And certainly not the end of potential for a successful 2007 campaign, which resumes this weekend as Mississippi State (3-2, 1-2 SEC) prepares to host Alabama-Birmingham (1-3, 0-1 CUSA) this Saturday. Kickoff at Scott Field is 1:30 with no telecast. So Dog fans will have to either be in the house or tuned into the broadcast to see/hear who is working at quarterback. For the first series it will again be Wesley Carroll, who will get his second start of the year.
He re-takes the place of Josh Riddell, who ran the offense most of the South Carolina game until a late-day knee injury. A torn ligament has sidelined the junior for the balance of this season with surgery scheduled for next week and a standard 4-month rehabilitation process. It was the second time in three games the starter was knocked out by injury. This isn't something a coach or team every really gets ‘used' to, Croom said.
But, "I've learned one thing, it can always be worse! The first thought is hey, here we go again. But you look at the positives." And that side of the ledger reads far better than when State has lost quarterbacks in previous seasons, most of all for the rest of the offense which has vastly better blocking, a proven running attack, play-makers at receiver…"And we're 3-2," reminds the coach.
"It's not easy when you get injuries but it's a part of the game. We're actually better off than last year."
True freshman Carroll has a successful non-conference start under his belt and at home, having opened against Gardner-Webb a week ago, though Riddell had better numbers off the bench. Carroll also directed the go-ahead drive at Auburn in the fourth quarter. He has completed 10-of-23 throws and netted under seven yards per-catch, with no interceptions nor touchdowns.
Not spectacular, simply steady…and stability is something the Bulldog offense likely needs at this point after starting three triggermen in five games. "Wes is running the offense very well," Croom said. "He plays with a lot of poise and confidence, especially for a freshman. Nothing seems to faze him. He doesn't do things to hurt you in the game. That's his strongest characteristic."
Carroll's obvious weakness is less arm-strength than any of the quarterbacks available or injured, which Croom acknowledges. "He doesn't have a rifle. We knew that. But he finds a way to get the job done. He has shown he can handle the pressure, particularly down at Auburn, so we know he can deal with things."
Hopefully Carroll will deal with everything necessary this weekend, because State would rather not put the current number-two man on the field. Not because fellow true-frosh Chris Relf can't play, though. But because if possible this rookie will be held out and given more development time in college. At the same time State has too much evidence of unpredictable life-expectancy for any quarterback so Relf is practicing to play if or as needed.
Relf was signed as an excellent athlete with very raw skills that are suddenly under an accelerated maturation with extra time spent practicing after the varsity is done. "In scrimmages the last couple of weeks he's thrown extremely well," Croom said. "He's shown steady habits and picked up things better than we thought, based on the simplicity of the schemes he ran in high school. We've got to see how much he can handle now." As for Relf's passing prowess Croom said his arm-strength and accuracy have been pretty good. "But that's in practices."
As another just-in-last-case, safety Zach Smith began working with the backup offense last week out of reporters' view. Smith was a record-setting quarterback in high school but is also the #2 free safety and getting regular playing time there as well as on kicking coverage teams. Thanks to one encouraging development Smith ought not need to change sides, though.
Because season-starter Mike Henig resumes practicing this afternoon. "The doctor released him to throw the ball today," said Croom. The junior broke his throwing hand on the first series at Auburn two weeks ago, requiring surgery to repair the spiral fracture and a protective plate. "Based on what the doctors tell me I can for-sure count on him for an emergency number-three," Croom said. Before the injury Henig had completed 51.6% of his passes for 120 yards per-game, and after throwing six interceptions in the opening loss to LSU he was one touchdown vs. one pick the next two starts.
"We don't expected him to be full-speed but to do some things in a limited basis," said Croom. "I'm not going to take a chance on Mike, on something that could damage him for the long term just for this week." Henig is the only exception to the other rule of the day for State, though, as even redshirting plans at quarterback would be voided in a pinch this week no matter how much Croom wants to develop a kid like Relf for future things.
