Bulldogs Begin Preparations For #9 Bengals

Even if it came a couple of days before the official date, Coach Sylvester Croom didn't mind getting his birthday present early in the form of Mississippi State's 16-10 victory at Alabama-Birmingham. Good thing, because #52 was the farthest thing from the man's mind with preparations for this weekend's game at Louisiana State underway.

"I walked in and somebody had a card on my desk," Croom said in his Monday morning teleconference. "To be honest I'd forgotten about it. But I thank God I made another one!"

Now, should the Bulldogs (1-3, 0-2 SEC) somehow score another successful road trip that would be quite a present for everyone on the MSU sideline. But of course they don't go to Baton Rouge expecting any gifts from the host and #9-ranked Tigers (3-1, 0-1 SEC). Gametime is 11:30am with regional telecast on LFS.

Neither the coach nor his veterans enjoyed their last trip to Tiger Stadium. Two years ago the Tigers destroyed State 51-0 and the game wasn't even that competitive. The Bulldogs put up a bit of a better fight at home last fall in a 37-7 loss to the eventual SEC West champions. Still Croom acknowledges that his 2006 Dogs will be outmanned by the opposition in this matchup.

"We're talking about one of the best teams in the nation. No question man-for-man LSU has more experience and more talent than we do. But that still presents a unique challenge, nobody expects you do do anything on the road in a tough environment. If you're a competitor you reach inside and find a way to get your game as sharp as you can, then you just go mix it up with them and see what happens."

In game-planning for this week the State staff expects to see, well, the same double-trouble offense that they've been unable to stop for two seasons. "It starts with Jamarcus Russell, no question," said Croom of the Tiger quarterback, a big, physical specimen who can break the best tacklers and get the throw off. And even then defenses can't focus on the triggerman entirely because the Tigers are varied and versatile with the ball. "They give you a multitude of formations, and they have big receivers who are fast.

"But it goes back to the ground game, it all starts up front with them. When they're able to run and do both and are two-dimensional you've got serious, serious problems."

The Bulldog offense has their own problems to worry about, particularly in the trenches. A MSU line that as of this week has not a single starter in the same position he opened State's last SEC win, in November 2005, is facing an intimidating defensive front. "We're still going to have some tough matchups at LSU," Croom said. "They have a couple of guys who are unique talents."

"They're still a great program and a great football team. It's going to be a tremendous challenge for us to go down there and play one of the best teams in the country in a hostile environment."

That's something these Bulldogs have not experienced in '06. Even their first road venture was low-key with a reported and likely optimistically-counted 36,000 watching at Legion Field in Birmingham. Those who did come and stayed for the finish were rewarded as State took a 10-7 lead in the fourth quarter, UAB kicked a field goal with two minutes left to force overtime, and in the first extra period the Dogs picked off a pass and scored on a quarterback keeper.

Of course it was our first win, and it was a big win for us," Croom said. "It had a lot to do with the way we won it, guys hanging in there and winning in overtime. And winning on the raod was big plus for our program. I think they feel a lot better about themselves, and they got a little reward for all the hard work."

It was State's first win on an opponent's home field since 2002, and the first time in 31 games that a Dog team overcame a fourth-quarter deficit. Maybe all the more important was that this squad simply broke the goose-egg on their record after three frustrating homefield losses. Nobody cared if it was not a pretty victory.

In fact, Croom thinks that fact can be used to State's advantage. "We won and we made mistakes," he explained. "That's positive, you won and fought through, you showed some character and discipline late in the game. But there were mistakes made and opportunities missed early that would have made it easier throughout the night." Croom was referring to a couple of fumbles, by freshman halfback Anthony Dixon, that self-stopped strong drives when State was just overpowering the Blazers. Then there was a late hit to the head by junior defensive end Titus Brown that kept UAB's game-tying drive going in the fourth period.

So Croom was going to let the team enjoy success for one day; now they will be shown what went wrong, because they are in a better frame of mind for corrections.

"Winning makes everything better, absolutely better. It makes criticism even better! It's a great opportunity for us as a coaching staff to zero in on the things we didn't do well. This is a timed we really want to look at the things we did poorly, the fumbles, the late hit on the quarterback. If they'd not occurred the game would have been over in regulation."

