From The Dawghouse

Welcome to the decisive week for the 2006 Bulldogs. It wasn't scheduled thus, and most SEC peers would sniff at the stakes. But it's the way things have played out, making Mississippi State's upcoming contest with Kentucky the crucial juncture of this season…and a potential watershed moment of the Sylvester Croom era.

OK. Such statements demand justification. And I'll admit much of the evidence is intangible, based maybe more on the last two-and-two-thirds seasons than merely what has happened so far in '06. But for me the situation became clear within moments of reaching the post-game interview room at Sanford Stadium. It wasn't what any Bulldog said in those confines, either, but what I could hear from the adjoining MSU locker room. The words can't be reprinted here; their message can.

The Bulldogs were enraged with themselves for not finishing the job against Georgia.

So exactly how does that differ from other setbacks this or previous seasons? Other than the obvious fact that most MSU conference games haven't been competitive for five-plus years to generate such post-game passions? Because, the Bulldogs were poised to knock off a legitimate foe, on the road, and do it on their own abilities. It wasn't that Georgia is a great team; in fact that would only muddle the message. It was that State matched up evenly with a mid-pack SEC squad in their house and everything came down to the last snap of the afternoon…

…which is exactly the level Croom has been trying to pull the program up to since settling the roster and establishing the philosophy. Oh sure, ultimately there must be higher goals, but they can't even be honestly envisioned without getting to this stage first. The stage where State can compete with, not the championship contenders, but let's say the bowl candidate clubs. Yesterday the Dogs did, but didn't complete the task.

Thus the different sorts of emotions we reporters could hear coming through the locker room wall. It wasn't mere frustration, of which we've had plenty since 2000. It was fury; door-slamming, helmet-tossing, oath-uttering anger. All of you who've been around athletics know the difference, and should welcome such signs of passion from a ball club that has been beaten-down so often for so long the emotions could've been wrung dry by this point.

Or take Croom's own post-game report. "This is the first time since I've been here I've seen tears in our dressing room. That tells me it's important to our people."

To be fair there have been other encouraging signs from State this season. As noted before, I wish fans could see how the Bulldogs have continued to have productive and upbeat (sometimes even entertaining, believe it or not) practices this fall. It's not as simple as it may sound either, especially for a bunch of ballplayers who haven't enjoyed much return on their emotional investments. And to me another squad snap-shot was their body language at Baton Rouge. Down 35-0, players gave every impression they were still playing the game as if it were kickoff. But those are subtle things.

Scoreboards, now, they're obvious to all. Saturday afternoon in Athens offered more pragmatic evidence of what these Bulldogs can do when their aptitudes combine with their attitudes. Asked if it was the best offensive effort of the season, Croom was clear. "This was the best everything we've had since we've been here." Yes, the coach included the '04 upset of Florida and last year's Egg Bowl win. This meant more to his way of thinking. "This was a SEC team on the road and we took them to the wire with a young football team. Anyone who doesn't think this team is improving is blind in one eye and can't see out of the other."

Or take quarterback Mike Henig's evaluation. "We played as a team and did things as a team."

If that comes across as a ‘well-duh' sort of statement, it's only because we still can overlook—or more likely want to forget--what these Bulldogs have endured just to get to the point they can get legitimately angry with themselves over missed opportunity. They could've sacked it in emotionally after Tulane, a loss the players admit was entirely self-inflicted and inexcusable; perhaps saved what emotions they had left for a ‘winnable' game and written off the rest of another failed fall.

Instead State took the best shot at West Virginia and came back with a strong 60-minute effort at Georgia. Again, not a great UG team but one still entirely capable of blowing out a MSU side not ready to rumble. And when State failed to cash in on the first series, then Georgia put up points, it had the makings of just another SEC setback. Nope, not this time. "For the first time we took a Georgia field on their field all the way to the wire and we had the last shot," Croom said. "We just didn't make the play. It's probably the first time we've done it since 2000."

Or, take the response after going down 21-7 before halftime. Instead of woe-is-us, the Bulldogs stoked their internal fires. "We came in the locker room and said this is what we play for," Henig said. "I'm sure they (Georgia) thought it was Mississippi State, they're going to give up. We came out firing, the defense made some great plays early and got us the ball back." Safety and native Georgian Jeramie Johnson offered another interesting observation, how at every point of the game it was State playing with passion while the home sideline—maybe still stinging after consecutive losses—looked dead. Who'd a thunk that a month ago?

