"We're 1-0 this new season," Croom said this morning, using the victory at Kentucky a week ago as the starting point for the schedule-within-a-schedule. "Now we're fixing to play our second game of a four-game season. It's a playoff series, now this is our next game, it's the only game we can do anything about and the only game that matters."
That game is against SEC West rival Alabama (6-3, 4-2 SEC), with an 11:30am kickoff this Saturday at Scott Field for regional telecast on LFS. The Crimson Tide has already become bowl-eligible and still has slim hopes of finishing on top of the Division with wins over State and Auburn and lots of help elsewhere. Mississippi State's own ambitions aren't quite so lofty in '07, but still far higher than anything Croom's first three teams could achieve. For that matter with five wins already this club has ‘moved the chains' for the program.
Yet getting this close to bowl status should keep the Bulldogs hungry, so Croom and staff will be watching everyone closely as practices resume this afternoon. "We get back to work today. It will be a little combination of a Monday and Tuesday practice, a little bit longer and we'll go out earlier than normal," Croom said. "We had good work during the off-week and got our preliminary plan in place. We'll finalize everything for the game today after watching the LSU game."
Of course while almost the entire staff was out-of-town over the weekend, most of them recruiting, some were able to observe Alabama's slugfest home loss to Louisiana State. The Tigers escaped with their West lead and national title hopes intact, but left behind some fur on the Tuscaloosa field. And Croom is not expecting a deflated guest this weekend.
"Alabama played an outstanding game against LSU," he said. "They're one of the better teams in the country. The thing that's very impressive about them is they play a full game, 60 minutes, and they've never been out of any game they've been in."
So, "We're going to have to play 61 minutes, we can't let up until we get in the dressing room."
Last year's Bulldog team put in a full game, maybe their best all-around effort of '06, in taking a 24-16 victory at Alabama. Folk on the other side of the state line remember it better as the loss that ultimately cost the then-coach his job. And Alabama alumnus Croom himself said those events weren't exactly a compliment to MSU.
"That still says we don't get a lot of respect to that program. And there still isn't. So we've still got a long way to go." Which Croom added State is making progress at. "Slowly but surely. But we've got to win some big games. We've got to do something real special for us to genuinely get respect."
As far as the 2007 Bulldogs are concerned getting that needed sixth win this week would be special enough for the moment. Everything else is for after-the-fact consideration. As Croom said, too, ‘big' games are usually seen as such in retrospect. "And most of the time you've won them!" But by any measure the State-Bama match is meaningful again with the conference, rivalry, and recruiting implications.
"And when you have bowl ram on the line it gets even bigger. I don't think there's any question this one comes up as a big game because all that stuff is in place. It'll be even bigger if we win it." So Croom foresees no need for fiery talks and intense lectures this practice week. Besides, "Games like this, if you have to motivate your team you signed the wrong guys."
As this season has played-out it's clear Mississippi State has more of the right guys in the right positions to play SEC-caliber football. Most of them played key roles in last year's win at Alabama, such as defensive end Titus Brown and halfback Anthony Dixon. Yet it takes more than a handful of quality ballplayers to do more than pull off the occasional upset in this league. And Croom doesn't have to look far for the reasons the 2007 Bulldogs have the personnel to start succeeding on a more consistent basis.
"We've just gotten better in every area," Croom said. "We've improved week by week. Stabilizing the quarterback position was absolutely critical, we've stared to improve because of getting some consistent play from that position. And our offensive line has been solid all year long, our running game. We're starting to improve our defensive front in the interior, that's helped in recent weeks. But it still can get better."
It's hard to do better than freshman quarterback Wesley Carroll has in his college debut season. The rookie has played all nine games, five as the starter, and thrown 137 passes without any being intercepted. Croom liked Carroll's potential out of high school but figured he would redshirt in '07. Then events—a suspension and then injuries to other starters--forced the frosh to the fore.
"To say I anticipated any of that from a high school quarterback, I'd be lying," Croom said. The coach is not surprised at Carroll's knowledge of the game due to the level of coaching and competition he had in high school. It's the precocious maturity that has impressed everyone involved. "He's doing what he's coached to do," Croom said. "That's one of the things hard for young guys to do, to understand what they're being asked to do and have the maturity and discipline to get it done."
There, though, Croom puts in a plug for a staff member not given much fan-credit so far. It's the way coordinator/QB coach Woody McCorvey has brought Carroll along, and adapted the gameplan to the kid's ability and experience alike, that deserves late-season attention.
"Woody has done an outstanding job with him. This has gone unnoticed by for two years we've been in this situation (changing quarterbacks abruptly) and nobody has had to deal with this more than he has. Our quarterback hasn't been stable and he's battled through it and gotten whoever was left ready to play. This year I've been in awe he's been able to get a freshman ready to make the decisions he's making and handled the team. You can't overlook the coaching aspect."
Or, how quickly Carroll has melded with the staff, too. Croom admits that there are limits on what Carroll is asked to do, though that increases weekly. "But his maturity and his high school coaching has allowed him to do some things."
Last year Dixon did a lot of things against Alabama. Now the sophomore has surpassed his freshman totals in rushing (830 to 668 yards) and running touchdowns (12 to 9). Yet Dixon isn't assured of starting another game with the Tide after four turnovers in the past two contests. "When he's good, he's good, but he's putting the ball on the ground the last couple of weeks and we've got to get that squared away." Croom certainly plans to play Dixon this week, "but if we had to play today Christian Ducre would definitely start." The other soph halfback put in 119 yards with a touchdown to finish off Kentucky, and his 4.8 yard-per-carry rate is even better than Dixon's 4.0.
Not that Croom is overly concerned about which halfback is on-field for the first snap. "We're going to do what we do," he said. "At times I think Anthony has tried to do a little too much and not be Anthony Dixon. We've got to get him back to that level this week. But when he's rolling and rolling well he's a big-time player. He's been a consistent force for us, he and Christian Ducre."
Mississippi State needs more consistent performances on the defensive side of the ball. In their, so to day, defense the Dogs were facing potent attacks in October in Tennessee, West Virginia, and Kentucky. That doesn't change this week, Croom said, especially in terms of downfield coverage. "Because no question they're going to attack us vertically. (QB John Wilson) is going downtown, he's got D.J. Hall, Keith Brown, Matt Caddell, all kind of vertical weapons. This is going to have to be our best effort out of our secondary to have any chance of slowing these guys down."
Croom says the secondary has made strides despite the challenges of October, and coverage at Kentucky was the best yet "as far as executing alignments and assignments. Derek Pegues has worked out as I'd hoped because he's the quarterback of the secondary, prior to moving him I didn't think we had good communication. So he's consistently directing traffic back there."
While still supporting the front group, too. There senior ends Brown and Avery Hannibal have helped their down-tackle teammates develop in all aspects. Now Croom wants the safeties to have a better awareness of how the linebackers are operating, and so on. "It's still a work in progress," he says. "That's going to be key this week."