From The Dawghouse

I now have a new favorite Bulldog. He joins an elite roster of State greats who not only could play their game but were fun to cover and good to know. Fellows I'd list if asked the epitome of a Bulldog, though interestingly not the very greatest at their sports. Guys like John Bond, and Greg Carter, and Barry Winford. If I had to explain any of ‘em, it only means you wouldn't understand.

But J.B., Greg, and Cap'n Barry, and many others of all eras: you must step aside to make room for another. I now proudly proclaim Omarr Conner as the best of the Bulldogs I've had the pleasure and privilege of working with. No, he did not score the successes or receive the recognitions of those previous names. He didn't enjoy a single winning season at State and never had the luxury of a permanent role.

Yet I'll defy any and all who have cared about this University and athletic program for more than a year or two to identify a Dog who did more to show us what it truly means to wear or care for the Maroon and White than Omarr did in that place most malign to MSU. He should not have been on the field. Hell (sorry, Gene), he shouldn't have been in uniform. Yet despite a very real chance of being really crippled by any hit or just an unlucky slip on plastic grass, Omarr conceivably risked his chances of a professional career just so Mississippi State could have a realistic chance of retaining the Golden Egg. A trophy won last year ironically because Conner was willing to give up his favorite college job of quarterback to play receiver in the 2005 Egg Bowl.

I don't get sentimental about this business any more. Too many seasons, too many games, too many miles and far too many late hours. But damned (sorry again, Gene) if watching Omarr down on his knees, face in hands and bowed to the turf after that long shot at extending his college career into one more overtime missed wide by a yard didn't have me rubbing my aging eyes. I don't think I've done that since, oh, I guess the 1989 baseball regional ended the wrong way.

I wasn't the only one misting up either, as I noticed some sniffles from a couple of State coaches walking to the locker room. And I don't think it was just the loss of the Egg that did it to them, either. Maybe they'd been weeping over the special (hah!) teams play or something. More on this later. For the moment let's just spare a moment to honor a Dog who has had his day at State, but who those of us fortunate enough to watch, know, and enjoy will not let be forgotten. Give a coach like Sylvester Croom a squad of players and people like Omarr Conner, and Mississippi State will win games and championships. The good news in this otherwise grim time is that there is increasing evidence of both P's developing in this program.

Of course it's easy to overlook or even ignore any encouraging signs during the current gloom. All realized two months ago Croom's third season with State was not going to be his first winning one. At least there was a Golden Egg in the football office and, up until last Saturday better than average expectations of retaining it for another year. Then when Mike Henig went down and out so did most hopes, barring a miraculous day by a restricted quarterback. Darned (better, Gene?) if Conner didn't come close to delivering us media a dream of a story-line after all. Which is why I'm not so entirely torn-up about the loss this time.

Now, let's be honestly clear on a couple of items. Had Adam Carlson's 51-yarder slipped through there was still no assurance of a successful overtime. State's record in extra periods is not exactly encouraging, though that creative Conner run at UAB would've helped confidence. Plus the Rebs, much more used to OTs, had lost twice in extra play this season. Regardless all the Dogs wanted was the chance and they did have something approaching momentum at the time.

Secondly, and more to the overall issue, while he could just as easily have reverted to old form and tossed four interceptions, does anyone question how much more balanced and thus effective the Bulldog offense would have been with Henig at the helm? How would UM have defended the interior ground game (i.e., Anthony Dixon) then, with the need to cover those slants and posts that are the stronger-armed Henig's specialty? It's another reason I wish now the game had been televised, so all could see for themselves just how impressive the rookie runner was under the lack-of-passing-help circumstances. Back just one of those supporting safeties out of the box and Dixon is gone on the kind of scoring runs he had against Alabama and Arkansas. Back when State had an air attack.

For that matter an 85% Omarr would probably have been up to the task of winning this one, though his passing game isn't as conducive to the big play as Henig's. Had he been able to merely threaten to sprint-out or bootleg it would have changed almost everything in how this edition of the game was played by both teams. And this isn't even taking into account a not-100% himself Brandon Thornton, who showed why he was the opening-game starting halfback with that splendid scamper to set up a touchdown; or the absence since mid-season of Bryson Davis whose superior blocking might well have kept Conner upright a couple more times. Instead State was playing from a limited offensive deck all day…and still dominated the stat sheet. Just not enough so to offset a thoroughly awful day from the kicking teams.

