So if they wanted to live in the moment for one September evening, why should we be grinchy about the record and outlook? Emotion matters in this game, too, and at last this squad has something honest to enjoy for a day or two. Take Conner's comment: "This could be the start of something big. This week we got our break, now it's time to put all the things together."
*It's always risky to read too much into a quote in any context. Yet something Coach Sylvester Croom said in Birmingham sticks out to Yer Auld Editer. The quote was "Everything we think is our identity, it showed up at the end of the game."
I used that quote in the game story, but it was a re-read that revealed a different dimension. Not the ‘identity' or ‘it showed' part, but when Croom said ‘we think.' Again, I ought not make too much of it, but I also think something showed up there. Since January 2004 Croom has tried to establish his vision of what State's identity should be; disciplined, physical, and prepared. All else depends on talent acquired in recruiting, and here State still clearly trails in many areas. But in Croom's overall plan there can be no allowance made for sloth of mind and body, and much of the roster attrition since 2003 is due to the demands made on youth not ready for such a challenge.
But lack of on-field success hasn't helped the process either, leading the less-strong of mind to doubt the system and themselves both. Contrary to opinion in some quarters, Croom has known this all along and understands. Really, he does. It's kind of a cruel if self-made bind because the staff can't afford to slack off the demands on young and/or Fragile Souls after others have made the sacrifices asked. At the same time some of those FS's would, if they could just stick it out a bit longer than they deem unbearable today, make a difference down the road. Yes, a certain young lineman comes to mind at the moment.
The only fast cure is the one hardest to achieve as a result of all the issues, which is winning. And Croom himself has acknowledged that at some point sacrifice must be rewarded with tangible success. That's why last night meant so much, especially after the trauma of losing to Tulane. So Croom could be excused some philosophical commentary after getting a W on the 2006 books. "Bad things happen to good people. But sometimes good things happen, too. And finally some good things happened tonight," he said.
"I hope our fans understand we've got a lot of young kids playing. And they're learning how to win. The plays they didn't make last week, they made today. Some they didn't make I expect them to make next week. It's a never-ending process. Those kids haven't given up, they're not going to give up. I haven't given up, I'm not going to give up. We're going to keep doing what we believe is right the rest of the way and keep getting better every week."
*Looking at another aspect of football philosophy, State's two most crucial offensive plays of the evening come laden with irony. Both were provided by the fast feet and quick thinking of Conner, and neither exactly meet the ‘west coast' offensive tag. I speak of course about his fourth-down dash for the first down (and nearly a touchdown) that put State ahead 10-7, and then his game-clinching overtime touchdown dash.
Now let's be clear, in neither case was Conner entirely free-lancing. The plays were called, the first moreso than the latter. Though as Conner told us afterwards, he was really supposed to option the ball but decided in a split-second to do it himself. Thankfully, as it ended the game right then instead of just (just!) moving the chains closer. And even the first case was something of Conner's creation as, or so he said, he convinced Croom to go for a first/score instead of kicking a field goal and cutting the deficit to 7-6. I suspect the head coach wanted to go that route at heart himself and the quarterback just tipped the balance, but then Croom will always give lots of credence to Conner's ideas.
Besides, with the inherent weaknesses in State's offensive roster due to lack of line-time togetherness and big-play explosiveness (it still stings to see just how much more sheer velocity other teams have than these Bulldogs), Conner is the best chance of making things happen in tough settings. Doing so against, say, LSU might be beyond even him, but against Alabama-Birmingham and Tulane old #14 was the right Dog in the right position at the right time.
In fact Conner said he thinks the coaches have gone back to his HIGH SCHOOL tapes again, looking for ways to make plays. "And I think Coach believes in me," Conner said, getting to the real heart of this matter. "My legs feel good, my arm feels good, I'm ready to have fun and keep feeling good." Oh, how I hope he still feels physically good a week from tonight…
Getting back to the original angle of this segment, though, were either of those plays truly in the ‘west coast' book? Or were they more like what we'd see from a ‘spread' system or something else? I do hasten to note that I've seen that sprint-option the TD play was supposed to be practiced, so yes it's in the MSU system. But it's also worth saying that in the crunch State went with a play-maker more than a play per se.
Maybe Croom admitted as much with this evaluation: "The only difference tonight is simply the play of a quarterback. And you can't underestimate that. Last week their (Tulane's senior) quarterback made plays to win the game." And last night MSU's senior quarterback made plays happen to win a game.
Something else needs noting here. Let's scale back on use of the ‘west coast' title, because it's not nearly as defined as the TV talking heads would have you think. I compare it to saying you car has a six-cylinder. OK, do you mean inline, Vee, or flat? Overhead cams or pushrods? Turbo or not? But all have six pistons producing the grunt. The ‘west coast' offense is more a principle of being physical in the middle, keeping defenses focused on the running game, and having catch-and-run receivers. Oh, and a quarterback who sees every darn thing out there, which State doesn't have yet; only time and game experience brings this. Even Conner isn't that kind of quarterback.
But he is State's best chance to make plays happen given the still-developing blocking and lack of absolute great talent carrying or catching the ball.
*Maybe the most relieved Bulldog was the one for whom victory was a reprieve. After losing the ball twice to stop promising drives (either of which I'm convinced would have broken UAB's emotional back), Anthony Dixon was one down Dog. In defense, we have to agree that the fumbles did not come from lack of effort but just the opposite, of the freshman giving extra effort in search of additional feet at the ends of good runs. That they cost him the ball was a bitter reward for such exertions.
