Croom: "I'll Make That Decision" On QBs

It was a standard press conference to discuss the upcoming game. It became, largely, a discussion of the position and player most crucial to Bulldog hopes of fielding a complete, competitive team Saturday at Tulane. "I'm not in panic mode by any means with Mike (Henig)," Coach Sylvester Croom said. "Because I've seen too much to know what he's capable of. And he's got to get it done."

That single quote summarizes where Mississippi State stands on the quarterback situation going into this Saturday's evening contest in New Orleans. Game time in the Louisiana Superdome is 6:00, with regional telecast for subscribers to Comcast Sports. Barring something extraordinary during this week's preparations, the cable audience can expect to see #7 lining up under-center to take the first offensive snap.

And, Croom adds, doing a much, much better job of running that offense than the opening-night display when Henig completed twelve passes to his own team and six to Louisiana State defenders.

"He's got to get some things squared away, and I've got every confidence he will. And we're going to do some things to help him, I won't go into detail about those." What Croom would offer more details about were where Henig went wrong. After a month of steady practices the fourth-year junior and second-year starter didn't look a lot like either.

"I just thought as much as anything he tried to force too much stuff and make big plays. And that was what I was concerned about." Croom qualified part of that critique by noting that State's gameplan against the second-ranked Tigers was to try to make big plays, a necessary tactic given the matchup. Still it appeared Henig took the approach to heart too well, and at times delivered. "He threw a couple of strikes over there on the sideline and that one to Jason Husband down the middle was a tremendous throw. But not bailing out and throwing it away, or taking the underneath route, he didn't do that as well as I expected. And a couple of times he threw off-balance." Such as on the flea-flicker that hung a bit high and ended short, into double coverage for one of the six picks.

Croom said that there were other mechanical issues the first night out not expected of a veteran, both with footwork or simply sailing the pass. "Just basic stuff. All of which is correctible and I expect him to get it corrected." Still the concern is whether a veteran quarterback should have those sorts of issues at this point in a career, and after a month of practices. And, Henig did not have great percentages in either of the pre-season scrimmages, which makes the first real game all the more troublesome.

"From a coaching staff's standpoint, I've seen Mike play well in games. I've seen him play extremely well in practice. I think there are some things we can do to help him. And then he's got to perform. It's a combination of us doing some things to help him and he's got to perform."

But just in case the situation warrants, Henig does not have a blank check going into this game. State might have made a mid-game change just to break the mood had backup Josh Riddell been available. He wasn't. Now, the junior transfer is, coming off a one-game suspension. Of the layoff, Croom said "Josh will be fine. He practiced last week, we'll get him up to speed and ready to go in time for the ball game.

"I'm going to play whoever gives us the best chance to win. I'll make that decision. If Josh practices the way I think he will I may play both quarterbacks anyway, but game day I'll do whatever gives us the best chance to win. I really don't treat the quarterback position any different than the rest of them. But I'll make that decision when it needs to be made." Freshman Wes Carroll, who played much of the final quarter, is the third quarterback. Regardless of who lines up under-center, "We're not changing the gameplan, there were no problems with that," Croom said.

The weekend problem was specifically planning for Tulane now that Bob Toledo is in charge. "It's tough to play this game because we don't have anything on them this year," Croom agreed. And tape from past games is largely irrelevant other than reviewing the skills of individual veterans. "All you do is look at what you can find on the coordinators, the head coach, try to get as much information as you can. Above all you try to do what you do well and go from there, the things you worked on in training camp and basic assignments. It's a game you probably have to make some adjustments if they throw something out you haven't seen before."

But veteran Bulldogs remember enough of the Green Wave in general after last September's humiliating 32-29 loss. Some can still hear the Tulane players taunting from their locker-room ramp ‘Thanks for the check!' as they left Scott Field with an upset win and the contracted payment. "It shouldn't be hard for our team to get motivated for this team because they embarrassed us to the highest level in our loss last year," Croom said. And like last year, the Bulldogs again go into a Tulane game after being shut out by a SEC foe. Croom insists there is no such comparison this year though.

"It's two different situations. Thursday we did some good things, defensive and offensive line. There was nothing we did well the Tulane game last year, nothing good about that situation. It was good for Tulane but not for us. We didn't play with any pride at all." By contrast, these Bulldogs responded to last week's debut defeat with a show of pride that Croom finds encouraging.

"We talked about it back in the summer that we're going to play one team at a time, win lose or draw. I know that's a cliché but I told them that's what I expected to do. 24 hours and put it behind a move on. We're going to stay in the moment, one day at a time, and that's what I reminded them in the dressing room." To which veterans like Henig, who took the blame on himself, and senior DE Titus Brown responded with comments to the ball club about keeping the course.

Plus, Croom pointed out, there were tangible facets of the LSU game to build on. "We had some interesting things happen. The area I was most concerned about ended up being being a strength, how we'd hold up at defensive tackle. Our guys did well there." Such as DT Cortez McCraney in his first SEC action. "He held up better than we expected. We got some pass rush out of (ends) Tim Bailey and Jimmie Holmes. (DT) Jessie Bowman struggled early but picked it up, Kyle Love came in and really played an anchor in there. LaMarcus Williams came in and did some things better than we expected.

"So we've got a pretty nice rotation there, that's what we want to continue to see." Croom was excited by the speed shown on the defense in general, too, which was better than hoped. "I'm pleased with way we ran to the football. I was very pleased with the way the defense fought the whole game despite playing on a short field. I'm pleased with the coverage units and the kicker.

"And I'm very pleased with the way the offensive line played. (WR) Tony Burks played well even though he didn't have a lot of catches. He was open." Which got back to the main topic, of how Henig—or Riddell—can get the ball to Burks as well as potential play-makers Co-Eric Riley, Jamayel Smith, and others. Asked if State had gotten away from the ground game too early, Croom said not. "I felt we had to put up points to have any chance," which meant throwing more than running. Though, he admitted in retrospect it might have been advisable to get into the locker room down 10-0 instead of trying to strike too quickly and deeply on first down and forcing an interception that led to LSU's crucial score before halftime. But at the time State had decent field position and plenty of time to take a shot at getting in field goal range. "We had to try to score."

Now, Mississippi State simply has to try to win a game the Bulldogs are favored to. Certainly Croom doesn't have to worry about this team taking Tulane for granted after last year's debacle. Still, "I cautioned them about was not lose their confidence. We can't have that. And the other thing I want to guard against is a split in the team. I reminded them we've been through the worst things possible, we're going to live with this and move on. Titus said some things to that effect and reminded the guys we are a team. After that, nothing else needed to be said."

Except, get ready for the first road trip of '07 and an opportunity to re-start the season in a better way. School being out for the Labor Day holiday, the Bulldogs will practice early, at 4:00 today. They all reported back Sunday evening after having a free weekend as now, pre-season over and a weeknight opener out of the way, State gets into a more normal season routine.

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