"It's going to be a tough game in front of a hostile crowd, with a well-coached football team," said Croom, who will be making his own first-ever trip to Columbia as a player or coach. Nor has any current Bulldog played there either, with State's last visit back in 2002. The last MSU team to leave Williams-Brice victorious was in 1998.
Or as some devout Gamecocks could easily put it, six years Before Spurrier. The league legend and architect of Florida's decade of 1990s domination has made South Carolina a contender in the SEC East. After winning seven his first year and eight in 2006, this third Spurrier squad is very much in the title picture even after the LSU loss…especially with a promising four-game stretch just ahead with three SEC guests coming to Columbia around a trip to non-conference North Carolina.
Folk accustomed to scoreboard-busting Florida teams believe Spurrier's approach with South Carolina is a change of personal pace. Not so. "He's going to do whatever it takes to win," says Croom, noting that even in his Gator coaching days his counterpart believed in physical defense and productive running. The '07 Gamecock roster plays to this philosophy.
"I know they're very sound on both sides of the ball, and the kicking game as well. They've got a big, strong front-seven (on defense), and their linebackers are some of the biggest we've seen." Croom compared South Carolina's defensive set-up as similar to Auburn, "but bigger." And the secondary is better, he added. "Offensively, they give you a lot of different looks, they spread you out. They see what you're doing in the secondary, and he's got the right play for every look you give." So, Croom said, one practice priority is disguising State's coverages as best possible. The Dog defense also has to prepare for two quarterbacks, as South Carolina appears committed to again starting redshirt freshman Chris Smelley this week in place of veteran Blake Mitchell. The latter was suspended for the opener anyway, so State should have sufficient scouting material to work with.
"We've got to be ready for all different kinds of quarterbacks, and adjust on game-day," Croom said.
One adjustment the Dogs seems comfortable with is playing away from home. Both road trips this year have turned out well, with wins at Tulane and Auburn. "So I think we're at the point where we know how to deal with that aspect of it, the hostile crowd, the schedule adjustments, the travel adjustments, and not allow those things to be distractions. It's just a matter of us being prepared and playing our best football, which it's going to take our best football to win this game."
Another adjustment this club is getting used to, out of necessity, is spending a week not knowing who is going to be calling the offensive plays Saturday. Since Mike Henig was put out for three-to-four weeks by a broken hand, junior Josh Riddell and Wesley Carroll have battled daily for the starting quarterback job. Carroll ‘won' last week's competition and opened against Gardner-Webb, then with State up 14-0 (one of the touchdowns provided by an interception return), Riddell entered and directed three-straight scoring series for a 31-3 lead in the early third quarter.
The post-game review result? Croom still intends to play both quarterbacks at South Carolina, and the starter remains undecided. "Both did some good things," the coach said after watching the tape, but "Neither rated as a ‘winner' in the ball game. We still got a work in progress with both of them. They didn't play well enough for either to grade as a ‘winner'."
If the home-field fans and most media had been grading, Riddell would likely have emerged with at least a passing, so to speak, grade, based on superior statistics and a couple of good-looking throws against the I-AA opponent. Yes, Croom agreed, there were some impressive moments from Riddell in the game.
"But Josh was inconsistent with his performance. I know everybody saw the big plays, he was lucky on a couple of those. The touchdown to Tony Burks, it was a mis-read." And another completed throw probably should have gone the other way for a touchdown if that had been a SEC safety covering the target. Such evidence shows up usually upon review, when the whole staff compares the call and pre-snap read at the time against who did what and where.
"Those are the things we've got to get squared away," Croom said. "It's nice to get the points but discipline at the quarterback position is a must because more times than not in this conference you get burned." It also means Riddell and Carroll begin another week as co-number-ones, alternating their snaps each period. Neither is with the second unit, Croom clarified. "Both of them will split time with the first-team. They get reps with the first receivers, first offensive line. It's not a matter of repetitions, it's discipline. Simply a matter of reading the play right." Besides, as Croom added, "It's more an idea of I expect our quarterbacks on and off the field. The standard is a little higher than it is for other players."
If it sounded as if the head coach was picking on the quarterbacks, Croom said the post-game grading was tough all over in that win. Some did well. Defensive end Titus Brown was "outstanding, the best since we've been here," Croom said. Similar praise went to SLB Gabe O'Neal, to offensive linemen LT Mike Brown and LG Anthony Strauder, and wideout Burks. Others didn't draw the same praise.
"I was disappointed with some guys," Croom said. "We did some good things, we played hard. But I'm disappointed with the way some of our guys performed. We played hard, but not disciplined." Such as the right side of the offensive line, or even S Derek Pegues in down-field coverage support. Those areas were not up to standards. "And all our wide receivers except Burks," Croom said.
"Tony is playing well now in the passing game, he's doing a great job in the run game. We've got to get the ball to him more. My concern is the other receivers aren't playing at the same level, we're not playing as a group as well as we're capable of playing." And that is unacceptable now that State is back in SEC action.
"We need everybody to play to or highest level. We've got to play a heck of a lot better this week to have a chance to beat South Carolina."
Croom said that barring any unexpected bad news later in the morning the team is healthy again, save of course for Henig who is still out for at least two more weeks after breaking his right (throwing) hand at Auburn. Surgery to repair the spiral fracture in the hand and place a permanent protective plate were successful, the cast was removed later in the week and the stitches come out soon. It will be another week before the hand is x-rayed again to gauge the bone growth around the break.
"It's right on schedule," Croom said. "Everything went well with the operation, but it's no time-change (on return) yet. A lot of it is how fast he'll be able to take the pressures of receiving the snap on his throwing hand." The only other Dogs certain to miss this game for health are those injured prior to the season, DE Charles Burns (shoulder) and PK Eric Richards (broken foot), who are out for the year.
All other players hampered by September injuries, or a virus that ran through the roster quickly last week, should be practicing this afternoon. That includes DT Jessie Bowman who did not play Saturday after missing all the practice week with effects from that illness. CB Anthony Johnson was also ill during the week but did practice enough by Thursday to be activated late in the game at his usual starting left-CB spot when his replacement, Jasper O'Quinn, was slightly banged-up. Johnson also played on some special teams. DT Quinton Wesley was in the rotation because he'd been able to practice Monday before getting sick. So did FB Jeremy Jones on special teams. The team rule in most all cases is a player must practice by Thursday if they are to be counted on for the game.
Croom also expects CB Marcus Washington to be ready for action after a lower-back contusion at Auburn. He could have played against Gardner-Webb but was held out. The only players leaving the Gardner-Webb game showing pain, HB Anthony Dixon and DT Jimmie Holmes, were not injured.