It might be 12:59 Saturday before Mississippi State confirms who will line up under-center and take snaps. Not that under the current stressed circumstances the offensive staff seems to have many choices. Sophomore starter Mike Henig is out for the finale, his left collarbone broken for a second time this season (in a slightly different spot) early in the fourth quarter of State's 28-14 loss to Arkansas. Senior Omarr Conner, himself still struggling with the severe groin strain, took over for the rest of the period.
It was just the latest turn of this year's runaway quarterback merry-go-round, which has seen three triggermen start the 11 games. Only one of them is available this week, with redshirt freshman Tray Rutland (starts against Auburn and Tulane) out through next spring with torn knee ligaments. And Conner is far from full-strength despite intense treatment of the muscles torn on October 7, which is why Croom hesitated to pronounce him as the starter.
"I know this, he'll play Saturday and he's going to play in pain," Croom said. "It doesn't make any difference, we'll get the best he's got. How long, we don't know. It's obvious he's not well and it's a day-to-day deal."
Of course day-to-day is actually progress for Conner. He returned to the practice field early this month but until last week never on consecutive days. Just moving around at practice speed was enough to aggravate the damaged muscle and put Conner back in the training room for at least the next and often the next two days. Croom did have some better news on that front today.
"The only positive is it's not as sore after Saturday's game as it had been after the times he's tried to practice." So Conner will be with the team at this afternoon's 5:00 practice. He will also be watched very, very closely. "He's going to be very limited, which is going to limit what were able to do in the gameplan," Croom said. "Because there's no way he can get a lot of reps and be ready to play.
"We're going to call on his past experience, keep him healthy, and Saturday he's going to play." Yes, but will it be the very first play of State's offensive day? Croom chuckled when asked if he had just named a starter. "Oh, I didn't say that yet! Believe me. There will not be any announcement on starting quarterback this week."
Still, alternatives appear limited at best. Redshirt freshman Ty Evans is the only other scholarship quarterback on the roster, and walk-on Zack Harrington has gotten plenty of practice but no play (he was warming up in the fourth quarter Saturday) since being moved over from the scout squad. Other than that? "We're asking for volunteers!" Croom quipped.
More seriously, "We'll prepare for all options and all probable alternatives and get ready. We won't let it hinder everybody else's progress. Offensively everybody else is pretty healthy. We're going to miss Mike, no question. But everybody is going to have to take their game up to another level. Another couple of levels. Then we'll go from there. But it makes preparation a little more interesting. As coaches we're going to have to be a little more creative."
Of course nothing should be a better inspiration for creativity than the rivalry game with the Rebels. The teams may have identical records of 3-8, 1-6 SEC, and both will end their seasons Saturday. None of which matters in preparations, Croom reminds. "I think it's going to be the most intense game we'e played this year.
"I'm sure they're going to approach it that way and I know we're going to approach it that way. Everything that's happened before now is going by the wayside and doesn't matter. This game, for three-and-a-half hours there is nothing else in the world that matters. That's the way we've got to prepare. Every play is going to be the play that decides the ball game."
More than the records match up this year. The Rebels might not have won SEC games in the second half of the schedule but they have given league foes fits, playing Auburn down to the wire and forcing both Alabama and LSU into overtime. So they, too, know what a difference making one play can mean. And Croom points out that the rivals haven't let close calls break their spirits.
"They've got a lot of pride up there, too. They're going through the things we have and they keep battling. They've gone through injuries. They're trying to build a program and we're trying to build one."
While Mississippi shuffled their own signal-callers in the second half and again in overtime at Baton Rouge, the MSU staff will plan on seeing Brent Schaeffer under-center. And they expect to see a lot of BenJarvus Green-Ellis taking handoffs and barreling north-and-south.
"They're playing extremely hard. They've got a quarterback who can make a lot of plays, they run the abll well, they're physical in their line and they've playing good defense." With a great defender leading the way, as senior linebacker Patrick Willis is both the SEC leader in tackles and a nominee for most all-America awards. "I was hoping last year would be the last time we saw him," Croom said.
"The thing that's admirable about them is just like us, with the adversity they've gone through they haven't given in to it. You have to respect that."
At the same time Croom will remind the Bulldogs all week that this is a game to be respected, and the only way to do it right is to play as if this was the only contest that matters. Not just at the moment, but year-round. The coach has an advantage over most MSU folk in that he's been involved in other rivalries, both college and pro, so he has a better-rounded perspective on why these games count much more than just one W or L.
"Oh I love them," he said. "I love these games. It comes down to pride, really. If you ain't got any you ain't going to do well in these games. If anybody says a rivalry game is just like any other one, that means they haven't played in one! A rival game is not like the rest of them."
Two years ago, in his first season at State, Croom realized it is possible for players not to treat a rival game so specially. He accepts part of the blame for a 2004 loss in Oxford, because he allowed those Dogs to have the Thanksgiving holiday off and somehow too many players came back flat for Saturday no matter what the staff said or did to re-light the spark. It led to the false impression among some fans that the coach hadn't taken the Egg Bowl ‘seriously' enough, when it was the team that went through the motions.
Croom isn't taking any such chance as long as he is at State. "I said if we play on Saturday, never again," he said this morning. "We didn't approach the first game like it meant anything to you, or that the institution or jersey didn't mean as much. We're representing a lot of people, first of our own personal pride. Then our families and friends. This is important." So the Dogs will stay on campus for the holiday and practice as usual, if at a different time.
And the coach expects his players, no matter their health or experience, to arrive in Oxford ready for the game of their lives. There will be no excuses for injuries, and no holding back the emotions. "I don't want to keep them in check!" Croom said. "I want them breathing fire, I want tears coming out of the eyes. But I want them to play smart, too!"
State will work at the regular practice times Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, though much of the work (closed to the public as usual) will be done in the Palmeiro Center and on the same type of artificial surface Saturday's game will be played on.