Spirites were high for the afternoon and not only because it is the Egg Bowl coming up. The players wrapped up the week's classes today. And the MSU administration surprised the campus Monday with a bulletin that the college would close a day earlier than scheduled and all staff would have Wednesday off. But the Allen Hall edict brought no changes of plans for the football staff or team, as they will stay by the now-standard Thanksgiving holiday work schedule.
All varsity Bulldogs will practice on Wednesday, then those players who will not be on the 70-man travel roster for the SEC road game will be excused. Croom has a standard Thursday practice booked but at an earlier 1:45 time since classes won't be a conflict; and the normal Friday walk-through before the Bulldogs dine and depart to spend the night off-campus in Columbus. At least those travel-roster Dogs get to sleep in Thursday and Friday for a change.
"We ought to be well-rested," Croom said.
*Only a couple of players reported to practice in limited-work jersies. DT Deljuan Robinson was in purple with an ankle re-injured last week; he should be ready to start his last college game by Saturday. And ST/WR Joey Sanders has been in yellow for two months with a leg problem but managed to play on kicking teams every week.
There are other regulars who won't be 100% but will play, such as WR Tony Burks (knee) and FB Casey Rogers (knee). They and HB Brandon Thornton (knee) were all in first-team maroon Tuesday. No one was in a red-cross jersey.
*THE QUESTION had to be asked; has Croom settled on a starter quarterback yet? "Nope!" he said. Then, smiling, Croom added "We will have one!"
This is the position of most injury-interest this week. Omarr Conner was running #1 again today, and showed few signs of groin soreness after Monday's drills. That is progress because the senior has found it difficult to work consecutive days since tearing the muscle in early October. Walk-on Zack Harrington appeared to be the #2 in drills with walk-on Robert Ambers and redshirt Ty Evans splitting time at #3 or running the scout offense.
According to a member of the Bulldog backfield, the starter will be the obvious choice. "Yeah, I think Omarr is going to be the guy," HB Anthony Dixon said. "He's slowly getting better. But Omarr is a warrior and this is his last game, I don't think he's going to go out sitting on the sidelines."
The key will be keeping Conner healthy enough to stay on the field, which means avoiding the necessity of throwing the ball too often and too predictably. That means running the ball frequently and productively against a Rebel defense allowing almost 160 yards per game on the ground.
"It means I've got to step my game up," said Dixon, who has 541 rushing yards and eight touchdowns this freshman season. "So I'm going to be ready for the challenge." Of course his own position depth-chart is a bit thin as well, with Thornton still gimpy and Arnil Stallworth out entirely. Croom hopes Thornton, who had a strong second half in relief of Jerious Norwood in last year's Egg Bowl, can help out. "Brandon practiced much better yesterday, I'm still not sure where his lateral movement is but straight-ahead he is pretty good. I expect him to play in a backup role Saturday."
The top sub for Dixon is still walk-on Justin Williams, a reliable ‘tween-the-tackles pounder, with Thornton #3. No other halfbacks were in first-unit maroon Tuesday.
*DIXON HAS additional personal motivation for his initial Egg Bowl. "This is going to be one of the biggest games for me. It's going to be the first one I've played in so I'm going to try to out like a winner." The irony is that until his later teen years the metro-area native's attention revolved around another November rivalry game.
"Me being from Jackson, I was always a Jackson State-Alcorn State guy. This time of the year I was at home watching the Capitol City Classic, I only heard about Ole Miss-Mississippi State at first. But when I got in high school and started playing football and realized I was going to be good, I figured I was going to go to Mississippi State. That's when I started paying attention to it. I'm ready to go in there and keep the trophy here."
*CROOM HAD good things to say about the efforts on both offense and defense in the last home game. But special teams? Another issue entirely. "Nobody played well in the kicking game, that's why we got beat." Most obvious was the 100-yard kickoff return for touchdown by Arkansas, but State lost lots of ground and in course the game due to disparities in both coverage and returns. So this is a practice emphasis all week.
"We really need to step up our kicking game," Croom said. "Ole Miss' kicking game is outstanding and the return game is excellent." He noted that State had some similar problems, particularly in coverage, last November. And the staff would rather not put some of the current starters who excel in these roles, such as LB Jamar Chaney, on kicking plays if at all possible. There might be any viable options this week, however.
"At this point there is not a whole lot of (other) people that we can put out there. We have experimented greatly in personnel. There will be some changes but it's pretty much going back to some individuals that we might have had there before." The real answer is to continue recruiting more multi-use athletes and ease the demands on offense and defensive regulars, which Croom promises to do. "But that's not going to help us Saturday."
*WITH SOME Monday comments by an Ole Miss linebacker making the news, State players have been instructed to say nothing inflammatory about the game, the opponents, anything. Media could and did ask, but the Bulldogs shrugged the subject off…smiling, though.
Croom was asked more generally how much such things mean in the context of players preparing for a game. His own college background offered limited exposure to ‘bulletin board' material. "Because when I played for Coach Bryant we weren't worried what anybody said, we were more worried about him!" But Croom does recall one specific incident when he was coaching at San Diego.
"I'll never forget when we played Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game, we were decided underdogs. We pick up the newspaper Sunday morning and I guess somebody interviewed somebody at the hotel, they'd already rented a ballroom and the champagne was ready for the celebration. Our players, I mean they took it personal and that's all they talked about on the bus ride to the stadium, in the pregame warmups." The Chargers went on to win the game and advance to the Super Bowl.
In general though Croom doesn't pay much attention to such things as bulletin-board comments. He just doesn't want his own players lighting any fires among the foes.
"It affects different people different ways. Some people it doesn't bother, some people it does. So my approach is I'm not taking any chances. I want their play to do the talking on Saturday."