From The Dawghouse

Time and tenure are supposed to develop a sense of business-like detachment. Especially for a paid professional at watching and writing schoolboy games. Yet after all the painful twists and bizarre turns in a career covering the Bulldogs, there are still times one wants to look sky-ward and cry Why? Oh, I'm not talking about Saturday's loss of a game.

It's the loss of Mike Henig for the Egg Bowl that has once again shaken State-faith. Why now? Just when this MSU offense has shown more of what it is capable of, and as the Dog defense is back on the expected '06 form, and…OK, we'll set aside special (hah!) teams for now. But you get the idea. Just when Mississippi State is tapping into the entire team's potential and proving to frustrated fans what Sylvester Croom is working towards, crack! The quarterback collarbone broken in the home opener is fractured again in the Scott Field finale.

Which means State's Egg Bowl fate rests in the hands, or more accurately rides on the gimpy groin, of Omarr Conner, who would be hard-pressed today to outrun an out-of-shape sportswriter. Oh, well. If the head Dog won't allow his kennel to spend the week whining, we won't either. It's the (sorry) breaks of the game and nobody else will spare State pity. Least of all the weekend rivals. Croom will shuffle the offensive lineup for about the eleventy-dozenth time this absurd season and try to get Conner as much practice as practical without the senior ending up back in the training room pool from overwork.

And if any Dog is likely to attempt over-work it's Conner, who must literally love the opportunity handed him. Almost as much as most of us scribes would love to write such a story as ‘Crippled Senior Walks Away With Egg' this weekend. Is it possible? Well, yeah. If anyone could get it done on brass and willpower it's Omarr. It's also possible that after the second or third Saturday snap he would require help getting back to the sideline, and not necessarily from a hit. When the training staff described what Conner's injury a month ago involved I hurt on reflex.

But again this is big-boy college football and even personnel not officially ‘injured' is aching and paining by late November. It's just that the 2006 Bulldogs have been hounded by hurts that can't easily be overcome given the nature of the entire roster (i.e. in terms of age, experience, and distribution of depth). Even in the best of eras Mississippi State has minimal margin for injury-error; there has been none this year, though I must add things are looking much better thanks to teeth-gritted decisions on redshirts and forecasted recruiting.

For the present, however, State is paying the price of a bizarre run of injuries to the one key position in this entire offense. Henig, out; Conner, limping; Tray Rutland, out; Ty Evans, not ready to win in the SEC.

Yes, I do expect to hear allllll week the gripe that State wouldn't be in these straits if another quarterback had been signed. Sigh. Setting aside the utterly obvious--that no freshman or juco State was going to able to ink in February (there weren't any quality JC quarterbacks qualified for spring enrollment) would be ready to run this team even by November—I'll remind all that we went into the fall with a clear #1 in Henig, two scholarship redshirts, and the safety blanket of Conner. Also, because QB was to be a '07 priority signing, adding another in '06 would not only have cluttered the fall depth chart but likely worried this recruiting season's targeted triggermen. Not that logic will stop emotional anguish on the subject of course.

I should be immune by now yet remain annually engrossed with the way State fans are sure, certain, convinced that if only MSU offered a five-star quarterback he'd surely accept…a century of evidence to the contrary. Though I'll add this: if Mississippi State football, the perpetual offensive also-ran of the SEC, is ever going to get a premier playmaker signed it will be this coach who recruits him. There, I said it. Feel free to disagree if you wish.

As for this week, no prize for guessing what position we practice observers will focus on. Though honestly I wouldn't blame Croom if he closed workouts while running another Bulldog through the QB drills. Like, maybe, a Will Prosser? Cool head, can take a hit, tall, respected by teammates for toughness. I'd definitely look along that sort of line than at a scrambling athlete, given the disciplined nature of the offense and the very-much-improved performance of the offensive line.

Which, dang it, gets back to my original wailings. In fact I'd like to extend it to the season as a whole. The first half against Arkansas confirmed opinions developed through losses to Georgia and Kentucky and the win at Alabama; that had Mike Henig not gotten knocked out (literally) in the first half of the first game, 2006 would have been the ‘turning point' Croom and many others forecast. I have no doubts that if Henig doesn't suffer an unnoticed-at-the-time concussion on the very first offensive play against South Carolina, the Dogs win that one. Many of y'all were there and saw how S.C. came in skaky and uncertain, ready to lose. I'm even more certain that a successful debut would have kept the Dog defense from going into a mental funk and getting ripped by Tulane in that crucial third quarter.

On such things do entire seasons turn. But dang it, after all those setbacks State had still turned a point by scoring points. Too bad the last two games weren't televised for more State folk to see what I'm talking about. Bulldog blocking in November is so far beyond what we saw in September that they don't even look like the same linemen…and they too have overcome injuries along the way without grumbling or crumbling.

And they might not even be the most-improved group on the offense; has any area made faster progress through a season than the pass-catching corps? The reason I'd give them an edge on the linemen is they've had to do it through the changes in pass-throwers. And these receivers not only don't look like the same guys who began the season, they aren't as Tony Burks, Jamayel Smith, Lance Long, and Aubrey Bell have taken over the starting jobs.

I've sworn not to lament the fact that Jerious Norwood did not redshirt in '02, so I won't. I only bring that up to point out State's need for a classic breakaway running back to exploit openings left by better blocking and more defensive attention to receivers. Then again didn't Anthony Dixon show a nice little burst on his 65-yard jaunt yesterday? I've told y'all, he is this decade's version of Michael Davis; now we just need a 2000s version of Kevin Bouie to match with him behind a maturing and deeper front, with a fourth-year junior quarterback and those veteran receivers. No wonder last week Croom said the emphasis on offensive recruiting has shifted to securing a little more speed in the backfield. The other pieces are in places…

…just not this week. Not for the one game that matters more than entire seasons to partisans on both sidelines. With Henig running the show, and the way the Dog defense showed it can stifle a power-running back, I'd call the Bulldogs a favorite going into Oxford. Heck, with a healthy and aggressive Conner I would still give State some edge. Now? You tell me.

But whatever happens Saturday (any chance the schools could agree tomorrow to go ahead and get this one over with mid-week; meet on a neutral junior high field with a few refs, a couple of statisticians for the records, play it out and shake hands and go on home for a real holiday?) I'll dare say something else. I do think the Bulldogs have turned a corner. For all the physical woes, I can attest that mentally and emotionally this team is in even better shape today than in August. Seriously. That won't begin to satisfy folk who only want wins, and they might be surprised to hear that the one person who most agrees with them is the head coach. Croom can't be content with anything but victory. It's just that the head coach also appreciates better than any of us what the problems and pitfalls have been along the way; what went wrong and why and how to fix it within his own chosen gameplan.

So don't mistake anything Croom says this weekend, win or lose, about the state of State football after three seasons. You take what progress comes and build on it. If the progress in year-three consists of bringing a team up to the point that they are finally ready to learn how to win, well, that's still a much better situation than a year ago. Though we'll also never know how much further along that road State would be without these #$%^&*()+ injuries. Why, oh why?…

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