Now State (2-5, 0-3 SEC) will meet a Georgia (5-2, 2-2 SEC) team with several serious chips on their shoulder pads. A surprising second-half collapse against Tennessee was followed by a more stunning 24-22 loss to visiting Vanderbilt. Not only have the losses cost UG their top-ten ranking, but likely knocked the defending league champions out of SEC East contention. So Croom is not expecting to find happy hosts for Saturday's 1:00ET kickoff at Sanford Stadium.
"It's going to be a fight. It's a wounded football team. I know what kind of coach and person (UG Coach) Mark Richt is and I'm sure he'll tap into the leadership on his team. This is a team that's used to winning, they're not going to roll over and play dead, that's for sure."
Georgia has certainly taken some shots in October. Besides losing games and ranking, the red-and-black Dogs have had unexpected struggles on offense. They managed just 14 points against both Colorado and Mississippi with constant shuffling at quarterback. Opening-day starter Joe Tereshinski has come back from the early ankle injury and UG has put up points in the last two games, yet the defense has given up even more in the process. Worse news now is that top tailback Thomas Brown will be out for a while, maybe the rest of the season, with a knee injury.
Still Croom believes the other Bulldogs will be emotionally primed for the chance to bounce back strong and go into the last month of play with fresh momentum. Nor can State's Dogs take anything at all for granted, especially considering the series history. It has been exactly a half-century since a State team won in Athens.
"Going into Athens is going to be a great challenge because of the record and the tradition," Croom said. "But we look forward to it, because it is a conference game. They're reeling a little bit so it's definitely going to make it tougher for us. We're definitely not going to sneak up on them."
For their part the Bulldogs are feeling a bit better about themselves after taking care of Jacksonville State 35-3. While only a D-IAA victim, any success is welcome at State these days. "It was definitely a good feeling to walk out of our own stadium feeling good about ourselves," Croom reported. But there were a couple of clouds in the post-win review in the form of injuries to offensive starters.
OT J.D. Hamilton, a five-game starter at left tackle, went out in the first quarter with a strained MCL. "He's definitely out this week," Croom said. "We hope to get him back next week. That's a little disconcerting because that area (the offensive line) was starting to improve for us. But if we didn't have Mike Brown it would be worse." Brown, a Florida transfer, was only cleared to play last week. He was booked for sub-duty against Jacksonville State but quickly found himself taking over.
"He did some good things," Croom said. "He's a natural pass protector at left tackle, but he's still got some work to do in the running game. A lot of it is just assignments. Even though we tried to give him some reps the last four, five weeks in case he did get eligible, this was the first week he was totally involved in the gameplan. So there's still a lot of rust to get knocked off, but he definitely was a plus in pass protection."
The news on FB Bryson Davis is less encouraging. The senior starter hurt a knee in the first half. At game's end he was still on the sideline, in uniform, and Croom said afterwards he could have played. It turns out to have been more complicated.
"We still don't totally know. It is meniscus damage, the kneecap tried to come out-of-place. The extent of it, whether he has to have surgery, is yet to be determined. But he's going to be out for a while, how long will be determined today." Former walk-on Casey Rogers and soph Brandon Hart will assume Davis' duty in the meantime.
Losing Hamilton and Davis is just the latest round of disruptions to a Bulldog offense that has been showing some encouraging signs of mid-season progress. The unit got some badly-needed boosts with the return to full-speed of QB Mike Henig and HB Brandon Thornton, both of whom were the opening-day starters before injuries. In the interim there were some flashes from replacements, like QB Omarr Conner and freshman backs Anthony Dixon and Arnil Stallworth.
But there was a reason those two had been #1s for the first game, and against JSU it showed. Henig shook off a shaky first half to direct four sharp second-half drives for three touchdowns. Croom actually thought the soph QB would be much better in the opening quarter. "In practice you couldn't throw it any better, his drops were excellent, his throws perfect." Then when the clock was turned on Henig looked like a guy who had missed four whole games with a broken collarbone.
