Speaking of spring, it starts…well, this winter. To hear Croom talking from the dais along with five players and four trophies, the Liberty Bowl wasn't so much a story in itself as the conclusion of one chapter in a larger, longer tale. "It was sort of the finish of one season and the beginning of another. And as we move into the off-season, we'll take this week and next week off and then start the off-season program." On January 15 to be exact. Enjoy the break, boys!
Really though I've a notion every Bulldog-body reporting to the weightroom that day will still have some spring in their steps. Break-through seasons have that effect on programs. On fans, too, and my brother-in-law suggested that Mississippi State might should start selling 2008 season tickets right now while the emotions are high and fresh. Not a bad idea at all. So what if there's the chance some dates might shift a day or two for TV tastes? They'll all stay the same weekends. Just send out an e-memo with a price and return address. Sales clearly ought to be up in '08…though given how both the Egg and Liberty Bowls played out I'd imagine some fans will plan from now on to remain in the Junction until the fourth quarter began, sparing themselves the trauma of three periods while enjoying the drama of another last-drive Bulldog victory. You'd pay full market price for that, right?
I've columnized enough in ‘07 about how and why State was better, sufficiently so to over-achieve in year-four of a from-the-foundation building job. Not rebuild, but from scratch. All that truly needs saying is a program with four SEC wins in three years won that many this year, with a true freshman quarterback who wasn't supposed to dress out in the first place. If that doesn't convince critics--or knaves, a few of whom still prowl this board because they can't accept an honorable, honest man trying to run a football program with dignity and discipline--of just how dramatic the progress was, it's not worth the bandwidth arguing. I'm not going to let them diminish my professional nor personal pleasure in what Croom & club accomplished.
But for the more reasonable fans who have sincere concerns about continued weaknesses; i.e. lack of sheer offensive statistics, there are encouraging words. Croom meant what he said about ‘style' points Saturday; yet I've watched this staff in operation long enough to know they'd also love to score a lot more points, period. During bowl camp, gathering material for a Dawgs' Bite magazine piece on the offense, I talked to Woody McCorvey and asked if he cared about ranking in the 100s nationally in yards, touchdowns, etc. He sure does. The coordinator frankly said while it's doubtful State is going to ever pace the SEC in offense, there is no reason this program and the personnel available can't be firmly mid-pack in every category. And if you're, oh, fifth-to-eighth on all SEC stat columns, you've an offense to win with. A lot.
Croom has the same ambition. The '07 team beat Alabama, Ole Miss, and won the Liberty Bowl (remind me what folk are griping about?) by not beating itself on offense, along with a defense that came together also better than expected given losses on the line and just enough kicking. That, the head coach said, is "where we are in the program" for the moment. That is not where Croom intends to remain.
"There will come a time when we're more explosive on offense," he said. "We improved our speed on defense, we'll improve it on offense. We'll find more guys who can take a hitch pattern and break a tackle and go for a touchdown. What we're doing is good but we've got to get explosive speed. But it takes time to do that." Oh, and don't just explosive speed by 40-times either; it takes knowing how to use said speed before any fuse can be lit, which is why a couple of straight-ahead burners on this roster were limited to special teams roles.
Where will the extra explosiveness come from? Some is being developed already. Keep an eye on, just to throw out a random name, Alex Carpenter come spring ball to see if the still-raw wideout can transition from reserve to regular. I have to think Brandon McRae will translate spring stardom to season stats this time around. And all who read the bowl camp reports surely noticed the frequency with which Robert Elliot's name appeared. Watching the redshirt halfback practice was the second-best aspect of the month besides the bowl win itself. Elliot came out of that August shell he went into after a couple of scrimmage hits and fumbles to look like a SEC starter in December. I know one day, in the full-pads week, the kid got most of the carries—and contact—with the varsity, then did it again with the redshirt/reserves part of practice…and was still the second-fastest guy running gassers after all that hitting.
Hopefully a certain starting halfback noticed. By the way, I gotta say this about our man Anthony Dixon. Great kid, fun guy, but sometimes the fun takes precedence. I doubt the coaches chuckled over his comment about that goal-line leap for the winning touchdown; that he chose to vault because "I was like man, I'm on ESPN, I want to jump over the line so they can have it on TV tonight!" Good thing Wes Carroll is the halfback's emotional counterweight in the huddle, as the quarterback firmly reminded ‘Booby' that he was allowed to do anything that close to the goal, with that little time left, except fumble.
And in Dixon's defense, he had something less colorful but more meaningful to say about the touchdown. It was getting that one yard for Coach, going back to the 4th-and-1s and 3rd-and-1s that I failed at." Now that, we can respect…if A.D. will just remember to take care of the main thing on one-yard situations from now on. He's a much better pounder than dancer.
