"We've got an outstanding team in West Virginia," said Croom. "I think they're even better this year than last year. They've got great speed. We know what their offensive speed is. But we see even more this year on defense. They have excellent athletes, they're well-coached. And they're playing with a lot of confidence at this point."
The Mountaineers (5-1) are also playing for high stakes this season, looking for a Big East championship and with luck and outside help perhaps a shot at national title status. They are also rested, having taken out frustrations from a loss at South Florida on hapless Syracuse before an open date. The break came at a prime time to help some offensive headliners heal their bumps and bruises, and let WVU prepare for the second half of their season.
The Bulldogs (4-3) met the Mountaineers last October at Scott Field and lost 42-14. Half of those point came in the fourth quarter after State's defense was worn down from chasing quarterback Pat White, halfback Steve Slaton, and their cohorts for three periods. Now MSU must prepare to try again, and on an even faster artificial track. Fans and media talk about WVU's schemes and skills, but Croom says this is not really a battle of Xs-and-Os.
"You better have some speed to match their speed. It's not so much the offense or defense, it's matching the people. If your linebackers and safeties can match their speed and get them on the ground." WVU piled up 406 yards in the last meeting and the lead characters are all back for more. What Croom hopes is a Dog defense with improved speed up-front and at linebacker, and that that at times has tackled well this fall, might be able to match up stride-for-stride.
"If we can get them hemmed up we can tackle. The question is can we get them hemmed up." By the same token, Croom notes that WVU has had their own upgrades on this side of the ball, too. "This defense looks more like two years ago; extremely fast, guys totally confident in what they're doing from a scheme standpoint. I don't see them giving up anything cheap. Overall I just think it's a better team this year."
But so is Mississippi State improved from the team that limped into last year's meeting with no real confidence and lack of proven offense. The '07 Bulldogs are a different matter. Besides already owning the most wins by a State squad since 2000, these Dogs have also shown they can move the ball and score points against quality opposition. In games with South Carolina and Tennessee, the Bulldogs either led or were just one play behind going into the final period. Such as last Saturday's 33-21 loss to the Volunteers.
"We played about three-and-a-half quarters as well as we could play," Croom said. "All our guys played hard, and we played well much of the ball game." Just not well enough to match the #25-ranked Vols for four full periods. And the coach still wonders how the third period would have played out if not for a flag thrown on an incomplete end-zone pass "that was questionable, it could have gone either way," he said. The penalty, when safety De'Mon Glanton hammered UT's Austin Rogers on 3rd-and-12 as the ball went by, was ruled a ‘defenseless hit' on the field. Given the first down the Vols scored a touchdown for a 24-14 margin. "You could see a little bit of a momentum-shift," said Croom.
Still State kept in contention until Tennessee's advantages in line-of-scrimmage muscle and quarterback experience took sufficient toll. And despite defeat the Bulldog players and staff came away encouraged that progress is showing again. Specifically from an offense that produced just under five yards per-snap and scored three earned touchdowns without help or luck.
Two came off the right arm of rookie quarterback Wesley Carroll, making just his second start. The true freshman was 18-of-33 passing for 203 yards, tossed touchdowns of 38 and 14 yards, did not have anything intercepted, and only took one sack. Clearly-better Bulldog blocking is a large part of that of course, yet Carroll has shown a knack for evading trouble and making something good out of bad situations.
"He's our stating quarterback right now," Croom confirmed. "As far as I'm concerned he is the guy. He's shown he can carry us up to this point and played well. He is the quarterback right now."
Attentive readers will note the ‘right now' part. Junior and two-year starter Mike Henig is working his way back into the mix as he recovers from a broken throwing hand suffered one month ago at Auburn. Croom tried using Henig in rotation against UAB, and admits now that was too early as a rusty arm resulted in two interceptions. Henig also played three snaps to end the first half Saturday when Carroll was shaking off a concussion.
Croom says Henig is still not 100%. "But we talked about him getting ready because he's going to have to help us as the season goes on." Besides, the coach added, "You're one play from being right back in there, like the other day." Such precautions are obvious for MSU as twice already a starter (Henig at Auburn, Josh Riddell at South Carolina) have been put out by injuries. In Riddell's case a season-ending knee surgery resulted. Thus Henig continues to work as the #2 quarterback in drills, which means he gets the same snaps and situations as Carroll with the first unit every practice day.
Henig has to be ready, Croom said. "Otherwise we have to play (true freshman) Chris Relf and I'd prefer not to do that at this point." It makes for some interesting speculations about the rest of the season as veteran Henig gets back to full-speed and is able to put his greater experience in games and practices to use in the weekly workout competition. Not for Croom, though. "I'm not worried about past this week."
What State's offensive staff is worrying with is getting more out of the passing game. Carroll has limited experience of course, and the arm is not nearly as potent as Henig's. What the kid has is a knack for placement and selection already. Croom pointed to a crucial 4th-and-7 early in the first period when State trailed 27-21. Carroll got everyone lined-up as needed and picked the right target, halfback Arnil Stallworth right at the needed distance. But the throw was tipped at the line. "We had a freshman offensive tackle get a little pressure inside," Croom reported. Stallworth had to dive backwards for the catch, two yards short.
"Wes is playing well. The best thing is I thought his composure was excellent during the course of the game." Besides the tip, Croom said a primary receiver mis-ran his route on a key third down and Carroll had to opt-off to a secondary choice not able to get the needed yards. "But we had our chances," the coach said. Chances that would be even more promising with a better-rounded air game.
"It definitely impedes progress when you don't have stability at quarterback. Your timing with patterns, what you can do, what you can't do. It's a continuous process of evaluating, especially with a freshman quarterback. Because of the injuries at quarterback a lot of things we did in spring and camp, we had to reduce a great deal. We have to make sure when we do put something in we have to ‘rep' it many, many times so he can execute it on game day. Yeah, it's a huge change. But I think Wes has handled it far better than I anticipated a freshman could, and our coaches have done a good job coming up with some things he can execute and put the ball where it's supposed to be."
And, where it can and should be caught. Carroll certainly spread it around Saturday with eight Dogs catching at least one pass including halfbacks and fullbacks. Tight end Eric Butler should have been on the stat sheet, too, Croom said, as he had some good early matchups. But review showed Tennessee openly grabbing Butler's shirt as he tried to get off the line. "And we didn't get the calls."
Speaking of calls, the coaches all-but-called out Tony Burks during the practice week and on game-day he was replaced as a listed starter by Lance Long. Though, as it turned out, only one wideout was on the first play, Aubrey Bell, with two tight ends opening. Croom said Burks just did not play well enough in the UAB game or practice well enough early last week.
"We rode him pretty hard about dong the little things and he had to step up in order to have a chance to win. I was pleased he answered the challenge and played well." With five catches for 79 yards and the 30-yard touchdown off a short grab and fast run down the sideline. "That was without question his best game of the year. Hopefully he'll get better as the season goes on." As for Long, while he didn't catch a ball all day his downfield blocks made two State touchdowns possible.
Burks, Long, Bell, Jamayel Smith, and others will continue to rotate at wideout. Hopefully they'll be re-joined soon by Co-Eric Riley, who was not in the game or even on the sideline Saturday. Asked why, Croom only offered "He did not dress because I didn't feel he could help us win the ball game." Which is easily interpreted as a critique of the junior's practice effort and efficiency. The implied other message is that getting back in favor merely means doing what Burks did last week to regain his status.
And State needs all available hands going into the last five games of this regular schedule. "Wes is doing his job," said Croom, "so our wide receivers need to step up." Beginning with Monday afternoon's standard 5:00 practice.