I think I summed that aspect up nicely in yesterday's gamer-lead, how the Dogs showed everything needed to succeed in this league home or away except the one thing a coach can't give. Winning experience. Not to say winning would've been automatic at all, not in a venue where State hasn't scored a W in exactly a half-century now. But had these guys won such a SEC game before in the last seconds, doing it again would've been simpler if not any easier. UAB was a start there; doing it at Georgia would've truly tipped the scales.

By the way, two situations at the same end of the field but opposite quarters do leave openings for questionings. I can't argue against how State approached the last 24 seconds, setting up shots at the end zone after that clutch throw-and-catch to reach the Georgia 23-yard line. The axiom comes from basketball but holds up well in modern football: play for overtime at home, go for the win on the road. Now when I saw a trips-left, one wide-right set I did mentally wonder if another blocker oughtn't have been left in since Georgia would be coming hard for Henig. But then he was supposed to get rid of the ball quickly anyway so it should not have mattered.

Instead Henig rolled to the short side and ran out of room and time. He admitted later he was trying too hard to make the winning play, seeing a (to his eye) open Jamayel Smith. Croom figured the quarterback was trusting his arm-strength. Either way the SEC's leading sacker got there first. But again I can't critique the thinking as the plan should still have left time to kick for a tie. I have more problems with State's first series, getting to the 30-yard line and not attempting a field goal. It was in the closed end of the stadium, wind no factor, and Adam Carlson has hit from that distance. Well, once anyway. Oh, and since y'all couldn't see it, it was almost a full 4th-and-2, not merely a ‘long 1' yard to go.

Now as it turned out State forced a fumble after punting anyway, so it became a moot point. I only bring it up because of Croom's post-game comment "One thing I've decided, we're not playing conservative." That looked early-game conservative, but then it's probably in the eye of the beholder. The coach did a better job explaining the decision process all through the game with this statement. "I'm sure some people will second-guess me but I really don't care. I did what I thought our football team could do at that particular time."

Which brings us back to the original theme. This particular point of the 2006 season is absolutely critical to the Bulldogs, not just for the rest of the year but likely for seasons to come. Put bluntly, will Mississippi State bring the same game back home and apply it against a SEC contemporary? All us old Dog know the sad history of MSU football in similar situations, and I'm going back to the Tyler Era. You know, how State would come off close losses to ‘name' teams and against a (supposedly) more beatable opponent relax, take things for granted, and as a result get knocked back on their collective behinds.

Such an attitude would be even more dangerous in this situation, because Kentucky is not much of a step-down from Georgia. In fact I'll risk angering some fans convinced that Kentucky can't be as talented as State. They are, and even more importantly they have won a few more games (including at MSU's expense last fall) in recent years, thus have a bit more of that priceless experience. Forget that 49-0 shellacking at LSU, it does not remotely factor into this week's matchup. Besides, the Wildcats have had an open date to recover and focus entirely on State, a game they no doubt classify as ‘winnable.' And the Dogs can't dispute that evaluation.

Because, after all, State is still coming off a loss. That is why the ninth game of 2006 is suddenly, absolutely pivotal in both the short and long terms. I've rightly praised the team's attitude through eight games, with the lone caveat being those hideous first three quarters against Tulane. Oh, yes, that name will be invoked often this game-week as a rude reminder. Yet there comes the time when attitude and aptitude must combine fully and produce victory. This is that time for this team. Fail to follow up on a almost-good-enough effort at Georgia on the home field against Kentucky and whatever ground was gained is suddenly lost.

It will be instructive to hear, and relate, what Croom has to say Monday morning. Still his encouragement was clear enough Saturday. "As long as it's important to the players and we keep adding talent to the program, everything I thought we could accomplish is still out there to be done. We just have to keep adding talent.

"That's the reason you get character people in your program, the intangible things have to come first. Then as we add the talent to the program… I told the team the day will come we will win those games easily."

And here's one other optimistic sign, provided by Tony Burks minutes after the locker-room anger subsided. "I feel we'll feed off this loss and come back harder. Because we know we're that much closer to what we want to be in the SEC. We're going to get there."

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