State is coming off a big home weekend where they scored the benchmark sixth victory of '07 by beating Alabama 17-12. That was after a tense week on campus where the Bulldogs, on the verge of bowl-eligibility for the first time this decade, were told to stay focused on getting #6 on the record. Now that they're made the minimum Croom and staff have to keep the attitudes and outlooks focused on the rest of the regular season, not the post-season. Because as of today State is just one of ten SEC squads eligible for bowl selection, and there aren't nearly enough league-affiliated classics to go around.
But a seventh win? "This for sure gets us in a bowl," Croom said. "It keeps getting bigger every week." Which actually is the way State's staff ‘planned' for November once they got back from defeating Kentucky three weekends ago. "It's a four-game season," Croom explained. "We're 2-0 now. We've got to be able to treat Alabama like the rest of them, it's over and we've got to move on. We've got to approach it like a four-game playoff, every time you win the stakes go up."
Which would make Arkansas something of a ‘semifinal' round contest for MSU. Though, Croom sees the Razorbacks as more of a title matchup of heavyweight sluggers; the old SEC lineman and pro backfield coach can appreciate a good ground-pounding team and there isn't anyone better at it than Arkansas. "They're going to run the ball at you, and they make no bones about it."
Many a SEC defender has tried to make his bones by tackling Darren McFadden and most have failed. The junior just became the league's #4 all-time rusher and a week ago tied the SEC mark for single-game yards. Even in Arkansas' 34-16 loss at Tennessee over the weekend McFadden managed 117 yards on 22 carries against a defense designed to contain him.
"I think they've got the best football player in the country," said Croom, wistfully adding that McFadden should maybe take this weekend off to rest up for the Heisman Trophy presentation in December. Croom compares him to Barry Sanders for change-of-direction and speed, yet McFadden is bigger and stronger. Plus, he works out of a direct-snap offense that saves time getting him the ball…or lets him roll out and throw passes. "Phenomenal," he called the junior. "I'm baffled there's anyone else in discussion for the Heisman."
Until last Saturday, the Razorbacks had the SEC's best pair of runners; then alternate halfback Felix Jones bruised a thigh at Tennessee. He's doubtful for this week but Croom fears Arkansas will just throw another fast and younger runner on the field anyway. Or give the ball to McFadden that many more times.
"We've got to minimize their run because it ain't gonna be stopped. It would be good if we could keep the ball and make their offense stay on the bench. That would be wonderful." And it would be memorable for Mississippi State to score a first-ever success playing in the state of Arkansas, where Bulldog teams are 0-3-1 in Little Rock and 0-3 at Fayetteville. Then again, "They've been good playing in our state," Croom said. State's last win over a Razorback team was in 1998 and Croom is 0-3 against Arkansas.
"A lot of it is the kicking game," he said. "They've scored points in all three meetings in the kicking game. We can't allow that to happen this year."
Special teams coverage has been improving lately. Croom was certainly pleased how Alabama return ace Javier Arenas was held in check; he touched the ball once for a 34-yard kickoff run and did nothing fielding punts.
For that matter Croom was pleased with most aspects of the victory. "The defense played outstanding football, our special teams were excellent." The offense, which managed just 215 yards on 63 plays, didn't get such glowing reviews for efficiency, but the effort was there. And, some needed resilience by the key player.
"Obviously Wes Carroll didn't perform as well as he has, but he put us in position to win the game," Croom said. The coach wasn't surprised that freshman Carroll finally looked like a freshman. "It was inevitable," Croom said, noting that Carroll's footwork was not as sharp and his moves out-of-kilter a bit. The coach speculated that the open date might have affected the rookie triggerman, as did the attention to his school and almost-NCAA-record streak of not throwing an interception at the start of a college career. Carroll came into the game one un-picked pass from tying the record and had his first throw intercepted.
But, Croom said, "I like the way he bounced back. He knew everything was clicking but he wasn't playing well. It's tough to handle knowing your performance is holding the team back. To be able to work his way out of it definitely showed some personal strength." Not only did Carroll not turn the ball over again, he came back in the third quarter and threw the same pass-and-pattern that had been intercepted. This time it went for a third-down conversion en route to State's decisive offensive touchdown.
"Probably one of the most positive things is Wes was able to have a bad 30 minutes of football, and we still found a way to win," Croom said. For that matter Croom might have been more proud to defeat the #21-ranked Crimson Tide by playing less-than-perfect football. "It was a hard-nosed game, we won with fundamentals and effort. I'm proud of our coaches and players, and happy for our seniors. They get to leave with two consecutive victories over Alabama, and not many of our guys have been able to do that."
It was also Croom's second victory in as many years against his alma mater. Following the win the coach talked about gaining respect for the program. Today, asked to explain, Croom said he was simply bothered that the Bulldogs were an underdog in the national betting line. "It bothered me that we were not the favored team playing at home and basically beat the same team on the road last year. I didn't understand the reasoning behind that. And the schedule, we've played one of the toughest schedules in the country."
It also still rankles the fourth-year college coach that Mississippi State isn't getting what he believes is due regard from media. The opposition does respect State, he said. And old friends and Tide teammates filled up his voice-mail for another year with congratulations. "The rivalry is going to intensify even more, but there's respect on their part. I didn't mean (lack of respect) from the Alabama program." What Croom finds frustrating is that beyond the contestants involved, outside opinions of Bulldog victories over ‘name' teams usually begins with what the loser did wrong, not what State did well.
"If you keep winning it will change. I made the statement because bothered me but you can't do anything about it, you keep playing and you win. That takes care of that."
If the Bulldogs keep winning they'll definitely take care of the bowl-bid for 2007. That means continuing to focus on the immediate opponent, though. Croom clearly would rather get that 7th win now and not wait until the last chance on the schedule. Or, to have just the minimum wins for consideration.
"I just want to make sure. We're eligible, now we want to get in."
Mississippi State was also notified this morning that cornerback Anthony Johnson has been named the league's Defensive Player of the Week. He is the fourth Bulldog defender so honored this year, joining linebacker Gabe O'Neal (Tulane game), end Avery Hannibal (Kentucky), and safety Derek Pegues (Auburn).