Bulldogs Enjoying Their Timely Open Date

Coach Sylvester Croom agrees, his Bulldogs deserve their opportunity to enjoy the aftermath of victory a little longer than usual. "We'll let them continue to celebrate one more day," Croom said Monday. "But tomorrow it stops. We start getting ready for Arkansas."

Just not quite as intently as usual, because this is not a usual week. This is Mississippi State's first and only open date of 2006, and the timing couldn't have been much better for all involved. The players certainly need the break, both to heal bodies battered by a grueling ten-game stretch and to flush minds of emotions after a 24-16 win at Alabama. For their part the coaching staff can catch up on office work and prepare for a weekend on the recruiting road.

While Croom welcomes the open date he still wants his players to use it the right way. First, to simply enjoy some hard-won success at last. "We're going to give them some time off to celebrate because they have worked awful hard. I want them to enjoy it because hopefully (after) getting this feeling I want them to want this all the time." And if anyone wonders whether State would be better off trying to build on one win by playing immediately for another, well, it's a nice idea but not all that practical under MSU's current circumstances.

"I'm not worried about the momentum," he said. "From a physical standpoint we couldn't go much longer. We're missing too many guys." Or, playing with too many more who probably shouldn't be on the field for long if at all. "The tough part is that the guys who are playing, at some point they just can't play as well."

This includes a number of Dogs who came up big at Alabama, such as WR Tony Burks (hamstring), LB Jamar Chaney (ankle), TE Eric Butler (toe, knee), and others with injuries of varying extent like OG Michael Gates (ankle) and OT J.D. Hamilton (knee). Croom reported today that CB/KR Derek Pegues has a shoulder problem, and OC Royce Blackledge hurt an ankle Saturday. FS Jeramie Johnson and OT Craig Jenkins also had to leave the field at various times but with no serious issues.

Otherwise, "It's pretty much the same as last week, Croom said. "A lot of guys played that had stuff, nothing major, but we're going to try to rest them this week. Unless something happens we should be in good shape." Because, of course, the Dogs don't have to get hit for a whole week now. "It couldn't have come at a better time because I don't know how much longer we could have gone."

For that matter Croom says a couple of Dogs should not have played at Alabama anyway. Such as Chaney, who really should have been held out after the first quarter against Kentucky. He did not start Saturday but quickly entered and came up with big plays, none bigger than his goal-line grab of Tide quarterback John Wilson, assisting fellow LBs Quinton Culberson and Gabe O'Neal to keep Alabama from scoring on the last snap of the first half. And while Burks caught State's first touchdown of the day, he had been held out of most drills the preceding week. "And I was scared to death because he is still learning, when we change stuff and he's not there it compounds concerns calling those plays," Croom said. "The game was the first time he'd had a single rep on some things. As a coach I don't like that at all, but when they're hurt you don't have a choice."

Croom hopes to have at least one and possibly two Dogs back by next week. HB Brandon Thornton's injured knee is healing and the soph should be available by Arkansas. And QB Omarr Conner is so far ahead in his rehabilitation from a severe groin strain in the West Virginia game that he was able to dress out at Alabama. He did not play, though, having over-done it in midweek practices and thus been restricted to further treatement.

"We could have used him in an emergency situation, only in the shotgun," Croom said. "He's going to work a little this week but we have to be careful how we use him." As to where Conner could be used, "He'll definitely be the backup quarterback. If he can run full-speed we'll use him at wide receiver. There's some things, particularly in our third-down package, that only he can do. There are things we got away from when we moved him from wide receiver only he can do. If we can get that back into the packages it will make us better from a passing standpoint."

Monday won't be a completely free day for the Dogs, as they will have game tape review along with a mandatory NCAA seminar scheduled for this week. The practice schedule itself will be cut back. "Tomorrow will be like a normal Monday for us, an abbreviated practice. Wednesday will be like a Tuesday practice (in full gear). Thursday we'll go at 6:00 am with another Monday-type practice for about an hour." During those practices State will begin installing the Arkansas gameplan, specifically the base schemes and first-down plays.

"Then our coachers will go recruiting. Friday we'll run and condition at 6:00 am and take the weekend off, be back Sunday for a meeting at 7:00.

And Croom is adamant about the one-day limit on further victory celebrations. As he said today, the players will have to pull their helmets out of the clouds immediately and turn all attention on the next matchup. "I think all we've got to do is real simple, I'll show them the first quarter of last year's game." The quarter in Little Rock where State gave up 14 points, specifically. He could just as easily throw in the second period also, when Arkansas reeled off 27 more points including a 100-yard touchdown return for a 41-3 halftime lead. "I think we'll get back down to earth real fast," Croom said.

For that matter the State staff has useful things to point out from the Alabama game, and not just the positive items. Croom says post-victory review can sometimes be even more beneficial as far as instruction as a loss because happy players aren't as defensive when personal errors are pointed out.

"When you talk about sustaining momentum, more important is continuing to build on those intangibles. The mental and physical toughness, the discipline of doing things right. That's what I want to carry over into preparation. OK, we won a big game on the road; but the technique mistakes, the missed alignments, the missed assignments, missed tackles, we've got to be better on that stuff.

"When you win quite often coaches and players overlook those things. We're not going to, I want every little thing we missed drilled into them that that's not what you're supposed to do. From a coaching standpoint this is the kind of week you can really bear down on mistakes."

If it sounds as if Mississippi State's head coach hasn't taken his own time to celebrate both a professional and personal triumph, well, not so. He has, if only because so many others have wanted to share the joy. Croom's phone has been busy since Saturday afternoon.

"A lot of friends, a lot of guys I worked with in the NFL. It was big. A lot of coaches in the conference—I'm not going to give any names!—but guys who called and were extremely happy for us."

And still there is work to be done, even during an open date. Croom said he has a busy week lined up taking care of the other aspects of this job, such as tonight's engagement at the Memphis Quarterback Club and a Tuesday appearance at the Jackson Touchdown Club. Obviously the unintended timing is good as the Bulldog coach will come in fresh from a SEC victory.

After this, "I'm going to be spending a lot of time on recruiting. We're working extremely hard to try to get our recruiting closed out. There are other prospects we've added to our list, hopefully we can get some other guys committed and try to get some things solidified about grades and needs."

Croom will also have individual meetings with the current Bulldogs, focused on their academics and finishing out the fall semester in good shape. "Then after Thursday's practice I've got some things to do around here, got some fundraising projects to focus on and see how they're going. Get all that head coach stuff out of the way before we get back to game-planning."

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