"Woody (McCorvey, offensive coordinator) talked with him at halftime," Croom said. "I didn't hear what was said and I probably didn't want to!" The thrust of the conversation was correcting a fundamental flaw of throwing off the wrong foot, as well as making some better choices of targets. While wishing his quarterback had connected the right dots and put the game away by intermission, Croom liked how Henig responded to the halftime challenge. "We still haven't seen the best of Mike Henig on gameday."
Practically, Henig has the quarterback job to himself. Conner is out with a severe groin strain for a while. "Omarr will tell you it's two more weeks!" Croom said. "I sure hope he's right but the doctors are not telling me that. I'm operating on the premise that it's a bonus if it (a return) happens."
Getting Thornton back for the second half of the season after an ankle injury in game-two is a more tangible bonus. The soph came off the bench for 88 yards and a couple of touchdowns, and is back in his original spot atop the depth chart. "Brandon will definitely be the starter this week," Croom said.
"First of all he brings a lot of enthusiasm and leadership. He learned form Jerious Norwood, from watching him practice. That's what he's brought to us, particularly when he came back form the injury. He was the third guy in the rotation and he still had that great intensity and enthusiasm. I think it's started to help us as a team, his leaderhsip and showing guys how to practice and finish plays and protect the ball."
But the coach admits now he probably protected Thornton too much in fall camp by not letting the starter take contact. "Running backs have to play, get in the game and get hit. But I didn't know what those freshmen could do so we did not allow him to get hit at all. But when you've only got one guy, if I'm going to lose him I'm going to lose him in the game." Now Croom hopes to keep Thornton's experience, enthusiasm, and explosive-play potential in the gameplan for the rest of the season, with the bonus of two tested younger backups in speedster Stallworth and bruiser Dixon.
There has been more noticeable improvements in the other offensive aspect, from a receiving corps that had under-achieved in the first six weeks. "We made more plays the last three weeks than in two-and-a-half seasons," Croom said. Part of the credit has to be getting the #1 quarterback back under-center, but at the same time some wideouts are now delivering.
"A lot of it starts with Tony Burks. He's gotten more confident and understands the offense better, how to run the routes and the splits." Burks has been the top target since the Tulane game. Now he has some assistance. Former walk-on Jamayel Smith has suddenly emerged as a viable option on the other side of the field. And after sitting out the first half of the season Aubrey Bell celebrated his return to action with three catches against JSU. "Jamayel is starting to make plays. He could never do it in a scrimmage, it seemed the bigger the venue the less he performed but now he's making plays in the game. Aubrey is making plays." It's good news for State because this trio fits what the staff wanted all along at wideout—longer bodies with speed and agility. Not only do they offer Henig taller targets to pick up, but all can run after catches. So, "We're way ahead of where we were last year," Croom said. "And we've still got Will Prosser, Joey Sanders, Lance Long, and Tyler Threadgill. The smaller guys have roles but the big guys will be the focus of the receiving corps."
Speaking of roles, cornerback Derek Pegues has found his ways to make things happen. He began the JSU game by picking off a pass and returning the interception for a touchdown, his second such score in three weeks. In the second quarter his 81-yard punt return touchdown gave State a more comfortable halftime cushion. "The first half it was Pegues 14 and Jacksonville State three," Croom quipped. "But the other guys did a good job on the return part as well. They had good pressure, and blocked and set up a wall."
Pegues took advantage, and unlike last year when the kickoff man tackled him on a return at Auburn (something that has also happened this season) the soph seized the whole opportunity this time. "This is the first time he's really shown the explosion we thought he was capable of," said Croom.
"We expected Derek to do this when we recruited him. He has the potential with the ball in his hands to make some plays. I think he's starting to mature. It's not just in the kicking game, that was his best game at corner as well. He's just growing up. This is the thing with our entire team. We're a young team and guys like Derek, it's their first year starting. We've got a lot of guys who played as freshmen but are still in the learning process."
The Bulldogs have a 5:00 practice scheduled Monday. With weather moving through the area the workout will likely move indoors today.