That said, the way things played out offered the Bulldogs further encouragement. They not only won the game on the road but did it in the intensity of overtime with clutch plays by both the defense and offense. It was Croom's first overtime at State and a winning one at that. So the coach will applaud the troops for getting it done in the crunch while still spurring them to better execution in regulation. "We've got plenty of room for correction and this is a great opportunity to do so," he said.

"I like the fact we got our intensity back, particularly on defense, and played a physical game. We got back into the character of who we are. Penalties and turnovers, that's what we've got to eliminate."

Only time eliminates injuries though, and as of this morning it's going to be close on a couple of running backs. Starting halfback Arnil Stallworth turned an ankle when hit late on the sideline in the third quarter and did not return. The freshman told Croom he will play at LSU. "I hope that's a realistic assessment on his part! I know he wants to play, the trainers tell me he can but until I see him at practice and moving around we won't know." Croom also said that season-starter Brandon Thornton's ankle injured in the Auburn game keeps him questionable as well. "I sure hope we can get Brandon back. There's a chance, he's been running in the hydro-therapy pool. We hope so because we're getting thin back there."

So thin Saturday that in one 4th-and-short situation backup fullback Brandon Hart was inserted at halfback, only to be stopped at the line. Walk-on Justin Williams got two totes on the last possession of regulation when State wasn't taking chances with a turnover. Big rookie Dixon had been used up getting the ball that far. Fortunately he came back in the fourth period to power for the go-ahead touchdown.

Neither Christian Ducre nor Derek Ambrose made the travel roster, so State nearly got burned by taking such a short list of halfbacks even though Hart had practiced there in spring ball. It won't happen again. "When you run as much as we do you have to have four backs who can play," Croom said, adding that there will be all the more emphasis on recruiting this position this winter now. "We need a couple more big-time backs in there."

It was big-time play by quarterback Omarr Conner that let State both come back and win. Starting his first game under-center since last November at Kentucky, the senior followed up on a strong relief effort against Tulane. Croom said Conner has "inspired" the rest of the team.

"What he has been through since we made the change has been a tremendous positive for him. Most obvious to me is the change in his conditioning from playing wide receiver. The next thing is he got his confidence back and started enjoying the game. And he was still in the quarterback meetings, it allowed him to look at it from both standpoints and gave him a chance to evaluate himself.

"There's a lot of maturing that took place in his own mind. I knew he wanted to go back to quarterback, he never said it but I knew it. That's why you have to have so much respect for him." Conner did bruise a hip when vaulting into the end zone with the winning touchdown, but is expected to be full-speed by the weekend trip. Fullback Bryson Davis (foot) and tight end Eric Butler (toe) were limited last week but came back to play in Birmingham and showed no ill effects.

The offensive line also came through the first road game in good shape, physically and mentally, despite playing all 67 official snaps together. It was the second week in a row Croom has gone the full game without any changes in the front-five. First, because he said he doesn't like changes there if the game is close. And secondly…

"That's our best five guys. We're not subbing just to be putting guys in there." It was a different five at UAB because Michael Gates was promoted to starting left guard over Anthony Strauder, who had opened 14-straight games there. "Gates had done some things better in the week so we gave him a shot," Croom said. He had thought about giving Strauder some turns but as the game went on and stayed close the starters showed no signs of wear. "The guys seemed fresh and we stayed with them."

As to the general progress in blocking, "I think we've gotten better each week of the season. Gates is still learning some technical things but he played a physical game. J.D. Hamilton is playing better, he's still a little hampered by that ankle. Craig Jenkins is playing well, Royce Blackledge and Brian Anderson assignment-wise are doing well. Those five guys are playing better than we have in some time." And as long as they are healthy and strong, the five who start will stay on the field. In fact this applies to State's overall philosophy.

"If we can get the game down to the fourth quarter we feel that's when our conditioning will separate us," Croom said. "We want to get it to where our conditioning will win out for us."

Lining up against LSU this week, physical and mental conditioning might be the only areas where State potentially can match up. As Croom noted, the Tigers have superior experience and talent and are playing in their den. So it's a daunting challenge for a Bulldog team still learning how to win any games, much less SEC contests.

"But that's part of being in the SEC," said Croom. "We don't worry about what we don't have or those things, you just line up and look at the guy across from you right in the eye and let's just get it on."

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