"It's Alabama week," Croom said. "We're going to take whoever we've got and get ready."
The roster of those State hasn't got has grown by at least there and probably four injured Dogs, all on the offensive side and mostly in the backfield. Starting HB Brandon Thornton (knee sprain) and alternate HB Arnil Stallworth (also ligament sprain) have likely been lost for the rest of the season. So is FB Casey Rogers with a knee injury as well suffered in his first and likely last college start. Rogers himself started because his predecessor, senior Bryson Davis, was lost for the year two weeks ago.
Starting OG Michael Gates (ankle) is doubtful. "We still have hope, but it's a long shot," Croom said. "We got hit pretty good."
So, as has happened too often already this season, the Bulldog offense is shuffling available personnel to fill out some sort of lineup. "We'll get the players we've got ready to play," said Croom. As expected Anthony Dixon returns to the starting halfback job he had for a couple of September games, though the freshman has his own minor hurt with a shoulder ‘burner' suffered scoring the last MSU touchdown against Kentucky. Walk-on Justin Williams begins the week as #2. After that… "We've got to make decisions. A lot of that is based on how they practice." ‘They' being Derek Ambrose and Christian Ducre, who between them have had one carry all season (for a loss of six yards by Ambrose). Both have participated on special teams. "It depends on which of them is mentally prepared to play," said Croom. "Both have the ability but neither has performed up to my expectations so far."
On the line, Anthony Strauder should return to the starting left guard job he lost to Gates early in the season. Defensively, Croom said the roster is in "pretty good shape" with no losses on that side, though DT Deljuan Robinson limped off the field late in Saturday's loss to Kentucky. Croom also said none of the players who missed the Kentucky game with injuries will return this week, though QB Omarr Conner is making faster progress than anyone expected from the grade-three groin strain two weeks ago. "He won't be back this week." Conner could return for the Nov. 18 home game with Arkansas.
Meanwhile those healthy or at least healthy enough will report for 5:00 practice today, including Dogs who have been limited in drills to protect nagging injuries such at TE Eric Butler (sprained toe) and DE Charles Burns (shoulder). Croom is still weighing how hard to push everyone this week. "We might get more rest and do more mental work. But we're going to practice. We'll be in shoulder pads tomorrow as usual and we won't worry about who is not there. It's a tough situation, but these are the situations you run into if you're going to play football."
And the Bulldogs have a football game to play this weekend, making the shortest road trip in the SEC. Alabama (6-3, 2-3 SEC) is coming off a rout of Florida International, and while the record shows an up-and-down season in Tuscaloosa the MSU coach sees how close his alma mater is to being on top of the league going into November. A missed PAT and last-minute touchdown pass are why Alabama is not at least 4-1 in the league and possibly on top of the Western Division.
Croom knows what to expect this weekend, on both sides of the ball. "On offense they will always run the ball first. They try to set up play-action passes, that type of thing. That's what they do. They try to keep the chains moving and control the clock. Basically they play to their defense, and the defense is the stronger part of the team.
"I think they're doing things the way Mike (Shula) wants them done, to be a consistent running, powerful offense, and not beat themselves." Veteran Bulldogs know all about that gameplan; last November the visiting Tide did not score an offensive touchdown but still thoroughly dominated in a 17-0 victory at Scott Field. The points came on a Bulldog fumble, an interception return, and a field goal. The Crimson Tide helped the Bulldogs beat themselves.
Now this year's rematch is in Tuscaloosa. "It's a great challenge for us, and a great opportunity," Croom said. "I look forward to playing in Denny Stadium. Our players are excited, I can't imagine them not being because it's definitely one of the great venues in college football. And they're our rival, other than the Ole Miss game. They're our closest neighbor in the conference."
Speaking of ‘close'… The Bulldogs are coming off a second-straight SEC loss where the margin of defeat was three points. The 34-31 setback to Kentucky has been tougher to accept than the 27-24 loss at Georgia, though. State gave up a succession of big plays which let the visiting Wildcats stay either ahead or at worst even. And once again, as with Tulane or Georgia, late comebacks were too late and too little.
"It's another third of a trio of games we've lost by three points, or three plays," Croom said. "Make a play in any of them, win the game and maybe it's a very different situation that we're in. But, we've got to live in the moment and move on to the next game."
Moving on would be easier if not for issues in the offensive backfield, which was struggling to gain ground even before the injuries. Against the lowest-rated ground defense in the SEC the Bulldog backs managed to net only 24 yards. This wasn't an Auburn or Alabama defense, this was a Kentucky squad giving up plenty of ground. State missed almost every opportunity to do so.
Game review showed the reason, Croom explained. "Our running backs took a step back Saturday." Not so much literally, but in how MSU runners went about their business. There were some plays where QB Mike Henig did not get the right call made against the front Kentucky was showing, but more often it was the reads made by the runners themselves.
"The offensive line did a good job protecting and blocking, but the runners did not run the ball well." Not for lack of chances, as the Dogs tried to pound the ball for three quarters. Ultimately State ended up relying on the air game to get things done, and it worked as Henig produced career-bests of 384 yards and three touchdown passes. His favorite target, WR Tony Burks, had 192 yards on seven grabs with a couple of scores on 75- and 36-yard plays.
Asked which has made the most difference, Croom said "I think it's a combination of both of them. One is catching and one is throwing and without the other one won't be very effective." Clearly these two have become the offensive leaders, and Croom reminds that this is part of the maturing of both in the system. Henig in particular, with over 600 passing yards in his last two SEC games.
Still "His ability to throw the football is there. Now it's making the right decisions, going the right way, being disciplined with his feet and reads. That's only going to come with time." Certainly Henig has demonstrated the arm, and his 15-yard touchdown toss to WR Jamayel Smith—which covered closer to 40 yards, thrown from the right hashmarks to the left pylon on a string—was a marvel. "A lot of guys in the NFL couldn't make that throw," Croom said. At the same time, the coach points to an earlier missed opportunity when State had a first-quarter drive end on an incompletion thrown the wrong way.
"If he'd read it right, (TE) Jason Husband has a touchdown. You get a great play and then the poor decision. But I know the ability is there." Now the key is balancing out the offensive repertoire, with no excuses allowed due to injuries. "We didn't run the ball as well as we wanted the other day and that's extremely disappointing. Because if we have to throw the football every play we'll be in serious trouble. I know we can throw the football, my big concern is our running game."
State's staff is also increasingly concerned about the defense. Not so much for the sheer stats in the last two losses, which were not all that bad under the circumstances. It is how the Dog defense seems so close to stopping drives and getting the ball into Henig's hand yet manages to let the chains keep moving.
"We're doing some thing well and some thing not so well," Croom said. "The biggest thing is we're playing consistently on early downs, and giving up too many big plays. We have too many missed assignments and breakdowns, particularly in our secondary. We've got to shore that up real fast because I know Alabama will take advantage if we don't."
And the Bulldogs are already at something of a disadvantage in that they are back on the SEC road, where no State team has won since 2001. And the Dogs have only won once in Tuscaloosa since 1957, that in '97 before any of these MSU players reached high school. But Croom doesn't read too much into taking this team away from home any more.
"I hope we're at a point now where you can deal with road games in this conference. If you can't you've got a real problem."