Croom Brief And Blunt After First Scrimmage

Coach Sylvester Croom had some specific things to say about the first scrimmage of pre-season 2008. Some were good, some were not. But the 28-second summary was absolutely all the head coach was going to offer on-record Saturday at Scott Field, at least to media members. And realistically it was the un-said implications that told the true story of this initial game-type practice.

What Mississippi State's coach did not say, likely for risk of saying far too much this early in camp, was how the practice game left him and much of the ball club frustrated. After five generally productive week-days of work Croom had reason to expect more of the Bulldogs than he was able to see on the field. So after an intense talk with his huddled team, Croom limited media remarks to some scribbled notes…and one very interesting evaluation.

Beginning with the "good things we did today," he ran through the list. "(WR/ST) Tay Bowser had great effort. Jamie Jones is challenging for the starting middle linebacker spot, he played outstanding today. The tempo on offense was good. Our tackling on defense was good. The goal-line stand by the defense was very good." Turning to the negatives, "Our punters were poor. Our blitz pickup on offense was poor. We had too many turnovers on offense, we're not tough on offense."

Then came the tantalizing tid-bit. "And we've got too many players that want to coach and decide what they want to do. We're going to put a stop all that next week." Upon which Croom wished all a good weekend and left, presumably to review the tape and hopefully find at least a couple more positive points.

QB Wesley Carroll wisely didn't report what was said in that huddle, but agreed with the coach's general theme. "Coach is always going to find something wrong. And there were obviously things wrong and we know it, but he's going to point out everything. And that's what makes us better, he keeps us well-grounded and makes sure we know we made mistakes. Whether we did some things good, he's going to tell us we did some things bad to emphasize that we do need to get better and we do have a long way to go."

The team area that escaped public critique Saturday was the defense. Whether the first, second, or mixed units, coordinator Charlie Harbison's squads allowed just one touchdown in around a dozen total series by the various offenses. That lone score came in the ‘third quarter' when the first offense was finally able to take an extended drive the full distance, capped by HB Christian Ducre's three-yard lunge through the middle. First and second defenses otherwise were able to stop all other series, including one by the #1 offense just a foot away from the goal and another two that reached the red zone.

Harbison was satisfied with the afternoon's results. "Mainly I wanted to make sure we didn't make any mental mistakes. Alignment assignments, responsibilities, and looking at effort. They made mistakes, but if we kept the effort that was the key to me right now. That and the fundamentals, keeping everything simple. We had them playing fast and not holding back."

This showing was more impressive because some top defensive tackles were unavailable for scrimmaging and a few others had missed days the previous week with injuries. This did not appear to hamper the overall defensive scheming, much less the execution. Harbison also used this day to mix-and-match plenty of personnel.

"We're looking to see who can play in certain situations. And we're looking for depth. The main thing is I'm trying to make sure about the fundamentals, the little things. If you go too fast and look at certain things and overlook the fundamentals, it will get you in trouble." Particularly now that under the new coordinator this defense is playing somewhat more aggressively against both pass or run than State has in previous fall scrimmages.

For their part the offense(s) were pretty aggressive in approach as well, showing all sorts of sets and throwing much more often than running. That was intentional as coordinator Woody McCorvey is confident about the ground game, he and Croom wanted to put the throwers, catchers, and blockers under pressure to perform this day. McCorvey said the head coach was most interested in observing redshirt running backs Robert Elliot and Wade Bonner in varied situations beyond just handoffs and carries; how they blocked or ran routes were an objective. Tight end, or more often ends, was another position to evaluate as a whole new rotation is being practiced. Then there was the interior line itself which was missing starting RG Michael Gates Saturday and still developing converted-to-OC J. C. Brignone.

To McCorvey there were positives the head coach did not mention. "We didn't have any quarterback-center exchanges (fumbled). When it came to the tempo we didn't have any clock problems. We had one play where we ran the screen and got it called back because we had a motion penalty by one of the young kids. But in all it's pleasing when you don't have the penalties. Take the interceptions away and I would feel good about it."

