On the whole Croom thought Mississippi State put in a good day's work. The Bulldogs need to, he added, because no matter what others might predict this is a crucial game for both teams. At 3-2 State needs the home win to stay on a bowl-eligible track, while the Blazers (1-3) are looking for their third-ever victory over a team from the big league in the neighborhood.
"We've really got to check ourselves and make sure we're locked-in for this ball game," Croom said. "We blew an opportunity last week, we've got to be ready for this. They're looking at this as an opportunity to win against a SEC program, that would give them a huge lift. We have to be at our absolute best."
It probably wasn't a coincidence that the head coach stressed total preparation for a hard game today, considering comments made Tuesday by halfback Anthony Dixon that the team didn't think the visitors would "be too tough." That quote definitely struck the staff the wrong way. And while MSU players are routinely off-limits from Tuesday afternoon through game-week, Dixon might not be talking to the press for a while.
"He's off-limits until I saw he's not. Anybody read the papers, they'll understand why."
GETTING UP TO SPEED: QB Mike Henig continued his comeback from a broken hand suffered Sept. 15 at Auburn. The junior began this week as a ‘emergency #3' choice but by today he was practically alternating with scheduled starter Wesley Carroll, with still-unactivated freshman Chris Relf third in line. Croom said not to read too much into the breakdown of practice snaps today.
"We're working Mike back. We're not going to rush, we're going to let him come back at his own pace. I was thinking about it yesterday, he's been off since really the Tulane game. And that's a long time. We can't expect him to be at top form at this point. He'll be available Saturday but how we use him we'll decide at that time."
INJURY UPDATE: Little changed from Tuesday's practice, with no upgrades of players sidelined in red-cross shirts. DT LaMarcus Williams continues to have pain from the plantar fasciitis in the left foot and had a protective boot on again today. It's something the freshman will likely deal with all season. Backup CB Chris Nance (hamstring) and freshman HB Robert Elliott (ankle) are trying to rehab their ailments, though Elliott is more than likely redshirting at this point. So is fellow freshman TE Marcus Green with a groin strain.
Thursday should tell whether Williams or Nance will be available or active in the UAB game.
ON THE LINE: At South Carolina, there was only one substitution made on the offensive line in 69 official snaps. At right guard, starter Craig Jenkins took care of maybe 80% of those snaps with Mike Gates handling the rest in relief. The other four starters—RT J.D. Hamilton, C Royce Blackledge, LG Anthony Strauder, and LT Mike Brown—played complete games. And did well, according to Croom. "The offensive line put in a very good performance."
Going into this season Croom and line coach J.B. Grimes figured on having a complete two-deep, as well as a couple of reserves just in case. And in fact all five backups have gotten work, though not so much on the left side for redshirt freshmen G J. C. Brignone and T Mark Melichar. Each has played in same three games—LSU, Tulane, and Gardner-Webb, as has #2 center Johnny Carpenter.
On the right side the second-teammers get more work, though true frosh Derek Sherrod didn't get into the South Carolina game. Still, Croom said, "Right now we've got seven guys we consider starters, our starting five plus Mike and Derek. They're playing extremely well." Well enough that State has given up just nine sacks and 14 ‘hurries' compared to 11 sacks and 23 hurries for the Dog defense.
A key has been the play of Hamilton now that he's a full-time tackle. Croom thought Hamilton played his best game yet a week ago against Gardner-Webb. It hasn't been easy for the senior, who worked through the summer death of his father. "J.D. is still dealing with a lot," said the coach. "He fought back and showed a lot about his character." And by playing well he's made the move of Jenkins from tackle to guard a good one for State.
In fact, said Croom, "He pulls better than we thought he would. And he's so big it takes a while just to go around him. It's worked out extremely well and solidified out starting five."
BOBO CAN GO: Another situation that's worked out in '07 has been S Demario Bobo's return to action. The junior had a miserable 2006 season, limited to two games with hamstring and shoulder issues left over from August injuries. This, after starting nine of the ten games played in '05. And before this season he was sidelined by mononucleosis that kept him from even practicing the first three weeks.
Now? "I feel good," said Bobo. "I'm real blessed to be back out here with these guys, because I've been anxious to get back after dealing with all the mono and injuries. It feels good."
It certainly felt good getting a start at South Carolina as State opened with a full nickel-package and played it most of the day. Bobo was on the field almost full-time but finished with just one tackle for his efforts. "He's still I guess you could say knocking some rust off," Croom said. "He didn't play well early in the game, some of it probably because of the time he missed.
"But he definitely has the ability to help us, he's done some good things in special teams. He's a little undisciplined in coverage and it hurts. It's something he'll work on and get corrected, but he's a good tackler, he has excellent range and coverage. But the details of techniques, that hurt him. I think he'll be OK in the games ahead."
Bobo is just glad to have games to play after a long rough stretch of injury and illness, and watching younger defensive backs muscle into prime roles he would have owned if healthy. Not that he's showing regrets. "I just think it's part of life. It makes you stronger and want to fight more and get more hungry." Nor does Bobo mind being in the mix with starting safeties Derek Pegues and De'Mon Glanton and fellow alternate Keith Fitzhugh.
"Coach does a good job with rotating us and keeping us fresh and everything. And we're coming together, that's why we get a lot of stuff done back there. I'm kind of like nickel-back. We call it an extra ‘cat' guy on the field, so I'm like a corner and a safety. It feels good because that's what I want. It's my fourth year here and they kind of expect to put an older guy in the pressure situation. Which I'm good at handling."