"I know they're thinking conference championship and national championship, that's good for them. All we want to do is win another SEC game and win at home."
Which is something the 2006 Bulldogs (3-7, 1-5 SEC) haven't done and have one last chance to achieve if they hope to avoid matching the 2002 team's 0-4 home SEC mark. These Dogs do own a league victory, having knocked off Alabama a week ago for the program's first SEC road success since 2000. Now Croom wants to build on that breakthrough, and he says the squad is showing some newfound faith in themselves at last. Perhaps even confidence?
"I sure hope so because they worked awful hard, they've been in some close games. To win that game they should be confident."
Rested, too, after the first and only open date on this 13-weekend 2006 calendar. A ten-week run of games would take some sort of toll even under the best circumstances, which State has definitely not experienced. Even at Alabama the staff was patching together lineups all afternoon, and the open date could not have come at a better time. As Croom said last week, it would have been very difficult to get the team physically ready for weekend #11.
Now the Dogs have had some extra time to recover. They ran through shortened Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon practices and a Thursday morning session, then conditioned Friday before taking the weekend off entirely. For their part the coaches hit the recruiting road for three days. Still there was some game-planning done to keep the players and staff alike in season-tune.
"We got a little work done," Croom said of the week. "As much as anything we tried to get some people well, it seems to have paid off. We've got some people coming back to practice today."
But also some who aren't coming back, at least for Monday. Croom said QB Omarr Conner (groin strain) won't practice today. The senior has been working out some days the last couple of weeks, "but he gets sore and we have to back off." Croom still has some hopes Conner could be available for his last home game but the senior will have to be careful all week. "We'll try to ease him in."
Of more concern are newer injuries to big-play makers. CB Derek Pegues came out of the Alabama game with a shoulder injury that wasn't even reported until later. At the time Pegues thought it was just soreness, instead he had to be held out all last week and he still won't be on the field Monday. "We'll see where that goes," Croom said, "it doesn't seem serious."
And even limited workouts can be risky, as WR Jamayel Smith tore a ligament in a thumb Friday. "We think he'll be able to work today and definitely tomorrow," Croom said. Most of the other hurting Dogs from last week should be working today, such as OT J.D. Hamilton, OG Michael Gates, LB Quinton Culberson, and TE Jason Husband.
One who won't is HB Brandon Thornton, still hobbled by an October knee injury. Croom had hoped the soph would be ready by this week, now next week is the target. Fellow HB Arnil Stallworth (ankle) is not expected back for the rest of the season, just like FB Bryson Davis and QB Tray Rutland (both knees).
"We'll get back in our regular routine," Croom said. "The only thing that will be different, because we had that time off, is we'll put shoulder pads on today which we don't normally do, so we can start getting ready for Arkansas."
There's a lot to prepare for. The Razorbacks are fresh from stomping the Volunteers and poised to claim their fourth Division title since joining the SEC for 1992. Arkansas has yet to win the league championship but Croom thinks this team has the talent and momentum to get it done.
"I'm not surprised where Arkansas is at all. They returned I think 18 starters and have the two best backs in the conference. They were young last year and continued to develop, when they beat Auburn the confidence just grew. They're a ‘young veteran' team with two great backs and talent at quarterback, they're a lot more wide-open offense than they have been."
The Razorbacks were pretty wide-open when State saw them last, in a 44-10 blowout in Little Rock where State was shredded for 41 points before halftime. "They beat us pretty badly last year," Croom said. In that romp back Darren McFadden became the seventh SEC freshman to run for 1,000 yards; the soph is already over 1,200 this season and literally running away with all league offensive player of the year races.
"No question he's the best back in the conference and one of the best in the country from what I've seen," Croom said. "He and Adrian Petersen at Oklahoma are the two guys who are just great players. He has all the tools; size, speed, changing direction." He also has help in Felix Jones, closing in on 800 ground yards himself.
"It makes for a good mix for them," Croom said. "Put either one of them on any team in the conference and he's the starter." It also makes for a serious challenge to a Bulldog defense that has been respectable against ground games but hasn't seen anything like this so far. State has to be at the very best to prevent Arkansas from running away with this matchup. "It starts wit the guys that put their hand on the ground, then the linebackers," Croom said. "It's really going to get tested this week. We'll have to take it to a new level to slow Arkansas down."
And even if State does succeed there, Arkansas' air game has come a long way in three months regardless of whether Casey Dick (who threw for 124 yards and two touchdowns last year against State) or frosh Mitch Mustain starts at quarterback. And Croom knows what to expect from wideout Marcus Monk, closing in on the school's record for receiving. "I've been watching him for two years, he makes plays. He's a big guy, when the ball gets there he comes down with it. I saw him grabbing his chest the other day, maybe he'll take this week off to get ready for LSU! But he is a playmaker."
Meanwhile State will try to get some play-makers back to health and into game-week routine. Croom would love to have Thornton and Stallworth, and their faster feet, available this week. Still he is satisfied with the lineup of backs to run at Arkansas. "Anthony Dixon will be our number-one guy, Justin Williams will be the backup and Christian Ducre the next guy." Dixon has come on strong this rookie season and had his best effort with 121 yards at Alabama. Croom would like to have another, faster runner to spell the starter.
"But he's physical enough and had shown durability enough that he can carry 20-plus times. And Justin showed he can step in and give enough rest and give us enough power. The thing we don't have at running back is great speed but I'm pleased with the progress Anthony has made, and he's still the guy."
At receiver, Tony Burks (himself overcoming a tight hamstring) and Aubrey Bell top the rotation while Smith is evaluated all week. Croom will be watching for mental toughness here as much as anything. "The trainers think he's capable of doing it, the question is pain tolerance. We'll see."
Monday's practice begins at 5:00 and will last less than two hours. Croom's own game-week schedule has been adjusted itself with his usual Monday call-in show moving to Tuesday at 7:00 to avoid radio conflict with tonight's basketball game.