With a couple of losses to ranked foes (#2 Auburn and #9 LSU as of this week) behind them, and a trip to #10 Georgia coming up mid-month, it seems the last thing the Bulldogs and Coach Sylvester Croom should want to see is another top-ten opponent. Especially a MSU team still deep in a restructuring process and struggling to put a complete game together. But this is not how the coach is presenting the picture to his players. Just the opposite. "It's the only way to get better, Croom said Monday morning. "It's the only way you measure where you are as an individual and as a football team."
Croom had nothing to do with scheduling this matchup of SEC State and Big East leader West Virginia. It was being finalized when he was hired in December 2003, and the Bulldogs will travel to Morgantown next fall to complete the series.
"I'm not one that worries a whole lot about the schedule," Croom said. "It's tough to play two opponents like this back to back, but it's also a great challenge. The good thing is we've got them at home, they're an outstanding team and it's exciting when you play the best people. And I expect our players to respond to the challenge of playing one of the top teams in the country."
Definitely one of the finest offenses anywhere. The Mountaineers have been piling up points and yards this season, and save for a lapse in their last game (WVU was off this past weekend) they have posted 40 or more points weekly. The spread-option attack has shredded everyone in their way and made back Steve Slaton an sure all-star. Quarterback Pat White does plenty damage himself with the ball, keeping for fast gains or occasionally tossing it to targets left open by defenses rushing up in support.
"Obviously you've got to try to slow it down where you can get the football," Croom said. "It's going to be real important for our offense to get the ball and keep our defense off the field. Those guys are going to get some yards. They have that great speed and they execute what they do offensively very well."
The Bulldog defense has just seen an offense that executed to near-perfection. In State's 48-17 loss at Louisiana State the host Tigers scored on their first five possessions, ringing up 35 unanswered points and getting within a long pass play of 300 yards at intermission. Given time they'd have likely made that play because LSU had no troubles throwing and catching against State. Watching it all over again Sunday was no fun for the staff.
"The toughest part is we made mistakes in the secondary," Croom said. "We had too many missed assignments, and that's where it got out of hand. Their quarterback threw it well but we helped them out." Tape review showed State had the makings of a respectable pass rush and were within reach of passer JaMarcus Russell often as not. But coverage breakdowns let him unload in time and very accurately. "If we could have bought a little more time we'd have gotten him," Croom said.
Now the Dog defense faces a completely different situation in a Mountaineer offense that would rather run than throw. Smart coverage will still matter but timely support even more so, as will the front-seven, or –eight, sticking to their assignments on the option. State did handle that sort of attack reasonably well at Alabama-Birmingham, but this opponent is several levels faster and stronger. Thus the pressure is just as much on the MSU offense to do their part.
And do it earlier and oftener. Croom had praise for the entire team's attitude at LSU, how even after falling behind by five scores the intensity stayed steady. "We had good effort throughout and kept battling to the end." But the battle had already been lost long before, much like the loss to Tulane when State fell too far behind for a furious fourth-quarter rally to make up.
"I'm pleased we continue to fight to the end of the game and get better as the game goes on," Croom said. "But we're got to get off to a better start."
This has clearly been a second-half offensive team the last three weeks, with five of the six offensive touchdowns tallied after intermission. Even the defense has done all its damage after the break, with cornerback Derek Pegues returning a third-quarter interception for touchdown at LSU. Special teams provided another last-half score in the final period against Tulane.
While second-half fireworks are encouraging and also confirm this squad's resilience, Croom would much prefer not to get in such situations. "You cannot get in a hole like we did (at LSU)," he said.
Croom also corrected any impressions that State makes major changes in the locker room, other than what adjustments time-and-score forces. For some reason the execution simply improves as the game goes on. The head coach wants his team to understand that since they can do it in the second half, why not play the same way in the first? The irony is that State was emphasizing opening series when August camp began, and even the two scrimmages were focused on the first 15 offensive plays. "On getting off to a good start and then getting better," Croom explained.
And in real games? "We're getting better, but we're starting off so poorly there's no room but to go up!"
There were some signs of progress at LSU, the coach said. "Our offensive line played a very good game, each guy might have had one mistake but that's one area that continues to get better for us. All those guys played well." Croom liked how freshman halfback Arnil Stallworth ran and caught-and-ran with the ball, and how wideout Tony Burks delivered in some opportunities. "He showed up and made some big plays, when he was open." Burks was open even more often than quarterback Omarr Conner could get the ball off in his direction, and will assume a larger role in game-planning. So will screens and delayed throws to the backs, things that worked well against an aggressive LSU defense but would not have fit in previous matchups.
The bottom line is that State's offense still has to start on the ground and between the tackles. Croom had set a goal at LSU of three yards per punch at the middle, with the object to set up both short throws to backs and/or longer play action passing. That's still the philosophy, all inter-dependant on executing the entire package against specific opponents. And this plays to the strengths of freshman back Anthony Dixon, who with the faster Stallworth will continue to be mixed-and-matched.
Two Dog starters had to leave the LSU game with injuries, OG Brian Anderson (ankle) and DT Deljuan Robinson (knee). Anderson should be back and originally it looked like Robinson would also play. The follow-up exam spoiled that optimism. "Deljuan is definitely out this game," Croom said. "We thought it was just a sprain but it ends up he has to have some cartilage work done. It will probably be another two weeks after that."
That's not good news this week, especially against a Mountaineer team that thrives on running the football inside, outside, all around the field. Croom said not only will Robinson's abilities plugging the middle be missed but his experience as well. Still this is one area State does have depth.
"We're fortunate with Antonio Johnson and Andrew Powell we still have two very good tackles. After that we've got to play two young guys, and it's good they got into the battle against LSU." Specifically, redshirt freshman Quinton Wesley and true frosh Kyle Love. The former got in the LSU game after missing two weeks with an ankle sprain; and Love made his own college debut at UAB. At least the duo has taken live contact.
"They do have some ability, but they're going to get a lot of work this week in practice," Croom said. "We have to be disciplined in the option, be hitting the right gaps. They're really going to have to step up for us."
No other regular players should be out this week with old injuries. LB Timmy Bailey missed the LSU trip but is now back; and TE Eric Butler has played the last two games after being limited in practices on that bum toe. HB Brandon Thornton is also likely to be activated for the first time since the Auburn game when he sprained an ankle. "Everybody else is on go," Croom said.
With the campus in fall break, practices Monday and Tuesday will start an hour earlier than usual.