From The Dawghouse

There are all sorts of signs a football program is beginning the long climb back from oblivion, and each of us has our favorites starting, obviously, with the overall record and then conference standing, then on to the less-tangible tips. Yet among what economist types would call ‘leading indicators' one of the most telling has to be this: when fans openly gripe about margin of victory.

Congratulations, Coach Sylvester Croom. You're officially reached one more milestone on the continuing trek towards competitiveness at Mississippi State. Your regime's first September SEC win last week, and now its first three-game winning streak, have only left the folk in the stands--and judging by message boards quite a few who didn't bother to actually attend that third win, which somehow makes them credible critics—greedy for more. As in more points than just four touchdowns and a field goal against Gardner-Webb, not to mention a ‘mere' 16-point margin against a I-AA club.

Nope, not enough. They wanted seven or nine touchdowns, preferably all in the air and by both quarterbacks…except of course for the obligatory 200 ground yards Anthony Dixon should have been left in to accumulate. Never mind comments by Bulldogs who were on-field for the final few series that the visitors were getting rather rude in how they finished up tackles. But what the heck does an old Dog whose been through the wards like Gabe O'Neal know when he informs reporters that the Runnin' Dogs were playing "a little dirty out there"? The heck with getting SEC starters injured to no purpose, coaches, y'all were supposed to leave everybody in to please us with more points, more yards, more plays demonstrated for fans (and future foes), more of everything.

Okay. Now that I've burned-out sarcasm circuits everywhere, on to business. Just the same as Mississippi State did Saturday evening, taking care of their scheduled business and notching the third win of the season. And equaling the best victory-total of any season since 2000, as you are bound to know by now or darn well oughta; along with the best start since the same season. Oh, and getting half-way to dare we say ‘bowl eligibility' just four weekends into the schedule. Not that scoring the other half of the equation in these remaining two-thirds (you do the math, I was always awful working with fractions) of '07 will be easy much less automatic. Hoooo boy, no.

We in the post-game media meeting had to grin when Croom talked of how happy the Dogs were to be 3-0. Later, he realized he'd overlooked one modest detail, you know, that August event involving the State University of Louisiana. To which I later noted to a fellow scribe that, well, as far as Saturday games the coach is correct, only to be reminded the Egg Bowl is on a Friday this fall. Ooops, never mind. Yet the coach's comment was an accurate reflection of how the Bulldogs see themselves three games, and wins, into September. The blemish on the record, SEC and overall, remains but the team isn't. As noted last week this is a ball club maturing before our eyes, or if you haven't seen all the games in-person before your ears.

Not that I won't admit this past week's timing was pretty darn fortuitous with State, missing Mike Henig and unsure who to give the gameplan and ball first, playing a lower-Division foe at home. Suddenly getting LSU out of the way first seems a good decision after all, eh? Especially having gotten through it with no damage done to many bodies or psyches. But let's also pause to give the G-W boys some credit, no matter how they reportedly behaved in the scrums. I dare say that the Runnin' Dogs of '07 would have given the '06 Bulldogs all they could handle and maybe too much more at this same September stage of the campaign. And as to the alleged ‘dirty' play and jabbering going on, Croom cut his guys no slack if they responded in-kind, saying there was too much talking going on from both sides for his liking. Put another way, let puppies bark; Dogs keep quiet and when the time is right, bite.

Still things worked out well in general, as State got the job done despite missing Henig and having some other starters/regulars weakened by a fast-moving midweek virus. Only DT Jessie Bowman was entirely sidelined, though CB Anthony Johnson was slowed enough to miss the start at left corner. Again, better this past week than now with South Carolina to prepare for. State needs all bodies available to choose the road-roster 70 from. More in a moment about the two of most immediate concern.

