*STEPPING IN AND UP: The 2006 season was a bad broken record for the Bulldog offense, watching quarterbacks go down and stay sidelined weeks at a time…or trying to hobble through games despite injuries. Three games into '07 and State is at it again, finding a temporary replacement for starter Mike Henig after his surgery to repair the broken hand suffered at Auburn. Projections of his return can't be more accurate than two-to-four weeks due to the nature, position, and treatment for the break; a ‘spiral fracture of the third metacarpal'.
Nobody successfully filled Henig's cleats last year when he was twice knocked out with a broken collarbone; this time around Croom is more confident. "We have two (other) quarterbacks that have been working since we've been here," he said, talking of junior Josh Riddell and freshman Wes Carroll. Both played at Auburn with Carroll directing the go-ahead touchdown drive; he'd also handled the mop-up snaps in the previous two games. Riddell, suspended for LSU and dressed for Tulane, debuted in the third quarter at Auburn.
Of course last fall State also had two other quarterbacks who had been practicing as Henig's backups, and quarterback-turned-wideout Omarr Conner available. The two backups were even a bit more experienced than Carroll and Riddell as both had redshirted a full year each. Neither are still at State. What gives the current triggermen the advantage?
Because, Croom said, they have a better supporting cast around them than their predecessors, and whoever is taking the snaps Saturday won't have to try to win the game himself. "I think our defense, kicking game, and running game are all better. Because the entire team is stronger, this means the pressure doesn't fall under-center. If our quarterbacks can manage the game we have a chance because all the other phases are pretty solid."
*AIR THREATS? That said, Croom acknowledged that the quarterback(s) must do more than take the ball from the center and deliver it safely to a running back, no matter how effective that has been. In the two wins State has rushed for 266 and 172 yards and averaged 4.5 yards per attempt. Still, "We have to be able to throw. Because we know what's coming down the road, there'll be nine men in the box."
Besides, Croom added, ""We've got to find a passing game we can hang our hat on, that we can go do in crunch time. We have to find something our quarterbacks can execute on a consistent basis against any coverages or blitzes the defense puts out there. We can't be one-dimensional, you have to be balanced in this conference."
At the same time, Mississippi State can't reasonably ask Riddell or Carroll to operate the same package a fourth-year veteran like Henig could. So for another day or two the offensive staff will watch the pair—along with #3 candidates Zack Harrington and Chris Relf—in action before cutting down the gameplan to final size.
"We'll take a combination of the top-ten patterns these guys can run," Croom said. "And, one or two that I want to run."
*AWARD TIME: Croom announced the players of the game for State's victory at Auburn. HB Christian Ducre was the offensive MVP, with DE Avery Hannibal getting the defensive recognition and P Blake McAdams from the special teams.
Hannibal's selection was somewhat surprising, as he was credited with just one tackle by the home team stat-crew. WLB Dominic Douglas had a team-high nine with eight more by both MLB Jamar Chaney and CB Anthony Johnson. Then there was FS Derek Pegues who won SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his interception-touchdown and highlight-tape hit. The key was elsewhere on the stat sheet though; Hannibal had five quarterback hurries officially and several more pressures in the second half that helped teammates get stats. And, Hannibal's work at right end was critical in slowing and finally stopping Auburn's ride-option attack after halftime.
Chaney said that State barely prepared for such an offense during the week, no surprise given the record of starting Tiger QB Brandon Cox (the SEC's active leader in career wins) and just how much time it would have absorbed in practice. Auburn sprung sub-QB Kodi Burns and the pitch/run on State in the second quarter and scored two quick touchdowns to take the lead. But that was all as the Dog defense gradually got a handle on things in the third quarter.
"As the game went on we saw what they were doing and saw some of the plays running, like three or four was all," Chaney said. So the Dogs did some quick tweaking of their base plans—Croom repeated today his belief that the perception of ‘adjustments' is usually overstated—to cope with that handful of options. And, Chaney said, the defense felt its pride was being challenged.
"Especially after the second quarter, we wanted to prove they weren't going to be able to run like they did. Coach Johnson gave us some little pointers at halftime and we did what we had to do." It was an encouraging sign that this defense can make mid-course shifts as needed. Or, that they will know what to practice when they run into a team that lives entirely by such a scheme…like a West Virginia? "We know that's all they do so we'll be prepared when we play them," Chaney said.
*MAKING PLAYS: Chaney himself had to be a game MVP candidate after his eight-tackle day, highlighted by his dramatic leaping deflection of an Auburn pass into the end zone on 2nd-and-goal at the Bulldog nine-yard line. Pegues later joked Chaney only kept him from getting another interception, but excused his ‘interference' under the circumstances.
"I was just trying to make sure they didn't catch the ball, that's all," Chaney said. "We had a coverage on where that was what I was supposed to do, get deep in the end zone and play off the quarterback." In fact, because the Tigers were forced to try to score from the nine-line four times, the Dogs were unusually confident under the circumstances, Chaney claimed.
"Coach (Ellis) Johnson called the plays and we were able to make the plays he called. It was a little worry, but the field gets shorter and they didn't have the room to do all the stuff they probably wanted to. We were going to make them earn it if they would have got it."
*Though no reason was asked or given, it seems a reason Pegues didn't take the team defensive MVP after earning the conference honor was the fumbled kickoff that turned into Auburn's go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter. Yes, the junior safety already had a touchdown to his credit after his pick-six in the opening period. Asked if one great play negated the mistake, "It doesn't cancel it at all," Croom said. "He's got to protect the ball."
The Bulldogs did do a good job otherwise protecting the pigskin Saturday, with the one other fumble not lost and no interceptions. Though, QB Wes Carroll got away with a throw to the left sideline that almost turned into six points too; as well as a deflected throw earlier that he caught himself and for a two-yard net gain at that. It all counts on the stat sheet, after all.
Still Croom won't relax his stance on losing the handle or ball, by anyone. He certainly doesn't allow the Dogs the excuse that the ‘ground' caused a turnover. "We don't cotton to that around here. If the ball comes out, it's a fumble. In my experience 99% of all fumbles go back to carelessness, to carrying the ball improperly." Such as how Pegues was hauling the ball in a low, vulnerable position instead of up-and-close on the kickoff return. "If it's high-and-tight, it's not coming out."
Certainly Mississippi State has had enough lessons this season already in what turnovers do to a game. LSU scored six times off Bulldog giveaways, either interceptions or fumbles. At Tulane the Dogs converted three Green Wave turnovers into touchdowns (one directly on the interception return by SLB Gabe O'Neal). And again at Auburn, it was a midfield interception by S Demario Bobo that became State's winning touchdown drive.
*REMEMBER SEPTEMBER: Mississippi State is coming off its first September SEC win since 2000…not surprisingly the last year the Bulldogs posted a winning season. And, the last time State posted a win over Auburn. This week the Dogs are going for a third-straight win which would be the longest streak of Croom's tenure.
In his three previous years Croom teams have scored an occasional, significant SEC success. There was the upset of ranked Florida in 2004 at Scott Field; the season-ending win over Ole Miss in '05; and last November when the Bulldogs upended Alabama on the road. Now a Dog team has scored another SEC road victory against a recognized powerhouse, raising the natural query if beating Auburn was a transition moment for the MSU program.
Croom acknowledged what was behind the question, but said in the big picture the '06 win over the Crimson Tide could be remembered as when the course was set…hopefully. "If we go on and be the team I think we can be, then the turning point was the Alabama game last year. If there is a turning point." A cautionary note to remind all, especially his players, that there's a long haul still ahead before this point is completely turned.