There was plenty of celebrating Saturday, of course, with those Dogs not involved in the most beautiful of plays—a last-minute kneeldown—hollering and hugging and waving to friends in the crowd…though that was about all that remained by then because most of the locals who had used up their boos on the home team had headed for tailgate grumping. At least this gave us sideline judges a chance to make final picks on our every-other-year event at Bryant-Denny Stadium: spot the best mullet, male or female, in an Alabama crowd. It's always a tight coiffure-competition there to say the least.
Though one Dog, the real one, might've gone bald if the game lasted much longer. In State's final drive I must confess, I was rubbing Tonka's head each time his two-legged, white-helmeted namesakes needed to move the chains. Good old Tonka tolerated such gooberish behavior quite gracefully, because he was grinning through the last 60 seconds himself.
Here must come the obligatory cautions. It was only one conference conquest and took over two months to achieve. It came against a mid-pack SEC squad with issues of its own—and today a few more just piled on. And for all the Dogs did well there were enough flaws to keep it closer than necessary, failings a title-contending club would surely have seized upon. So let's not read too much into a 26-14 victory at Alabama.
Now. Let's read what a 26-14 victory at Alabama does mean.
First, foremost, and of inestimable worth, it was exactly the sort of validation Croom's program needed here in November '06. As only us credentialed few could be on the State sideline the final seven game-minutes, you'll have to take a witnesses' word for it that the voices and visages featured an excited satisfaction I haven't seen from Bulldog gridsters in a long time. Yeah, they were thrilled to upset Florida in 2004. And winning back the Golden Egg a year ago brought open relief all around, a weight lifted off all Bulldog backs.
This was different, and if not quite so ‘I was there' exciting in the big picture it may be a bit better. Because this wasn't a fluke, and it wasn't feud…though given the number of Dog staffers and players with ties to the other side of the state line it approaches the Egg Bowl in that aspect. It was a SEC football game won by the Bulldogs, and won their way. If you knew what to look for, you could see the "hey, THIS is what Coach has been talking about" realization on said visages, and hear it in their post-win voices.
Since, oh, summer '05 we've talked about how there comes a time players who've made all the efforts asked must see tangible results. And, that the longer they go unrewarded the harder it becomes to push them farther along in the process; because there also comes the time players have to do the pushing themselves. We have just seen a tangible and earned reward. The Dogs were oh-so-close to getting it two weeks ago at Georgia, and other than those aforementioned personal ties that would have been just as rewarding as beating ‘Bama. The advantage to this one is MSU fans and followers will give more credence to winning an annual rivalry. And in timing terms the Dogs have a free weekend to savor it and then shed it from their systems before resuming the field against Arkansas and Mississippi.
The open date also offers desperately-needed time for healing. Listing names and injuries doesn't begin to describe how beat-up the Dogs are after ten…no, make that 14 weeks. This bunch has been hurting since early August and some still aren't 100%. Others hurt since won't be until January or later. While there is no such thing as a ‘healthy' football team come November, the Bulldogs have been battered. J.D. Hamilton, for only one example, ought to be resting; he was rushed into action when Craig Jenkins went down and alternated the rest of the way. And thank heavens for Anthony Strauder overcoming the loss of his starting job in September, hanging in there, and being ready to play a whole game at guard yesterday with the guy who took his job, Michael Gates, was limited to brief appearances.
And didn't that limping, gimping line come through anyway? Can we see why Croom has been tough on their execution but never questioned their effort and potential? Now they are starting, just starting, to tap into the latter BECAUSE of the former. And as a result Mike Henig is showing why he was signed and developed into the starting quarterback. I don't need to rehash his stats and overall performance yesterday, but do want to point to a single series that show why so much faith has been placed herein.
It began with Henig's decision to force a throw that turned into Alabama's only touchdown of the day. Henig had gotten away with a forced throw earlier, the touchdown toss to Tony Burks. Admitting the target had coverage, Henig grinned when asked why he threw anyway. "Because he's a playmaker!" he said correctly of Burks. The second time burned him. Yet Henig came right back with three superb throws in the answering touchdown drive that put State in control. The most obvious was that 13-yard bullet to Jamayel Smith; I know it was a visual trick but I'd swear that throw hooked over one defender and by another where Smith could snare the scoring strike.