"They were real good about stripping and just took it from me," Dixon explained. Besides, the kid couldn't keep a death-grip on the ball anyway with that broken left-pinky. "I can't really put two hands on the ball."
But with first-and-goal and State in absolute need of the touchdown, Dixon had the ball and in a sense the game in his hands. It was a show of faith by a coach who wasn't just trying to make the freshman feel good, he expected him to get the job done. Dixon did, and unlike a couple of key plays in previous games (South Carolina, for example) he went hard and kept churning after contact, spinning outside and across the goal. "When I did I was like I hope I don't fumble!" he grinned.
"I felt it was going to make or break him," said Croom of keeping Dixon in the game. "Because let me tell you something, it was devastating to him and I was really worried how he was going to recover from it. That was big that he was able to come back and have some success. It could have been damaging to him psychologically."
Of course there's more and less to this tale. State had little choice but use Dixon to dot the ‘I' by this point, as Arnil Stallworth was out after getting late-hit and rolled on the sideline. And what did the halfback hit there? Why, his head coach. "I've got to get Stallworth," Croom quipped. "Because actually when he rolled off he hit his ankle on my ankle, and I know my ankle can't be that hard!" State might have been rethinking their road-roster decisions as well, because neither Derek Ambrose nor Christian Ducre made the trip and Brandon Thornton was still out with that Auburn-injured ankle. Justin Williams was stuffed on a 4th-and-1. So Dixon was it for most of the second half when Stallworth was sidelined.
"That really hurt us at the end of the ball game because there are some things we can do out of the shotgun mixing the run and pass," Croom said. "He's our best back in that situation. Anthony does OK but that's not his cup of tea."
But even without Stallworth's bit of burst Dixon's power was sufficient. Besides, he said, "We were rotating all game, we just ran different packages. Both of us can do a lot of stuff so we didn't have like a main starter going in, we were just running different packages. Whatever package worked we were going to stay with. But once we get past midfield that's when we start running my package."
*I've talked to lots of players with minor post-game amnesia about what they did or saw. It's refreshing, actually, because I learned long ago that lots of these "we knew" or "I saw" statements by players were made up in their minds after-the-fact. They aren't lying, they're just saying what they think they thought at the time. But we scribes relay it as gridiron gospel all the same…
This is why I enjoyed Adron Chamber's confession after his decisive overtime interception. "To tell you the truth I don't even remember" he said of the play. "The quarterback threw the ball, I caught the ball. And we won the game." Hey, he got the essentials correct, right? Chambers also got his teammates off his back after giving up the opening Tulane touchdown on a nearly-identical play, which doubtless is why UAB went at him in that situation.
"My teammates were dogging me this week, but not in a bad way," said Chambers. "They let me know they needed me."
And if Chambers can react and catch like that, it only makes sense that he get a chance to earn playing time on another field. Centerfield at Dudy Noble, to be exact.
*Since I brought up baseball, confirmation that the old Mayor's Trophy baseball game in Jackson is being replaced by the newly-named Governor's Cup to be played in Pearl was welcome. But I notice the news (you saw it here first Thursday night) didn't stir anyone up much. Guess everybody saw this as such an obvious move by State and U.Miss that they assumed a game in Trustmark Park was going to be on the schedule all along.
Still it's a relief to have the event, with new name and site, confirmed. After working the Diamond Dog doubleheader last April there I'll give the new Pearl park an almost unqualified thumbs-up. The only caveat, which doesn't affect the things which really matter of course, is a press ‘box' with at most four seats available. This is why it can't host, say, a SEC Tournament. Not that the planners were worried much about media anyway as minor league baseball doesn't bring lots of coverage. Besides, after decades coping with the cramped facility at Smith-Wills, there is no real ‘room' to complain here.
Trustmark has everything else, including sufficient staffing to actually run an event. Hopefully it will be possible for the management to buy some more future Bulldog road games in nearby states and move ‘em to Pearl. The more visits there the better in my book.
*Speaking of the 2007 schedule, if you were wondering, yes. The last regular-season SEC series of '07 will also be played Thursday-Friday-Saturday just like this past season. And by good scheduling luck State will also be hosting that concluding weekend, Alabama to be specific.
*Now about bad scheduling… The quirks of this year's SEC slate left State's administration with a tough call on Super Bulldog Weekend. The first and as it turns out only all-April series is not until the 20th, against LSU. A bit later than ideal, especially for spring football which would prefer to wrap up earlier in the semester and allow more time for spring injuries to heal.
So SBW 2007 will come much earlier, on the last two days of March and Sunday April 1. Please, no April Fool's jests until we see how the Kentucky (oops, irony alert with John Cohen's club coming to town for the weekend) series plays out.
Something else about that date; it can only mean State is assuming the basketball Bulldogs won't be participating in the NCAA Final Four that weekend.
*And one basketball note. The updated 2006-07 roster shows a few Dogs have added needed pounds. The Delk twins are five pounds stouter but still a lean 175 apiece. And stringbean freshman Jarvis Varnado is up to 195. He actually got over 200 I'm told before that two-week stretch of practices and play in Canada burned some of it back off.
Just three more weeks and these Dogs get back to team work. And if you thought all that August practice time was helpful, it's even moreso because as we noted back in July the 2006-07 season opens a week earlier. November 11, specifically. Yet while the NCAA has moved the start of the season up, the start of practices has stayed the same…at least the same for everyone who did not play in one of those out-of-country tours like State did.