At the same time the '08 offense presumably will be capable of greater gains that avoid so many such tough conversions. I'm still awed by Carroll; not just his play but his sheer presence. Wasn't John Bond the only other true-frosh to quarterback his State squad to a bowl? And J.B. had a heckuva lot more team to take over back in 1980. We've raved enough about Carroll's intangibles already, yet let's throw in this. There's no better sign of the regard he's held in that in the fourth quarter of a bowl game he, the kid, had as much to do with setting strategy as the coaches. Maybe more, to hear all parties involved talk. Carroll called for the option to get that drive started, and the staff agreed. Something just happens when this kid pulls on the helmet that turns him from a 19-year-old freshman to a 29-year-old pro in the huddle. And that's with an arm that only 11 months after surgery (a slice of one thigh now resides in the repaired shoulder!) is still far from full-strength, upgrading of which is the off-season priority of Carroll and Coach Ben Pollard both.
A sharper slinger with the same decisive skills will make all runners and catchers—for that matter blockers too as they won't have to hold out as long—that much more explosive. So will recruiting, which by all accounts is going well for '08 and if you believe those who cover such things even better for '09. Prospects aren't being scared-off by this team's lack of firepower, it seems; the smart ones see what State wants to do on offense and where they could find playing time and points potential in seasons ahead. Ditto defense. The line-backing and secondary oughta be outstanding next fall and there are two excellent tackles with some ends ready to step into starting jobs. What is needed is for three or four of the other tackles to get tougher of body and mind, I'm told, for regular rotation roles. Kicking will surely improve through spring as injured redshirt Eric Richards comes on-line and A) gives veteran and winner Adam Carlson enough honest competition, and B) probably takes over kickoffs and improves defensive field positioning.
Along that specialist line we do need to give credit to Blake McAdams. Sure, his first three quarters were dismal in Memphis and Central Florida was winning the F.P. stats. Yet when State needed to pin the Knights down, McAdams came through with a perfect high-kick to down deep. That extra ten or so yards meant a few more plays for UCF to move, which soon resulted in the game-changing interception.
On such plays a game, a bowl, and even an entire season turns. And it takes a team with the sort of instilled attention to details to make such plays happen whether on offense, defense, kicking or coverage. The Bulldogs made enough of them in '07 for eight wins; they ought to, intend to make even more in '08 with obvious implications for the record. I wish I was optimistic enough to think along the sort of championship lines Croom and players talk, but then it's not my opinion that counts. It's what the Bulldogs believe they can do, after accomplishing what they have to-date. And boy, do they ever believe.
That's bound to explain the bittersweet expression on Titus Brown's veteran visage in the post-game press area. To which, I might add, Mr. Brown came in a suit where teammates were either still in game gear or sweats. We who've come to know, admire, and always enjoy talking with Titus understood. It was equal parts celebrating the bowl win, while knowing he wouldn't be wearing Mississippi State maroon again. Happily this member of Croom's first signing class also recognizes the rewarding part played in turning the program in the right direction.
"When I first got here we were going through some rocky trails. One of the things coach stressed to us was keep believing. We've been getting winners in each and every year to change the program around, and this game is going to plus-size that for the recruits for years to come." Spoken like a soon-to-be alumnus, one of the "good people" his coach referred to Saturday.
That's no casual compliment, either. There are a lot of Dogs who had every opportunity to go bad during the struggling years. They survived, stuck, and ultimately succeeded. Which is another MSU milestone to Croom's mind which showed in the fourth quarters of the Ole Miss and Central Florida games. If there was only one coach's quote for us to recall, here it comes, complete.
"The thing that's happened right now is we've learned how to win. The intangible qualities are in the program, it's in the people in the program. We know how to work, we know how to fight against adversity. And the next thing we've learned, now we know how to handle success. That was a big thing. We had a good season, we had all the time off after the Ole Miss game where everybody was telling us what a great year we had. My concern was could we handle that because we'd never been in that position before. And the way they came back and worked, there was no negativity about it, they came up here and had a great week of work. They enjoyed themselves but still stayed focused. The ability to do that and find a way to win a game is another step in the process toward building a championship program."
So, there. A step has been taken, another one is immediately ahead, and another, and another, and…take enough steps in the right direction and there's bound to be some sort of championship at the end. I don't pretend to be able to see it, and in this here conference some promising steps can turn out to be detours. State needs more talent, more depth, more versatility, more of everything. Yet…there is already enough good stuff and good people that when Croom speaks of championship teams there aren't so many snickers from the gallery.
Or let's have one of the leaders of the '08 team get the last word on 2007. Quoth Derek Pegues. "This is just a preview of what we're going to do next year."
(And along that line of thought, to all our readers and friends, a Happy New Year indeed. Talk to y'all again from Jackson this Saturday.)