The saddest part there is we've come to expect problems with kicking and coverage this season. It's all the more galling because in both spring and August the State staff focused more attention than usual here, such was Croom's intention of upgrading those areas. He never could quite bring himself to commit more than a couple of first-teammers in K&C, though he threatened to in March. In retrospect I suspect Croom now would take the risk and use guys like Jamar Chaney, Quinton Culberson, and a running back or two at least on kickoff coverage. As it is recruiting is the solution since several of the players who did have regular ST jobs, such as Marcus Washington and Anthony Summers, will now be battling for spots in the starting lineup.

What is beyond explanation is the way Blake McAdams fell into a true sophomore slump, which as Croom noted put that much more pressure on the shaky coverage. Folk with a better grasp of kicking's technical aspects—which at last check included almost everyone with a pulse in this Zip code—note inconsistency in drops, steps, whatever. All I know is that given last year's results and obvious physical gifts, as well as the fact he has nothing else to do all the practice day, this guy should be hitting the ball higher and farther.

It's a bit easier to explain, if not entirely understand, what happened with placekicking. My own humble evaluation in August gave Keith Andrews a very slight edge over Carlson, but not so much that it was a real surprise Croom went with the younger kicker. And if we're objective the progress Carlson made through the season backed up the choice. Note: progress is an entirely relative term, in this case more indicative of how far behind State placekicking was in September than how close it is to, say, respectable much less reliable. I don't hold that missed 51-yarder agin' the kid. I do the 31-yarder in the first quarter which may well have altered the entire course of the contest. As far as kickoffs, now, the condensed story is that after trying both in stretches Croom threw up the metaphorical hands and went with one the rest of the season. The younger one who could, hopefully, be developed. Safe to say that job remains unfinished, perhaps not even properly begun.

The lone bright spot on this otherwise-bleak ST landscape was of course Pegues, who at one point led the league returning both punts and kickoffs. That production tailed off through the last five weeks (i.e., all-SEC games) but that was to be expected. He remains a threat to score each time the kick comes his way; in fact twice Saturday I thought he was about to on kickoffs, as a lane was developing…save for one defender allowed to slip through the cracks each time. It always goes back to having better personnel in these thankless roles.

"We're going to do something in the off-season, change people or do something," Croom said Saturday. "But it's going to get a heck of a lot better than what it was this year."

And that leads to the inevitable desire for an absolute evaluation, yes or no, of whether Mississippi State got better in 2006. Or not. When beginning this week's column I intended to do so. But halfway through the text message (yes, I now have one of those infernal devices; no, you can't have my number) came over that Croom will hold a 10:00 am meeting with us print media to wrap up the season and look ahead. Good news for me as it saves a couple more hours of Sunday work; and good news for y'all as you get to hear exactly what the coach thinks in the immediate aftermath of his third three-win campaign. I think I'll do a straight transcript instead of writing a story, so nothing gets left out or taken out of context.

We'll ask the standard stuff, both overview and specific, check on recruiting generalities, and definitely inquire about staff matters. Such as regarding special teams, of course. And I'm hearing that one interesting support-staff change will be officialized tomorrow morning though by then you will probably have heard the talk. Gene's asked I not name names just yet and it's his page so I'll comply, particularly after using some strong language above.

So instead of summing up the season myself, I'll let a couple of Dogs at opposite ends of the college process have their say. Take freshman Dixon's comment about the rookie year. "My first season, we missed a lot of opportunities. I mean we could have been in a bowl game easily. But we missed too many opportunities. Like I told one dude, I really think we're going to be in a bowl game next year. I think the program is going up. We just have to take care of the little things."

And the last word belongs to my new favorite Dog himself. "Four years, I gave my all," said Conner. "I've been through some changes at Mississippi State, I've been through ups and downs. It's hard to see the seconds on the clock just go off and know your career is over. We've been through struggles and never quit. I never complained in the papers about how things were going for me, I never fussed with my coaches or made guys look down on me. I leaving behind leadership ability and I think Mike is going to take it up and do a great job."

Still I couldn't resist asking Omarr what he'd give to be coming back for one last chance with this maturing offense and overall team. "Man, if I had one more year at Mississippi State, it would be hi-ho Silver!" he laughed. And we laughed with him. Because everybody is going to miss Omarr Conner, and nobody who knew him will forget maybe the biggest heart ever contained by a Bulldog jersey.

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