I haste to both explain and expound on Ducre's comment. All Bulldog fans, as well as any followers of these other, incoming Bulldogs from Boiling Springs, N.C., who are joining us today, need to know. Ducre nor any teammates, were disrespecting G-W in the least. In fact, State players and staff are showing quite a compliment by showing this week's visitor the same focus and respect as they did Auburn. With it must be added the intention of handing the G-W Dogs the same sort of treatment as they did some shaken Tigers yesterday afternoon.
Now, readers might reasonably respond, yer just throwing out coach-speak. No way a State team coming off a (I believe anyway) watershed SEC success can maintain and sustain the same sort of approach for a non-conference guest from the lower Division. I beg to differ, and not just because I like many of you were at Scott Field back on September 18, 2004. Though it's safe to assume the name ‘Maine' will be tossed out so often this week the (MSU) Bulldogs might wonder if that's who is coming to town.
It's because this bunch of Dogs is different in a most fundamental and promising way, which I believe is one key to why Mississippi State is ever so much closer to turning that proverbial corner we've all been looking for. Let's presume we carried a, oh, call it an ‘Attitude Camera' capable of recording the mentality and emotions of persons, to practice the last two weeks; snapped a few shots; then placed side-by-side photos of the Bulldogs both post-LSU and post-Tulane without ID labels.
Truly, folks, you nor I could have known which was which. In a real-life representation of Kipling's over-repeated maxim of meeting "triumph and disaster", these players handled getting whipped and issuing a whipping with as close to identical team-attitudes as humanly practical. The team I watched preparing for Auburn last week looked, acted, talked, practiced in the same manner, with the same motivations, as they had for Tulane. Losing nor winning changed much of anything, though maybe a bit more levity was displayed last week. Such as when Anthony Dixon was trudging to the exer-bike to keep those hamstrings warm. An assistant coach called at him, jokingly, to run, not walk. Dixon answered back in the same tone that he was ‘power walking.' Needless to note Dixon was as loose of hams as spirit Saturday in notching a second-straight 100-yard output.
You should know this is an accurate representation of how practices have gone since August 1, too. Just a sprinkling of fun over a whole lot of scripted, directed work done with the same on-the-job approach. Without, it must be added, any signs of ‘punch the clock' since two-a-days. As much credit for this as should go to the coaching, strength, and training/treatment (we tend to forget the contributions there after all) staffs, the core is that Sylvester Croom's approach to developing young men is paying off more openly here. We who watch practices and games both could see the signs last season, that the Bulldogs are maturing as individuals and players. Now folk in the stands or watching the tube can see the same. Maturity. While I can't claim to have indulged in it too much myself, in a football team it's a marvelous thing to observe.
All the more so when it shows on the scoreboard.
Babbling on live pre-game radio from Auburn yesterday morning, I commented on how twice in my own MSU tenure wins at that stadium seemed to become turning-points for the program. Many of y'all will remember 1991, when Kenny Roberts broke that touchdown run around right tackle for the margin of victory at Auburn. That was the ‘breakthrough' win in putting those Dogs on a bowl-track in three of four seasons. Fast-forward to 1997 and the interception-return by Anthony Derricks, pivotal in another benchmark Bulldog win at the start of another four-season success streak.
Understand, I'm not saying Mississippi State is now locked into a similar such pattern, that 2007 is clearly now the beginning of a new ‘golden era' in Bulldog football. Much as I wish I could after a six-winter bowl drought. This team still has a long way to go, a lot of work to do, and further development ahead, before even the most encouraged observer will proclaim State Is Back.
But know what? These pups just took a great big step in that desired direction. Did any of y'all realize that until yesterday Mississippi State had not won a September SEC game since the 2000 season? The last winning season by a Bulldog team, not-so-coincidentally? Chew that fact over with Sunday supper. Me, I'm fixing a celebratory pizza, as I was hurrying to get through Tuscaloosa before the game let out last night and didn't stop for fodder.
For Sylvester Croom's first three years we've hoped for true watershed wins, and been disappointed. The '04 team couldn't build on upsetting Florida; winning the '05 Egg Bowl made for happier holidays but didn't mean much more. Now had Mike Henig not gotten hurt a game later, beating Alabama last November might have been It.
But this victory should be, if the Bulldogs build on the single success. Mississippi State, too. Outside the locker room I teased a certain assistant AD about riding this high into some Monday morning phone calls to donors. He grinned, flashed the cel, and said he'd just made a couple such calls immediately after final horn. Now that's seizing the momentum, eh?.
