Thus, today's brief session in the Palmeiro Center with the Bulldogs in shorts and doing, well, not a whole lot. Just being in workout gear was unique enough. "We normally don't do anything on Sundays," Croom said. "And I didn't want to beat them up, I just wanted to get them together and get yesterday's game behind us, and get some preliminary things. More than anything else to get them back together rather than having them linger around and have a hangover."
There was certainly that potential after State's 45-31 loss to Arkansas at Little Rock. After scoring the day's first touchdown, the Bulldogs fell behind 24-7 at intermission and could not get closer than 14 points the rest of the way. This despite offensive outputs from quarterback Wesley Carroll and receiver Jamayel Smith that had p.r. staff tearing into the record book for ‘last times' and ‘best-sinces'.
Croom wants the loss, which left State 6-5 overall and 3-4 SEC, shoved into the books and a turn of the pages to empty sheets where the Bulldogs can still write more 2007 history. As in, locking up both the first winning record and bowl berth since 2000. And not to be forgotten, of securing the ‘state championship' before the home folk.
"It's my senior year and I definitely want to get this win," center Royce Blackledge said. "Like Coach Croom said, it's about all kinds of things. Bragging rights, your whole family, everything you represent. And it's something you can brag about for the rest of your life."
Naturally the rivals feel the same, and while the Rebels (3-7, 0-7 SEC) have no bowl hopes they can ease some of the '07 sting with a season-ending win, not to mention possibly denying State a bowl opportunity. Croom said these rivalry games are really simple things. "This one comes down more than anything else to fundamentals and character and who wants it most."
Mississippi State wants it badly enough to jump-start the work week. The assistant staff spent Sunday studying Rebel game-tape, while Croom has reviewed yesterday's LSU win in Oxford, as well as State's loss in last year's Egg Bowl there. Mostly the head coach devoted this day to final reviews of yesterday's game in all three phases. "We made too many mistakes. I mean, there are some things we did really well, but we made some mistakes and when you play a team like Arkansas—which overall team-speed is probably faster than West Virginia—and make a mistake against a team like that you're going to pay."
Which means the staff doesn't lack for specific items to stress in unit-meetings, particularly things like pre-snap penalties and unforced turnovers. Then it's on to full-team work which will be split between outdoors (individual and unit) and indoors (full-team) segments. Croom said Monday's practice will be in partial pads, the last time the Dogs will don armor before game-day, and most of the practice schedule moved up a day. "And Wednesday will be a combination of a Thursday-Friday practice, we'll have our Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday night and Thursday just do a normal pre-game routine."
Not that there is much ‘normal' about any Egg Bowl, and certainly not for these Bulldogs who have more than the annual stakes to play for. Yet after eleven games each, Croom says neither team is likely to surprise the other. Or at least they shouldn't be able to. "You're at the point now in these kind of games, it comes down to the basics. This is when your fundamentals really kick in, executing your assignments and techniques."
If there are any real unknowns it will be health, and here State looks to be in good late-November shape. Only cornerback Anthony Johnson was in a red-cross shirt Sunday, having taken a hit in his back late in Saturday's game. Croom wouldn't give an outlook on the starter. "Right now we'll take that one day at a time." No other Dogs appeared to be gimpy leaving the Palmeiro Center. Two years ago Croom moved team practices indoors before the Egg Bowl, so 11-on-11 work—and the schemes—were safe from observation…though it might also have been just as much about inspiring a bit more focus in the players, a reminder of just how special the rivalry should be to everyone involved.
Practically, "I don't think it's going to be any secrets about what either of us are doing in this ball game. We'll know each other pretty well. They'll look at all our games, we'll look at every one of theirs and fine-tune some things and go play."
And if the Bulldogs play well enough, they will be celebrating on into the next round of holidays. Or as Croom said, "I'm not worried about our effort and our intensity and that kind of stuff because we'll do that."
Blackledge agrees. "I know for myself I'm taking this game a lot more personal than I have in the past. It's my last one, and there ain't nothing like whipping Ole Miss! I'm just going to put in a lot of extra preparation this week and get ready to win."