The participants do look somewhat similar for Saturday's 1:30 matchup at Scott Field. The Wildcats are 3-4 overall, 1-3 SEC; both are better than the Bulldog's 2-6 and 0-4 marks of the moment. And Kentucky ought to be well-rested after taking an open date to recover from a 49-0 defeat at LSU. The Dogs have no such luxury; instead they are coming off a 27-24 loss at Georgia.
A bitter loss as well since State had the ball on Georgia's 23-yard line and 18 seconds left to score the program's first league road victory since 2002. It didn't happen, and the Bulldogs appeared to take this defeat harder than any in Croom's tenure. Now the third-year head coach will try to utilize those emotions.
"To me, when you put as much as our players did into that game, not only that but our entire season, it's supposed to hurt," Croom said this morning. "We've got to put that hurt behind, but the only way to relieve that sick feeling is to get ready and go out and win a football game. And the next game up is Kentucky."
A Kentucky team that has lost three-straight league games since whipping Mississippi in mid-September. The Wildcats have struggled on defense all season, and this week rank last in the NCAA stats for yardage allowed with the biggest issue stopping good running attacks. UK's own ground game has taken a hit as well with the injury to fast back Rafael Little. So the Wildcats have gone to the air and veteran Andre Woodson has put up good numbers against almost everyone on the schedule.
"I don't worry much about win-loss records, those guys are improved and I know the talent level," said Croom. He also remembers how last year's meeting in Lexington played out, with the Wildcats grinding out a 13-7 decision. "Last year pretty even contest, they wanted the game more than we did. I really believe that's what it comes down to this week, the will to win."
And, the mental discipline not to relax against an opponent most on the MSU campus will be taking lightly after an often-impressive effort at Georgia. Croom is definitely on his guard here, because he has seen too often already what happens when the Bulldogs let up because of a name-change on the schedule. Croom said this meeting means as much to the Wildcats as to the Bulldogs since both are battling for respect in the SEC and their fan bases alike.
"It's really going to be a tough, tough football game," Croom said. "There's not a whole lot of difference in Kentucky and Georgia except Georgia has won those close games over the years. We're fighting to make those one or two plays to put us over the top."
The Bulldogs were literally a play away from getting over that proverbial top Saturday; in fact they had two chances to make that play. Having battled back from 21-7 and 27-17 deficits, State was within striking distance of the go-ahead touchdown on first down. It was the opportunity the Dogs had worked all season for. And it escaped.
"That was a game was easily within grasp, and we failed to do so because of things we didn't do," Croom said. Most obviously on those two final pass plays. The ball got airborne on the first one, a shake-route for wideout Jamayel Smith in the corner. Henig threw to the other side with only a Georgia defensive back in range and was fortunate not to be intercepted. With 12 ticks left and no timeouts the Dogs wanted to take one more shot into the end zone, or throw the ball away if it was not there.
Sunday's review proved the play was there, with four receivers spread around the end zone. Smith was the primary target and he headed the right way, except "Jamayel looked over the wrong shoulder," Croom reported. "That confused (quarterback) Mike Henig as to what he was doing to he held the ball a split-second longer than he should have." Long enough to take a fumble-causing sack that sealed the outcome.
"And we didn't block the play well either," said Croom. "But we had opportunities the last two plays to win the game and didn't execute them as practice. We should have scored the play before that one, but we didn't."
Which puts Croom in the delicate position of applauding his team's progress on the field and emotions off it; while keeping them aware of the situation and the opportunity ahead. Otherwise one loss can become another all too easily.
"It's very important we put this behind us immediately. We'll do what we normally do on Monday, make corrections and walk through some of those on the field for about eight-ten minutes. Then we'll immediately start into preliminary aspects of the Kentucky gameplan. We've got to get ready for Kentucky, it's an important game for us, a SEC game at home."
The corrections Croom is most intent on are improving State's awful average on third downs at Georgia with just two of 13 situations converted. It's another of the stages this squad is working through; Croom pointed out that State's offense has become more effective on first downs, now they have to keep the chains moving on the third snap.
"It was just our lack of execution in those situations. Defensively we've got to get off the field, offensively we've got to convert on third downs." And after two months of games the staff isn't cutting a still-young squad much slack for youth. Yes, inexperience still shows at times, and as Croom reminded a key player like Henig is still only making his seventh college start this week. There is even some irony here because it was at Kentucky last year that 2004-05 starter Omarr Conner lost his job to Henig.
Still, "After six, seven games even our sophomores and freshmen have been through enough that they've got to put more demands on themselves. And they're doing that."
Henig certainly is, having regained his starting job after missing a month with a collarbone broken in the first half of the first game. Croom praised the third-year soph's execution when he made the right choices where to throw, though that latter part still has plenty room for progress. Yet it isn't just the thrower getting better. State's passing is improved by the development of some taller, more athletic receivers than the group that opened the season.
"We're not doing anything different with the scheme," Croom said. "It's guys gaining experience in what we're doing, and adding talent to the mix. It goes back to Tony Burks, all of a sudden we get the ball up the field. Then Jamayel, all of a sudden we're making plays on the sideline. Then Aubrey Bell, all of a sudden those slants turn into big gains. I know the scheme works. Adding talent helps it work."
After a three-touchdown day at Georgia, freshman halfback Anthony Dixon is the hot Dog in the backfield. Croom still expects to start soph Brandon Thornton this week. "Dixon will definitely be in the game more in certain packages. But because of the experience factor we'll leave Brandon as the starter." And frosh Arnil Stallworth will play as well; he didn't get as much work at Georgia as planned because of how the passing game got the ball into situations where Dixon could crash the goal line.
There were no new injuries to report after the Georgia game. Backup OT J.D. Hamilton "came up sore" in relief of starter Mike Burks at left tackle. And starting TE Eric Butler's sprained toe continues to bother the junior. "They won't practice today but we expect them back tomorrow which is when we begin our real work. It's usually been doom, despair, and agony, right now we're fortunate coming out of that ball game with just some normal nicks and bruises."
Croom even had some encouraging news on Conner, who severely strained a groin in the West Virginia game. The senior, expected to miss the rest of the season, is improving "faster than expected" and Croom now anticipates Conner could return before the end of the season. "At what point we don't know." The coach said if and when Conner is reactivated it will be in some capacity as quarterback.
Not that the State staff is looking any farther ahead team-wise than today's practice. Croom said the Bulldogs have been improving for three weeks now, the key is to take another step. Which is another way of saying Kentucky is an opportunity, as well as a potential pitfall that could bring all the mid-year progress to a fatal halt.
"Just winning is important right now, part this late in the season. Getting everybody feeling good about the progress we're making." Which means putting last week behind and taking Kentucky as, if not more, seriously than Georgia. Croom thinks his players know this.
"I would hope so. But believe me it will be mentioned to them today."