Mississippi State's (4-2, 1-2 SEC) game-planning focus indeed is on the visiting Volunteers (3-2, 1-1 SEC). Kickoff is 1:30 at Scott Field with no live telecast in Mississippi, though a pay-per-view outlet will air the game in the Tennessee market. It's a second-straight home date for the Bulldogs, their only such ‘stand' of the 2007 schedule in fact.
And as Croom noted, the start of a season second-half with the Bulldogs presented opportunities not seen in Starkville for a long, long time. By shaking off their first-half lethargy and storming past UAB for a 30-13 win, State has bettered the three-win totals of Croom's previous three seasons. And, made bowl-talk much more realistic with six matchups left.
"I told our team Saturday's game was absolutely critical, it gave us a chance to be 4-2 with the second half of the season. That puts us over halfway to our goal of being a bowl-eligible team, now we continue to take them one at a time. And we're hoping this is one of those two."
It will take as strong and consistent an effort as the Bulldogs have mustered this year, and maybe more, to turn hope into a win over resurgent Tennessee. The Vols responded to some early-season frustrations by blowing out Georgia at home, storming to a 28-0 lead en route to a 35-14 win that has UT very much back in SEC East contention. Quick early looks at scouting tapes have shown a typical sort of Volunteer team with experience in the muscle-positions and game-breaking athletes all over the roster.
So, "Nobody is going to give us a chance to win," said Croom. "They just beat a good Georgia team, they're an outstanding team with great tradition, great athletes. But no doubt in my mind they're a beatable team." Why no doubt, if most—including as Croom noted many MSU fans—won't look at the matchup that optimistic way? "Because I think everybody is beatable," he said.
"I'm not trying to slight Tennessee, but look at what's happened this year. There's parity in college football all across the country, but there's definitely parity in our conference." The coach has a point about the SEC as this season winners and losers are swapping status weekly, and margins of victory—or defeat—seem to mean little. What does matter, and particularly for this Bulldog ball team, is making the most of both ability and opportunity now.
And, not waiting until halftime to start playing good ball, as the Bulldogs did against the Blazers. Croom said lack of effort wasn't an issue in State trailing 10-3 at halftime. Efficiency was, failure to cash in on close plays on both sides of the ball. Of course, he added, being able to respond in the second half and literally pound out a homefield victory was encouraging in one aspect. Because in the last few years State probably would not have come back and taken care of business. "If we'd gotten in that situation I don't think we'd have come out of it, that's one of the things I was thinking about this weekend. When you win a game your supposed to win, and not playing as well, not as emotionally high, and still get it done…we haven't done that before."
Of course there were more technical aspects to how that game played out which are keys to State having any success the rest of the way. On defense the glaring issue against UAB, and for that matter in the previous loss at South Carolina, was pass defense and coverage. Even Gardner-Webb was able to hit some big pass plays and convert on third-and-longs through the air against MSU. It's a troubling trend to say the least, especially if the Bulldogs want to continue rushing just three and four linemen and not have to blitz constantly.
The thing is, Croom said, against UAB there was better pressure on the passer than in the previous five games. The d-line was getting pretty good push and collapsing pockets without needing much help from linebackers and safeties. But, he said, "We didn't cover as well in man-to-man long enough." That included all seven in the secondary, too. Linebackers keep losing tight ends and backs; safeties and cornerbacks can't stick quite long enough to their men on longer routes. The margins aren't huge, he said, just a matter of keeping coverage maybe an instant longer that the line needs to get to the thrower.
That's a major priority this week, too. "Because we're going to play some excellent athletes who have the talent to make the one-on-one plays," Croom said.
Meanwhile Mississippi State has to make more offensive plays in the first half, the first quarter. Saturday, Croom summed up frustration with lack of production in the air by saying everybody including Tennessee would know what to expect this weekend: a lot of running Anthony Dixon right into the line. Dixon, demoted to second-halfback for a half-game after an unwise comment, let his second-half play talk for him with 133 of his 152 yards and all three touchdowns coming after intermission.
It was the sophomore's fifth 100-yard game with career highs for yardage, scores, and carries. Just what a big-time player, "when he does what he's supposed to do and plays to his ability," Croom said. "When he's on top of his game he's a good player." Alternate Christian Ducre isn't shabby either and has a bit more quickness to work with in traffic. And whoever totes the ball can expect to be running amongst bodies unless the air game abruptly blossoms.
"It's a problem," admitted Croom of State's struggles to balance the offense out with reliable throwing-and-catching. Freshman Wesley Carroll was 9-of-12 passing for just 93 yards against UAB. He didn't toss an interception, or a touchdown, but converted on a couple of key throws in the last half that gave the ground-pounding just enough assistance. Carroll will get his third start of the season and first SEC opening this week, with Mike Henig the backup.
"How much he plays depends on the course of the week," Croom said. "We still intend to use two of them but Wes is our number-one guy." State hadn't really intended to use Henig at all against UAB early last week, then the re-activated junior proved the best passer despite coming off three down-weeks with the broken hand. But it didn't carry over into the game once Croom changed his mind and let Henig get on the field.
"It was obvious he was rusty. Even though he threw the ball well, practice and game are two different animals. He wasn't as sharp in the game. I should have stuck with my original thought, being off three weeks and no way he was at his best in a real game situation." Then again, having that rust knocked-off against UAB could pay off if Henig were needed to do more than just take some turns against Tennessee.
Either way, and either quarterback, Mississippi State really wants to get something going in the passing game this year and get some balance and rhythm in the offense. But, Croom said, "We're a running football team. It would be nice to be stylish and modern and throw the ball around, but we're going to do what we do. Regardless of where we rank in passing stats or style points we're going to do what we need to do to win."
We know what we can and cant' do, I'm sure the other team does as well, but the bottom line is do what you do anyway and find a way to win. That's what we're going to try to get done this week."
As for other injury situations, DT LaMarcus Williams (foot) and CB Chris Nance (hamstring) are probable for this week after missing the UAB game. LB Dominic Douglas (ankle) is much more doubtful after his Saturday injury. He was to be evaluated again this afternoon.