There was another ‘bonus' in how the schedule played out for State beyond working two quarterbacks into plans. The Dogs said all the right things after beating Auburn yet inevitably had a bit of post-win hangover. Croom knew it was coming and the staff did all they knew or could guess to keep everything routine, but…"This was a new situation for us, after winning two in a row and coming off a big, emotional game and playing a game that we should expect to win," Croom admitted. "So we were concerned going in, it's human nature not to be at your best."

Make no mistake, Mississippi State was not at its best for sixty Saturday minutes. Good enough, no matter who was quarterbacking, to build an adequate halftime cushion. Good enough, despite missing some starters on the line and corners, to keep the non-huddling Webbsters off the board through intermission and prevent touchdowns on all but one of their five trips into the ‘red zone.' Third-down defense was nothing to rave about but again good enough under the circumstances. Punting? Yuck. In fact it was a bad night all around for Blake McAdams who, after hitting that astoundingly clutch bomb-and-bounce at Auburn netted 37 yards this time out. He bobbled that snap that still stands on the stat sheet as a missed field goal for Adam Carlson, who I thought kicked off nicely all night.

"So we've got some areas to improve," Croom agreed. "The biggest problem is we had way too many penalties, I'll have to look and see how accurate they were." Even allowing for mis-calls such as at least one shaky pass interference in the end zone and a late hit on Avery Hannibal, nine flags and 102 yards is a lot to review. Particularly since the Dogs aren't playing their Runnin' counterparts this weekend, but a flock of Gamecocks trying to right their own course. "We've got a great challenge next week, a lot of work to do to get better to have a chance going to South Carolina and pulling out a victory."

No prizes for guessing where the most work, or at least the most-observed work, will be. I'm not ready to declare that a quarterback competition has become a full-blown quarterback controversy. Because, to my mind, neither made an absolute case for starting-status last night. Oh sure, Josh Riddell just (again, my mind) moved in front. Not simply for his better stats in-relief of Wesley Carroll, or because he did direct three-straight scoring drives…as good a case as all that would seem to make. It's just that sideline perception is given modest margins in arm-strength and physical maturity (hey, 22-1/2 darn well oughta be more developed than just-turned-19), Riddell would seem—seem—to give State a better matchup against a good South Carolina defense. But the advantages as such aren't so great to make it a clear call, either, and what Carroll's arm gives away to his elder he can make up for in better awareness of this particular offense. Not to mention better footwork; that was a very nice option-keeper on Carroll's second snap, y'know.

Besides, for whatever reasons that I am editorially obliged to note do NOT include recruitment, young Carroll just seems to be closer to the wavelength the offensive coordinator operates on than Riddell who hasn't always quite gee-hawed with the coaches. But he's getting better, promise. Either way, each quarterback said the same thing last night; they both expect to get in the SC game and at least claim not to care which one starts. Believe that if you like, I've been around athletes enough to know they do care; but in this case not to the point of making this a personal competition much less controversy. Riddell and Carroll each recognize they have a lot left to learn…and neither is at Mike Henig's level at this point.

No use my speculating further who will, much less should, get first turn under-center Saturday afternoon in Columbia. Let's just say that, other than checking health in other areas of the squad, all reporters at this week's practices will be watching the pitchers and catchers for clues as to Who, What, and When. Certainly Croom isn't tipping his hand, saying last night the staff will see how practice performances go through Thursday before making any decisions…if then. After all, Carroll was never actually told he would start against G-Webb, nor Riddell when to expect to play. It kept both on their cleat-toes and I'd sorta expect the same this week. Yeah, popular perception is teams function better when they know who the Starting Quarterback is, but this Bulldog squad at this stage of their collective development is comfortable with such uncertainty.

Besides, as Croom added, "I feel a whole lot better than we did this time last year when our starting quarterback was down." Amen to that, as State is in nothing like the revolving-door chaos of last season trying to settle on a weekly fill-in for the rehabilitating Henig. Call it competition or controversy, this is a heck of a better situation for all involved. Including Henig, who will be back in three more weeks and find somebody sitting in his accustomed spot on the depth chart. Now THAT will be a real quarterback competition.

Controversy, even.

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