But the interceptions, one each for Carroll and Tyson Lee, counted on this scrimmage stat-sheet and certainly stopped series. Most worrisome of all to McCorvey was failure to cash in on scoring opportunities. Yes, the fact that in a first game-type day the offense drove into the red zone repeatedly was some measure of progress over most MSU fall scrimmages, many of which saw no touchdowns at all.

Still, "We don't have the toughness, especially in situations like that short-yardage and goal-line," McCorvey said. "You've got to be able to capitalize off that. No matter it's early, first scrimmage and all, we've been here and we've got enough guys out there on the field to get that in. The interceptions, we can't have those things. You've got mis-reads. And any time you have those things you're going to give the other team advantage, because it's a game of momentum and emotion.

"We can't afford to do that, the next time we come out here we've got to be able to eliminate the interceptions and stick it in on the goal line."

Nobody could complain about lack of offensive diversity. In just the first two series by the #1 unit the alignments included standard I-sets, single-back with either the full- or half-back, two halfbacks flanking the quarterback in a shotgun, and even with the one back going in motion. Receiver combinations ranged from two, three, and four wideouts, paired with single or double tight ends and at times the tight end either in motion or in a wingback's stance.

"We had a couple of good drives and definitely did some good things," Carroll said. "We put in some plays where we could throw the ball when we had single coverage on the outside, I think we executed that pretty well today."

And the first play of the day saw Carroll hit WR Jamayel Smith for 19 yards. A bounce-right by HB Anthony Dixon netted another 21 yards, before the drive ended on four downs in sight of the goal with SLB K.J. Wright's whistle-sack on third down key. The second drive, also pitting ones-vs.-ones, was a three-and-out as CB Jasper O'Quinn nearly had an interception of Carroll's try to Smith.

"We didn't start off the way we could have," Carroll said. "We just didn't play close enough attention to detail which killed drives or forced errors." The second offense, matched with their defensive counterparts and with Tyson Lee at quarterback, was quickly stopped by LB Mark Brown's called sack. Quarterbacks are no-touch in practices and scrimmages but Harbison's defenses certainly could have done damage this day. Such as on the second snap of the afternoon when had blitzing DT Jessie Bowman not pulled back his right arm at the last instant Carroll would have had a serious headache all evening.

Lack of interior depth had the defense showing an odd front at times with Bowman over the ball and between ends Jimmie Holmes and Sean Ferguson. DE Charles Burns also moved back to his old tackle position for this scrimmaging to make up some numbers.

Lee had a better second drive, keeping for one first down dash and finding RB Arnil Stallworth on a rollout for another. When an official didn't blow a play dead for a likely sack Lee had time to flip to Bell at the 14-yard line. The second offense got to the six where on fourth down Holmes batted away Lee's pass.

Next time up the first offense took on a mix of first- and second-team defenders. Carroll found WR Co-Eric Riley for one first down, before a throw meant for TE Nelson Hurst was picked by LB Anthony Littlejohn. HB Christian Ducre fumbled away the first snap of the next series and DT LaMarcus Williams fell on it.

Luck helped the #1 offense get a 15-snap drive going as a tipped throw over the middle ended up in Bell's hands for a gain of 28 yards. Riley converted third down with a 13-yard catch to the 19, and on another third down Carroll held fire for Bell to get open at the six-yard line. Three-straight handoffs to Ducre, the third somehow made as Carroll was tripped-up, left a 4th-and-foot. The play never got off as again Carroll was tumbled coming out with the snap, with what looked to be a rollout pass in the offing.

"Wes had the ball, what I thought is the left guard might have stepped back when he came out and tripped him up," McCorvey said.

The first unit was probably due to rotate off but Croom called them to stay on the field and start over at the 25-yard line again, this time against a mostly second-squad defense. Ten plays later Ducre bulled across the goal from four yards out for the touchdown.

"We should have scored at least three times I remember," said Carroll. "We have got to score touchdowns when we get in the red zone. We know we're going to get the field goal at 30-going in. But we've got to come away with touchdowns this year. The teams that we're going to play this year, we know they'll probably put points on the board no matter how good our defense is. So we've got to put the burden on ourselves and put the ball in the end zone, not just settle for field goals."

