Yet Anderson could also offer this statement, which those outside the Bulldog locker room are going to find tough to agree with. And the man understands, but says it anyway. "We didn't get it done as a team. And as a team it's hard to say we're making progress, I'm sure y'all hear that same story every week and it's not a good story any more. But I really and truly believe we're making progress."
If so it's not showing where it matters most. Not at 2-7 overall and still-winless in SEC play after five losses. The last two have come by the same three-point margin, which compared to whippings by Auburn and LSU looks like progress. As to how it feels to fall short, well… "Sometimes I think it might be easier to take a loss where you know you're out of the game," Anderson admits. "Neither one of them feel good."
Thus there isn't much for the home folk to feel good about after another loss on the home field. State is now 1-6 at Scott Field and the lone victory was over a I-AA guest. With the last home game against West-leading Arkansas, the 2006 Bulldogs could become the first State squad not to beat a I-A foe at home since 1979. And that's if Marshall was I-A in '79, which I can't try to confirm at this moment. Otherwise we go back to 1968's winless Dogs. Even the ‘Tech and 10' team of '88 scored one home I-A victory.
It's a rule of thumb that anytime a columnist starts reaching back more than a decade for that-bad comparisons the situation is grim indeed. And while it seems like piling on a defenseless (hmmm, ironic choice of words after today's display) victim, candor demands citing the fact that State is doomed to the first six-year losing streak since 1964-69. That bad.
Bad enough that post-game nobody bothered to ask Coach Sylvester Croom's state of State evaluation. His opinion has been made abundantly clear all season, though last week's statement that only the willingly-blind can't see improvement comes across a bit too strident for comfort. Not that it matters as the third-year coach (record 8-23, 3-18 SEC) has quit worrying about outside feelings, since he knows only winning can improve public relations. Croom only cares about his players at this point, and there's something to be said for that focused approach.
Not surprisingly this same honesty might not translate well for unhappy folk numbed by decades of coach-speak who hear uncomfortably clear words and distrust the meaning. Take today's comment: "Our kids are fighters, they keep fighting back, but they've got to play smarter than what we're playing." Did Croom just call his players dumb? Nope. He said they have to play smarter, and that's correct. Trouble is, fans and media hear the words as coaches laying blame for losing on the players, much as when Croom says failed execution has resulted in defeats. Well, it's the truth: if the Bulldogs do execute as instructed, and practiced, and practiced, and practiced some more, the plays should work.
Yet something still isn't working, which results in nothing working out. Now THAT points up to my own problems with the general plan. The schemes are sound, the players are coached, and the games lost. Which would only seem to mean the personnel doesn't fit the prescribed plans. If so, then whether that is due to inadequate talent, or insufficient combined experience, is for a real expert to judge. I have my own opinion which can wait for December when all the scores are in. Though, if injuries continue to add up even that judgment will be somewhat guesswork.
That said, there is certainly room for some second-guessing tonight. It wasn't just good guessing that produced Kentucky's handful of third-down conversions. They caught the Dogs with the right calls at the key times, true; but how often has that three-man, eight-cover scheme worked this year? I still believe Derek Pegues could be a fine college safety, but corner is another matter. Of course he's still the best State has at the position for now so it's a moot point. Anyway, as bad as it looked State actually held Kentucky under their yardage average despite the lopsided time-of-possession. Check it out.
It's on the other side where State still comes up short. And as has become the case lately, the Dogs did well enough in one aspect to merit praise without rounding out the effort and winning. Look, like all others I fully anticipated a good ground-gaining day for the Dogs. None could've convinced me going in that Kentucky's defense would hold MSU to 24 rushing yards in any quarter, much less an entire game. The offensive players insisted that UK packed the front to stop the run, but that should've been irrelevant, State should've moved the ball much more effectively on the grass. Any lingering doubts about ability to run-block were dashed today.
By contrast, the passing game worked mostly-wonderfully. Croom explained that the goal was to throw often and long early to get the secondary playing back, then slice Kentucky up underneath. Worked pretty well, too, though one can only wonder how much more such tactics would have produced with any semblance of a running game to suck in coverage further. It wasn't for lack of trying…
…and that actually became another issue. By my unofficial count State had ten total first-down snaps in the second and third quarters, whether starting series or after the chains moved. Nine were rushed, for a net of, hmmm, nine yards. The other was a pass for three yards. In the past I've defended this offensive staff's perceived conservatism of ‘always' as fans say running on first down. Not this time. And not so much because there is anything inherently wrong with ‘establishing the run.' It's because after just period it was absurdly obvious Kentucky couldn't cover.
Maybe, repeat maybe I can overlook running on all four first-down snaps of the second period (not counting after the missed field goal when MSU just wanted to get into the locker room correctly content with the tie), even if the net was one yard. But in the third period? Especially after the Kats regained a lead? All I can come up with is State was still trying to wear Kentucky down and get to the fourth period with it a one-play game where the supposedly-superior conditioning would come into play. Like a whole lot of what State is doing these days, it's a sound theory that never gets proven in action because something—execution, injury, etc.--always happens along the way to neutralize fine strategy. And that in turn gets back to the fundamental question of, is State stubbornly sticking by a system that will never have the right combinations of ability and experience to work? Again, that's for December discussion.
The topic of the hour is what can the Bulldogs accomplish between now and then. If 400 yards and four touchdowns don't get it done against Kentucky's bottom-ranked bunch, it's hard to be overly optimistic about matchups with better defenses. And while the players took some positives from the three-point loss at Georgia, there was no such talk today. "It was really quiet in the locker room," Anderson reported. "It wasn't a good feeling. It's still not."
"It hurts when you're giving your all and come up short from making the big play," junior DE Titus Brown said. "But we have to build off this and go try to stop Alabama."
Build off this? Off another loss? In years-past I'd have dismissed this as classic keep-the-chin-up talk, and goodness knows over my years I've heard it enough to recognize the theme. The words from these guys has a different sort of tune, though. And yes, they so realize how it might sound under the circumstances. Anderson certainly does.
"You think maybe he hasn't got his head on straight, talking about improving after a loss like this," Anderson said. "We didn't quite get it done today. You may disagree but we're a lot better than we were the first of the season."
And this scarred senior continues. "Anybody that wants to criticize this team and Coach Croom, I don't have much for them. I'm behind him. I hate talking like this after a loss but I see improvement. I see him taking us in the right direction." This, from a guy not recruited by the current staff and with every seeming justification for bitterness about how his career has played out. But that's not the kind of guy Anderson is.
Nor is Henig, who produced 384 yards and three TD throws. He's obviously sold on the scheme, but more than that the quarterback defends the overarching system he signed on for. "It does take time. And it's one of those things, we'd ask the fans just be patient. Coach Croom is doing the right thing, the coaches are doing the right thing, we're bringing players in. If I could say anything to the fans I'd say please be patient. We're heading in the right direction, I promise you that."
Does Henig believe the frustrated fans will listen? "I hope they are. I'm just telling you straight-up."
Alright. The quarterback still has time to enjoy college success. So a senior gets the final statement of the weekend. Anderson agrees that wins and losses are all that matters in the end, and it's taking longer than everyone involved—whether well-paid coaches or ticket-buying fans—imagined. Or feared. Still this last-year Dog dares forecast a better days even if he won't be on the field for them.
" Defensively we're losing some guys. On offense the group of guys we have coming back, the receivers, running backs, and the young linemen, I feel pretty good about the offensive team. We have some young guys on defense that are going to have to step up and play better. I'm not going to predict the future but I see better days at Mississippi State."