Yet all we really need to know about Mike Henig, Year Three, came three snaps earlier. Knowing he was about to take a shot to the facemask, Henig stood in and lofted a deep throw. He probably didn't see Smith catch it for the 41-yard gain, nor did he need to. We saw Henig's arm-strength last week on the laser-shot to Smith (what IS it with those two?) against Kentucky; we saw his talents on the touchdown. But the whole league saw his toughness and leadership on that clutch long-throw. Thus Henig abundantly earned the right to lead Croom over to the MSU seats-section for a curtain call.
Of course it would be gross negligence not to applaud a most Dog-ged defense, and for far more than that goal-line stop before halftime.
Care to hear the last time State held Alabama without offensive touchdowns in consecutive years? 1940-41. You could argue that keeping the Tide offense out of the end zone last year was more impressive as that was a better UA unit than this one, which is a bit too one-dimensional. But that offense didn't have to score to win the game either. This Tide offense needed to, and couldn't. Not even when holding all the field position cards in a third quarter that saw State's defense come into its own. I doubt Alabama would've scored a touchdown on the Dogs given two more quarters to try.
The closest they came was throwing long, where the oft-critiqued Derek Pegues rose to the challenge. After getting burned by both Georgia and Kentucky, the left cornerback twice broke up excellent Tide tosses that even a week ago might've produced points. Not this weekend, though Pegues cut it awfully close each time and had to bat it away, leaping backwards, in the end zone once. Imagine how productive a defender Pegues will be next year when, if plans hold, he moves to safety and can play for picks instead of just straight-up coverage.
And you had to marvel at Quinton Culberson's timing on that interception. Actually the throw shouldn't have happened as Titus Brown was thiiiis close to a sack. "Good thing I didn't!" he grinned later, because Culberson was able to beat the receiver into position and pick it off with momentum in the ideal direction. "We called him Smoot on the sideline after he high-stepped at the end," Deljuan Robinson reported. Too bad the UA quarterback didn't make a serious last-chance effort for a saving tackle, as Brown would've flattened him. And speaking of such, you no doubt noticed on TV how State's lone official sack came when Brown literally bulled the blocker into the quarterback and both went down.
Too bad there wasn't a way for the defensive Dogs to handle those kneel-down snaps and run out the clock after the way they held back the Tide in a second half Croom said he will always remember. Just like the game itself. I'm going to pass on an opportunity to extol at length what Saturday meant to State's coach. The most this writer could do is relate the obvious and superficial, where only Croom himself can really understand everything. And I doubt even he can fully express it yet, or that he would add anything to his post-game comments. I know how some of the words must have come across, especially to Alabama folk, and really believe Croom wouldn't care to pile it on any further out of respect for where he took his first big steps along this career path.
But I also suspect his phone was busy all evening and Sunday taking congratulatory calls. That's what happens when good things happen to and for a good man who has been through a professional wringer for three years…and who knows the job is far, far from finished. Back to that ‘just one win' thing, you know. Still this one win exemplifies what Croom is working towards with Mississippi State.
"That word we throw around all the time, character," he said. "You don't win today without it. It wasn't ability that won out there, it was character." This doesn't demean talent by any means; in fact Croom made an open appeal to the guys he hopes to add to the 2007 roster, those who will fill in lineup and depth chart blanks and make the program both more productive and less vulnerable to injury. Which gets to the aspect of this win that means as much and maybe more to Croom than personal reward. This victory is just the reinforcement MSU recruiting can use over the winter to keep committed prospects, well, committed, and court the remaining undecideds.
Especially in the two states where State recruits most and best, Mississippi and Alabama. "It means a lot to our program because we have a lot of blue-chip prospects from Mississippi over in that other dressing room," Croom said. "They came here because they didn't think the schools in Mississippi were good enough. The thing I've been trying to get prospects in Mississippi to understand, if you take enough pride in your own home state we can build the same kind of program in Mississippi. And hopefully this will help get that message across."
It should help. And talk about good timing, after the previous close defeats went seen only in-person, this victory was televised. We should find out tomorrow if (and when) the Arkansas game will be telecast, though the networks might want to hang on until the Hogs have played Tennessee to see exactly what is at stake in SEC West title terms. The Bulldogs aren't in that picture. But, they can still have a say in who does go to Atlanta.
Then again, the Bulldogs aren't in this to play spoilers any more. They're learning how and why to win for themselves, and that is what winning at Alabama signifies best. After an open date they have two more chances to show further progress and set a tone for winter recruiting and spring practices. Oh, and they would welcome some assistance, according to quarterback-turned-cheerleader Henig. That dash over to the Dog corner was another sort of reward, he said.
"You have to show support for the fans. The people that came here and supported us, that means a lot. But" Henig added, "we need to pack it out against Arkansas."