The cautious will remind that this isn't a ‘great' Auburn club, and they're right. And you know the Tiger faithful are a frightened bunch looking at the rest of their '07 slate to be played. I would. But let me counter: the same Auburn team we saw yesterday, playing exactly the same way, same people and plays, would have beaten State last September. Heck, they probably have done it two weeks ago, too. But not on September 15, 2007. Not a Bulldog team growing up before our eyes and at an encouragingly accelerated pace.
Speaking of ‘growing up'…reckon all the folk who grumbled about not getting to see Josh Riddell on those mop-up series against both LSU and Tulane now see the wisdom in letting Wes Carroll take every snap. Or rather, make every hand-off? Because with all the pressure in MSU's world riding on his rookie shoulders (he's the same 6-1 height and just five pounds lighter than Riddell, by the way), and a frenzied Auburn defense staring into his facemask, Carroll flawlessly executed every center-exchange and ball-delivery to Dixon and Ducre on the winning drive. I won't even deign to respond to mutters from morons that such things are no big deal, that Carroll wasn't being tested to the limit under those circumstances.
Still it was a fascinating admission from the head coach, and insight into how MSU's staff operates, that Croom openly told us reporters he planned to let Riddell, a few years elder and a semester-longer in the system, run that series; where coordinator and just as importantly quarterback coach Woody McCorvey wanted Carroll for the job. How many head coaches in this league would make public that he allowed himself to be over-ruled by an aide? Says a lot about Croom's character, to me, and his faith in this staff. Though, he did get a bit irked on that first kneel-down snap when somebody let 12 Dogs get on the field. Fortunately the zebras missed it.
We can't say enough for the poise showed by Carroll, who will mark his 19th birthday on Tuesday. I say ‘mark' as he's likely been doing some celebrating already after his first SEC victory. Maybe the first of many, if he emerges from the re-intensified fight over who gets to quarterback the Bulldogs. Let me state today: I am not taking sides nor predicting a winner. Not until Henig returns, that is, because he is and upon recovery from the hand-break will still be the best triggerman in town. Oh, and people: for the sake of all our sanity please, please, please stop nominating every imaginable ‘athletic' candidate on the roster to be the #3 backup in a misguided attempt to duplicate what Auburn's own true frosh/true triggerman did. State's line isn't set up to block that sort of scheme…not yet, but it is to be added to the future resume. Croom said for all to hear that State is looking for a Burns-style if better-passing, true quarterback (not a converted wideout or defensive back, they're busy at practice elsewhere, and Derek Pegues doesn't like getting hit if you must know the truth), to practice full-time there so State can have the added potential in the playbook. Is there a clone of Don Smith available anywhere out there? As a further aside, reckon they're gonna find that game tape of interest up in Morgantown in a few weeks?
Ironic, though, how in a matchup of true frosh quarterbacks the one with the best stats lost the game. How the calmer kid with no numbers of note came out the winner not by making plays himself but simply running the assigned plays in a setting that could have cracked a veteran's poise. "We didn't count on losing Mike," Croom agreed. "But our players didn't let it bother them. Wes came in and stepped it up, I thought Woody did a great job making calls with a freshman quarterback. He's a winner, he's got poise and that's what we saw recruiting him. He hasn't got the biggest arm in the world but he knows how to win."
That's why Carroll got the clutch-drive call from McCorvey. He claimed not to be surprised, either. "They hadn't said anything but I knew to stay prepared. I had my helmet on, buckled up and ready to go." And go he did, all the way to the end zone for what, if this team should end up with a break-even record or better, will be seen in retrospect as the crucial series of the season. That doesn't mean Carroll has any lock on the job. No prizes for guessing what topics will come up first on Croom's Monday morning teleconference; it will be Henig's status after surgery, then who begins the week #1…if anybody.
Certainly when the quarterbacks report for practice, the weekend's starting job is officially, unexpectedly open. Riddell is cool with that. "We're always ready for competition. We were talking about it (Saturday), about both getting snaps and supporting each other. We live in the same dorm and are always around each other." Just what you'd want to hear from a guy who really, really wants to get the first snap next Saturday. So does Carroll, who at the same time recognizes that keeping the #1 name unknown for a few days is that much more motivation.
"I think that's the best thing for us, because competition is going to make us better like in summer and pre-season." Except this is the real season and a real opponent. Hey, that much more interest to a week that, let's be candid, could become ho-hum for those of us anticipating a quick and easy job Saturday evening. Fortunately, as noted above, that won't be the case for the Bulldogs themselves.
And it's their mindset, along with actions, that matter anyway. The opponents change by name and caliber, the lineup adapts for injuries, promotions, and demotions. But with Mississippi State's maturing Bulldogs it's just another work-week getting ready for another game. And this is one routine that ain't the least bit boring.