measurements the Dogs had a 4th-and-1 at the Blazer 25-yard line. Backup fullback Brandon Hart lined up in the ‘I' set and crashed right guard. The spot was shaky and proved short. Aided by a pass interference call on cornerback David Heard the Blazers were soon across midfield, but on third down end Michael Heard got to Williams as he released and safety De'Mon Glanton picked off the throw at State's 25.

Again Mississippi State moved the ball on runs of 17 (Dixon) and 12 (Stallworth) yards. Stallworth was hit late on a short gainer and the 15 additional yards had State on the Blazer 24. Dixon attacked at right guard, pushed for the needed ground, but lost the handle in a pileup. Blazer Kevin Sanders came up with the fumble at the 15-yard line.

But State didn't fold from either frustration or pressure. Pegues nearly put his team ahead on a punt return, barely nudged out at the Blazer 46 by Mullins himself. Nine snaps later Dixon was in the end zone.

State might have sealed it in regulation after a UAB punt at 6:10 but couldn't burn enough clock and the Blazers got it back at 4:15. It was plenty of time, especially when end Titus Brown was assessed a personal foul on a second-down incompletion for hitting helmet-to-helmet on Williams. The drive kept going as far as State's 18, and it took a foolish post-whistle hit by UAB lineman Tommie Keys to keep his team from going for a win. The loss of 15 yards meant a 3rd-and-26 back at the 34, so after moving the ball a dozen yards closer Mullins banged through the tying three-pointer. The Bulldogs did get a first-down run from Dixon of 14 yards but stayed on the ground, punted, and saw UAB just let the last 22 ticks run out into overtime.

Which was the right time for a State team that took advantage of opportunity at last. "Everything we think is our identity, it showed at the end of the game," Croom said.

UAB netted 94 ground yards, 45 by Dan Burks, to the 166 for State. Williams finished 9-of-20 for 99 passing yards and two interceptions. The 281 total Bulldog yards were not a dominating performance by any measure, but it was enough. More important was that State kept the pressure on a Blazer defense with nine senior starters, using no-huddle or shotgun sets or just getting to the line quickly.

"We were going to go to our no-huddle offense," Croom said, "as much as anything I wanted to get us off to a good start. It served, but we stopped ourselves early with a couple of plays. We jumped offsides, we fumbled." Then the coach smiled. "We won't worry about that tonight!"

Chambers certainly wasn't. He noted how a week ago Croom left the Scott Field locker room door open so the Bulldogs could hear the winning visitors chant and cheer. "This time it's us and it feels good!" he said.

"We showed that we've got a lot of things to do," said Conner. "People started to count us out because we were 0-3, now we've got our first victory."

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