"In some ways the future is now. We've got to do what we have to win these games."
Particularly this home game, which is Homecoming for the college and a must-succeed date for the Dogs if they want to stay on a bowl-eligible track. Even with a shaky quarterback situation State is projected a strong favorite over the Blazers, but at this point Croom won't allow his team to take anything for granted. Especially in this matchup.
"The most important thing is they gave us a hard time last year," said Croom. A very hard time with State pulling out a 16-10 win in Birmingham, thanks to an interception in the end zone in UAB's first overtime turn and a heroic run-and-vault for touchdown by Omarr Conner. "And I think they're a better team this year," Croom added.
"I know Neal Callaway (first-year Blazer coach). They're going to be hard-nosed, in great shape, not do things to beat themselves. They're going to come in with the idea of coming here and winning. And the last time they came here they did." As in a 27-13 domination of the Dogs in 2004, on what was also Homecoming weekend for State. There might not be many Blazers playing or coaching who had a hand in that victory, but both teams will be reminded of the outcome all this week as a reminder of what can happen in any inter-conference contest.
Besides, notes Croom, "With our quarterback situation the way it is, everybody on our team has to got to step their game up." No Dog moreso than Carroll, who has been efficient handling the somewhat-limited tasks given him to-date. The rookie has certainly executed in the running game without a hitch and directed scoring drives against three varied opponents. And with Anthony Dixon and Christian Ducre hauling the ball around productively, changing triggermen should not affect State's running game.
"Where the problem comes up of course is in the passing game, being consistent there and in 3rd-down conversions," Croom said. Never more obviously than at South Carolina where with either quarterback State was 3-of-13. Not coincidentally, two of those conversions came on one touchdown drive. But both were done on the ground and for short gainers.
"And that's where it comes into when they put you in must-pass situations," said Croom. "We've got to do some first-down things to stay out must-pass situations where teams can't line up and tee-off on us, bring all sorts of coverages and blitzes." Most of all now that a rookie is back at quarterback and depth either entirely unproven or recovering from injury. "Isn't it wonderful having three freshmen (in the depth chart)?" Croom quipped.
It's not so wonderful having to constantly change quarterbacks of course, but at least State has gotten used to it. Expecting it, almost. "I have to always be thinking plan B, C, and D," said Croom. "That's why the last couple of scrimmages were for Chris. I'm glad we did. We pretty much know who we're going to hold out and play, but I kept scrimmaging for Chris. Because I knew one more move and he was going to play, and it's turned out that way."
The South Carolina game didn't turn out as State had good reason to hope midway of the third period when they led 21-17 with the ball. A blocked punt turned everything around and the Gamecocks not only scored immediately for the lead but stopped every ensuing Dog series, including a crucial 4th-and-1 where Dixon decided to ‘bounce' outside instead of crashing right tackle as he'd done for good gains all half. And mediocre tackling for the first half turned into outright bad work in the second.
Croom did not fault punter Blake McAdams for that block which came off a missed blocking assignment, though he added that "He still needs to get the ball out a little bit quicker." The junior might have taken that 71-yard bouncer at Auburn to heart a bit too much because Croom thinks McAdams is now trying to hit 75-yarders. Otherwise the punter has had some good games after starting the season slow.
Give the Gamecocks credit, Croom said, but…" We did things to lose that game more than they did to win it."
"After looking at the film, we played very, very hard and had a great opportunity to win the game. We didn't play smart, disciplined football." Not all Dogs were critiqued thus; Croom praised the entire offensive line, the running of Ducre, and DE Titus Brown among others. But not enough plays were made by enough others to offset the mistakes in areas the coaches thought had been established during a three-game win streak. "We're playing hard," said Croom. "It's at the point we need to play well, play consistently well."
"We've go to get ready for a tough game here at home. It's another great opportunity for us, we have to learn from last week and move forward."