It might seem strange taking a one-day break this time of the season, especially since Mississippi State (4-4, 1-3 SEC) has little margin left this campaign if the Bulldogs want to become bowl-eligible. And, because the schedule does present a normal open date next weekend. The normal response would appear to be bearing down further this week and putting all energy into preparations for a road game with the Wildcats (6-2, 2-2 SEC).
So players and staff won't take Monday entirely. "We've got to get some things done," Croom said. "We'll probably practice ten minutes longer tomorrow, some things we normally cover Monday we have to get in. But we won't go out today. We'll look at the film, as soon as we watch it I'm going to let them go sit with their girlfriend and relax a little bit." Well, after putting in some Monday running, that is.
"Then we'll come back tomorrow and be in shoulder pads and shorts and get back to work. But we really have to be locked in; won't experiment with anything, what we put in tomorrow's practice is what we're going to run."
The Bulldogs have been on the run for a while and even with an afternoon's pause can't truly slow all the way down until returning from Kentucky. It will be their second long road trip in a row, and as multi-touchdown underdogs in most reckonings. Kickoff in Lexington is 12:30et with regional telecast by Lincoln Financial Sports. State certainly wants to give a better showing than in their recent excursion to West Virginia.
Or better said, get off to a better start than in the 38-13 loss where the host Mountaineers rang up 31 consecutive points, 28 of them in the first quarter, before the Bulldogs battled their way onto the scoreboard. "We played a horrible quarter," said Croom. "And three quarters of good football. That one was more than enough to lose the ball game. We did things, penalties, turnovers, in the first ten plays that were totally uncharacteristic of our team this year."
‘Horrible' was a mild description of the opening period. After the Bulldogs thought they'd recovered a fumbled kickoff, only to be penalized for off-sides and re-kicking, the Mountaineers scored on their very first snap from scrimmage. The onslaught not only didn't slow but State helped the home team out by literally handing the ball over twice, with unforced fumbles by halfback Anthony Dixon and a bobbled center-exchange from quarterback Wesley Carroll.
"The mistakes we made in the first quarter pretty much gave us the death sentence," said Croom. West Virginia was tough enough a proposition without self-induced errors, and a 31-0 deficit in the second quarter meant the contest was over by intermission. At that point "The most important thing was to keep fighting back," Croom said.
"As disappointed as I was, and all of us were embarrassed, but get back and see where we actually got better as the team went on, it's something to build on this week." Which is why the coach is not concerned that the Dogs had their self-confidence shattered for the balance of the season. It wasn't for the rest of the game, he noted.
"Tell you what, I was concerned about that during the game. But the way we played, especially leaving the field at halftime and guys really disappointed, they had great confidence they could go out and play well the second half. That's what we did, it was just an uphill battle from there." Too high a hill of course. And really the climb had begun the previous Sunday with a squad left exhausted after a sound battle with Tennessee. Croom talked with the Volunteer staff and found they, too, were battered and bruised by the game at Scott Field. "They said it was the most physical game they'd played," he reported.
"Even though we didn't come out of game hurt it drained us emotionally. We had decent practices but we still started the game slow and did some uncharacteristic things. Our backs had one fumble before the game, we had three this game. We had a quarterback-center exchange. We had a penalty on the opening kickoff. We don't do that. We don't make excuses, we don't allow the team to make excuses. But I had concerns about that as we prepared last week."
To the point State didn't even have a Friday walk-through before the flight to Pittsburgh, another kinda/sorta day off. Today the Dogs get more time to slow down, but only a bit. "Because this time of year games are going to take stuff out of you," Croom said.
"Our guys worked hard practically all year long, we haven't taken a break since weekend after LSU game. We have played hard every week, extremely hard. Really against Tennessee it was the best game any time since been here, out guys left it all out there. I think our guys need a break."
And then come back Tuesday full-speed by 4:00, neither looking ahead to the open date or back at the trip just-past. "We've got to put it behind us because we're playing a very good football team. Maybe the best team in our conference." Certainly the Wildcats are among the league's best, winning at Arkansas and knocking off #1 LSU around tight, tough losses to South Carolina and Florida. Even in their latest defeat Kentucky gave the Gators all they could handle. They have a big-time runner, a big-play receiver, and a league tackling leader. But of course the key is senior triggerman Andre Woodson, bidding for All-SEC quarterback and Heisman candidacy.
"I just think the guys' smart," Croom said. "The biggest thing you see is he's not making a lot of mistakes. What they've done is in the right play matching up against defenses a lot. To do that your quarterback has to be really smart about what he's doing. He picks up on a lot of stuff."
One needn't be too sharp to pick up on the string of ranked foes State has drawn here in October. "We're catching a lot of teams now it seems playing their best football," Croom noted. Where, a State team that was 4-2 a couple of weeks ago has slipped to break-even. Yet the coach thought the Tennessee game was the best all-around effort by the Bulldogs since he came to State. And even after the awful start Saturday he saw something encouraging. "In a game like that you always worry will they finish the ball game. And we did, we fought back. Even at the end our pursuit and effort was good, and some points played some good football there."
Which didn't change the outcome of course. And State is still holding at four wins, far from assured of getting any more against the remaining slate. "It's a critical game for us," agreed Croom. "But it's another great challenge, another great opportunity. That's the way we're talking to our players. If you're really serious about putting ourselves in position to go to a bowl game, we've got to do everything we possibly can to win this game." Including taking a short break here to first relax, then re-focus.
"You're at the point of the season now where the intangibles are going to be a big part," Croom said. "Who is healthy, and who plays well that particular day. It's Saturday morning who plays well at that particular time, is what's going to be important." Croom expects to have all the participants of last weekend available, though alternate LB Jamon Hughes hurt an ankle at WVU and would not have practiced Monday anyway. His Tuesday status is also a question. Otherwise the lineup is in reasonable late-October health.
While the team is off this afternoon, the staff will attend to the usual Monday duties including the 7:00 coach's call-in show.