Dogs Put Win Behind, Turn Attention To Auburn

Coach Sylvester Croom had heard the game was tight while dressing for the return flight home. Then sitting on the plane at the New Orleans airport the word came, Auburn had just lost at home to South Florida. His reaction? "I kept reading my book."

Understand, this did not imply the Mississippi State coach had no appreciation at all for the upset loss by his upcoming opponent. Or that the unidentified volume in his hands—"I keep my reading material to myself!"—was that involving. It's simply the practical approach the Bulldogs take to preparing for the weekend trip to Auburn and first SEC road game of 2007.

"It has no effect on this week's game plan or what is going to happen Saturday," Croom explained. "They're still one of the better teams in the conference and we're going to prepare that way." Game time is 11:30 am with regional telecast by Lincoln Financial Sports.

The Bulldogs (1-1, 0-1 SEC) ought to approach these Tigers with care, even disregarding the emotional state of the opposition. First, losing to a South Florida program that knocked off West Virginia last year is not all that much of an ‘upset' anyway. And while Auburn (1-1) won't take a ranking into their SEC opener they have lost no ground in league or Division, either. Thus the even-keel approach Croom is stressing to his team…which applies just as much to Bulldog attitudes after their own victory at Tulane. It works both ways.

"I look at it as what happened last week doesn't make a lot of difference. This is a new week. You put it behind." Besides, Croom says, "It's still an Auburn football team. They've had some bad breaks, some things haven't clicked quite as much. But they're still a talented team, they're still capable of being a very good team. They're used to winning, they're playing at home."

And State is back on the road a second week. The first trip of 2007 worked out well as the Dogs, tied up at intermission, hung three second-half touchdowns on the Green Wave for a 38-17 victory. That tied for the highest point-output against a Division IA foe of Croom's tenure, and was State's highest score since the 2005 season-opener against Murray State. The win also earned an individual honor for a Bulldog as linebacker Gabe O'Neal was named the SEC's Defensive Player of the Week for his 47-yard touchdown return, the game's first score, as well as a recovered fumble and four tackles.

O'Neal accounted for two of State's three recovered turnovers (DE Jimmie Holmes collected the third on a sack) at Tulane. Those plays reflected the improvement Croom has seen in the '07 defense, obscured somewhat by the margin of opening-night defeat against LSU. "It's because we run faster. We're getting 11 guys hustling to the ball." Or the eleven on the field at any time, because two games into the year there is an encouraging amount of depth showing on the entire defensive front as well as in the secondary. The defense did have a few breakdowns, one allowing Tulane's first score on a 39-yard sweep when coverage failed to arrive.

On the whole though the Dog defense has set an encouraging early pace. Forcing and recovering more turnovers is among the three key statistics Croom looks to. "Field position, winning the turnover ration, and the ‘explosive' game ratio. All the other things usually come with that."

Explosive offensive plays were something State hoped to see more of this fall, with older and/or better play-makers in the run, catch, and throw roles. LSU's vicious defense didn't allow any such things though quarterback Mike Henig did hook up on two sizable pass plays. Only two; otherwise the junior struggled, to put it mildly, going 11-of-28 passing for 120 yards with six throws intercepted. Talk about putting a game behind…

"Mike showed a tremendous amount of mental toughness bouncing back from that first ball game," Croom said. The coach talked often with his quarterback, but what mattered more was the show of support from teammates before, during, and after practices.

"He got a tremendous amount of criticism, some of it downright nasty," Croom related. "I thought he handled it as well as he possibly could." Including, the coach confirmed, a classroom incident where a MSU professor teased the quarterback openly. Henig called Croom to tell him first-hand what happened and how he, Henig, responded.

"I told him as long as you handled it and gave the professor respect due to his position, you did the right thing," Croom said. "I told him to handle it. I just wanted Mike to know I supported him, but I was not going to get involved." Henig took care of that personal business, then did his weekend job well by throwing for 223 yards and one touchdown against Tulane, and running 18 yards for another score. He completed 65% of his throws, too.

Which only means the quarterback will have to put a good game behind him and get ready for the next, a matchup that will mean more to the native of Montgomery and son of two Auburn alumni.

"He's still got a lot of work to do and improvement, he's aware of that," Croom said. "But I like the way he handled it and played the ball game. I'm sure it's a big game for him. He's got to keep his emotions in check and play it one play at a time."

As to who would get the first play if/when a backup quarterback is called upon, Croom explained why true freshman Wes Carroll took care of the final clock-eating drive at Tulane when junior Josh Riddell had been expected to see action. Early in the week Croom had said Riddell would probably play at Tulane, having served his one-game suspension. By Wednesday though the outlook was changing as Carroll practiced more effectively, so the rookie got the relief-call…this time. "I just felt more comfortable with Wes at this point," Croom said.

"That was after some things at practice. And we'll do that every week, after talking to the offensive staff, then go into the game and go with my gut feeling."

The offensive staff certainly has a good feeling about the other ‘half' of the air game. In both contests so far Henig has connected with a host of targets; including Carroll's own three completions against LSU 22 different Dogs have caught a pass of some sort. And two more who could—halfback Anthony Dixon and tight end Dezmond Sherrod—haven't had a ball thrown their way yet. For his part Dixon bounced back from a 29-yard night against LSU for a career-high 131 against Tulane, with two touchdowns.

Meanwhile the defense scored once itself and held the Green Wave to six net yards the whole second half. There were good points in the kicking game as well, particularly coverage where cornerback Marcus Washington stood out. Croom was not bothered by Adam Carlson missing his 51-yard field goal try before halftime—"It was right down the middle, he's hit that several times in practice"—though the coach couldn't have been happy about a missed 42-yarder earlier. Or, the 37.3-yard punting average by Blake McAdams.

On the whole, "We won and made improvement in a lot of areas. Main thing is we came out healthy." Defensive back Jasper O'Quinn is the question mark of the week with a quadricep pull and is day-to-day. Backup linebacker Jamon Hughes bruised a shoulder and couldn't finish out the game. "But we think both will be ready by game time."

Another true freshman, tackle Derek Sherrod, got into action in the second week bringing the total of activated rookies to five. "I'm pleased with Derek, for the first time getting to play he did well." One true frosh at Tulane who did not play was halfback Robert Elliot, still getting practice snaps with the first offense but not entirely booked to play…or sit. "We'll take that week-by-week now," said Croom, though a following comment about "if we stay healthy" indicating Elliot is increasingly likely to sit this first season. Mabye.

"We're not going to waste a year on any of our freshmen if he's not going to contribute 15-20 plays." Though, Croom qualified, that policy would be set aside if any rookie could "make the difference in winning one game." As a whole though players who don't see action soon will be redshirted. "Because at this point we don't feel they're ready to make a winning contribution. We're not going to play them until they are."

Along that line Anthony Summers might find himself on-reserve this soph season. He's been unable to crack the rotation at strong safety, already two-deep even before the emergence of two talented true freshmen and the return of veteran Demario Bobo to health. So Summers is going to get a look on the other side of the ball, at wide receiver now.

"We've got to get him to a spot where he can possibly help us," Croom said, adding that Summers had come to coordinator Woody McCorvey to discuss a switch. "We've got pretty good depth at safety right now, especially with Bobo back. We didn't want to waste a year, he's a pretty good athlete. If he does well we'll probably end up holding him out this year with a view to possibly being a future wideout.

The Bulldogs were to practice today, the veterans in shorts and redshirts/reserves in full gear, at 5:00.

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