The other best chance for offense #2 to put up points came after a nice downfield hookup of Lee and Stallworth. On fourth down a field goal was called for, only to have CB Tay Bowser come off the right end and block it. O'Quinn got his interception and a touchdown return of 35 yards at the expense of third QB Chris Relf as the #3 teams took a few turns.

Punting was not a total loss as Blake McAdams loosed a couple of really good kicks. And in the return game Smith would have gone the distance for at least a 60-yard return if not for a stop-it-now whistle when he broke into the clear. Freshman WR Delmon Robinson shook off an ankle problem to practice fielding punts along with Chris Nance and Charles Bailey. Still special teams will get more attention in the week ahead. As assuredly will the offensive execution, especially in goal-line settings.

"You've got to be able to stick it in there," McCorvey said. "We've got to go back next week and really work on our timing. And we've got to get tougher."

Harbison's defense won't exactly be sitting around on scrimmage laurels, either. "We've still got a ways to go, there are some things that are obvious we messed up on in alignments and stuff like that. But other than that, once I think once we evaluate the tape and see how the older guys did and then evaluate the second team we'll go from there."

What the head coach will want to emphasize will be settled after he's wound through the whole tape a few times. Carroll is keeping things in perspective, though, recalling how upset Croom was last Sunday after the very first practice. "But we bounced back from that and did better, and I'm sure we'll respond the same way. If we've got any hopes of being a good team this year we'll come back strong Monday and improve. And I'm sure we will because we've got the guys and the heart to do it. It's just a matter of getting out there and actually doing it, not saying it."

And certainly not saying anything that sounds like players trying to coach themselves or their teammates.

INJURY REPORT: The only major injury noted in the scrimmage was second-team OG Tobias Smith who turned his left ankle and was carted afterwards to Shira. S Charles Mitchell was clearly rattled by a collision tackle with RB Arnil Stallworth, was helped to the sideline and did not return. WR Jamayel Smith appeared to tweak his left hamstring slightly on his punt return and did not play further as a protective measure.

A number of players on both sides of the line were sidelined or held out of the scrimmage. Starting OG Michael Gates, who left Friday's afternoon practice early for x-rays, was found to have only a sprained right ankle. He is out indefinitely. The defensive line had to work without DT Kyle Love (right toe, protected by a boot for the first time Saturday), DE Brandon Cooper (back), freshman DT Devin Jones (ankle sprain). CB Damein Anderson is still held out as his hamstring recovers.

DS Aaron Feld wore limited yellow with his back problems but still did his job in first-team kicking plays. RB Tojo Patterson (ankle) and KO Eric Richards (hip) were also in yellow but did not participate. No defensive players were in limited-purple, all were in red crosses.

SCRIMMAGE STATISTICS: Rushing—Ducre 14 carries for 57 yards, 1 TD; Elliot 12-50; Dixon 2-27; Lee 2-4; Bonner 5-4; Hart 1-2; Riley 1-0; Stallworth 1-(-1); Carroll 1-(-4).

Passing—Carroll 12-for-21, 130 yards, 1 INT; Lee 13-21-111; Relf 3-7-26, 1INT.

Receiving: Bell 4 for 56 yards; Stallworth 3-56; Riley 3-36; McRae 3-24; Smith 1-14; Ellard 3-14; Bailey 1-13; Wilder 2-11; Clark 1-10; Green 3-8; Hoskins 1-8; Hart 1-4; Cook 1-3.

Leading Tacklers—Mitchell, Hunt 5; Fitzhugh, Watson 4; Douglas, McCraney, O'Quinn, Brown, Glanton, Littlejohn 3.

Sacks—McCardell 2 for 11 yards; Brown 1-5; Washington 1-5; Wright 1-4; Bell 1-3; Johnson 1-2.

Interceptions—Littlejohn 1 for 25 yards; O'Quinn 1-35, 1TD.

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