Starting most obviously with the kicking situation, where the two most critical errors ended up giving the ball away; a strip of HB Wade Bonner after an otherwise-solid kick return, and a dreadful miss-handling of a punt by WR Jamayel Smith that set up Tech's go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter. Coverage was decent, if not great, and State's Tay Bowser did block a Tech PAT before halftime. It did not offset the game-turning gaffes.
"Our guys have got to emphasize that every kicking play can win or lose a ball game." Thus, even players not involved in special teams work were on the practice field this morning as those situations were drilled, and drilled, and drilled.
"We worked on that and will continue to work on that this afternoon," Croom said. "And we'll get it right. We'll get our kicking game squared away. And we've got to get our attitude right. We'll come back and have or regular practice this afternoon."
Mississippi State will be practicing without a familiar face on defense, though. Senior MLB Jamar Chaney hurt his left ankle on Tech's final possession, and left the field on crutches. Croom said initially the hope was the fracture was high and small enough to heal in three-to-four weeks. "But after putting pressure on the fracture it did open up, they felt it best to go ahead and do surgery." Chaney will now miss the rest of the year, and while he is eligible to redshirt losing a veteran middle-man on a defense that wore down in the first fourth quarter of the year is a blow.
"He played well the other night, and his leadership will be missed. These things happen and we will have to move on." Either redshirt Jamie Jones or freshman Bo Walters would appear the first choices to move up to starting MLB, though practice this week will show if Coach Louis Campbell has other ideas.
There were no other notable injuries in the opener. The player of most health-interest is still OT Derek Sherrod, not able to make the debut-trip as he recovers from a serious infection to a foot. "It's still a day-to-day deal," Croom said. "The infection is gone, it's a matter of when the incision heals."
Even without the starting left tackle, the position soph Sherrod was moved to for this year, Croom was not unhappy about the line play overall in the opener. "We did some good things on the offensive line. Anthony Strauder played an exceptional game, J. C. Brignone did a good job, Craig Jenkins played well, Mark Melichar did some good things and I thought he played to his ability. And I'm pleased at how Quentin Saulsberry held up. I thought the line did well, protection was good and (Tech) stacked the box but we did pretty well up-front."
Tech filled the front expecting to see a lot of HB Anthony Dixon. And the junior asserted himself, finishing with 91 yards. Alternate Christian Ducre got a dozen yards in three carries, and FB Brandon Hart got his first college touchdown on a vault of the line when everyone in the house anticipated a halfback handoff.
But one Dog of name-note didn't get on the field. Redshirted halfback Robert Elliot made the trip and stayed on the sideline. Partly, it was because when Tech was stacking, State was throwing; two-thirds of the plays in the first quarter were passes and at halftime the split was 50/50. Or, 21-to-21 specifically. Elliot is a speedster but not much of a blocker still, and with State taking what the defense presented…
"We didn't feel he was ready to play in pass protection," said Croom. " And Dixon was having a pretty good night. Had the score been different, I'd have hoped to get it under control—which I thought we had at 14-3, then we let it get away from us before halftime. That totally changed all kinds of substitution patterns there." Croom did say that there will be ways to get Elliot involved this week, regardless.
But there was one other sure casualty of the opening game: the two-quarterback rotation is out, at least for the moment. All summer and all August the State staff made it clear, both starter Wesley Carroll and spring juco transfer Tyson Lee would play in the opener. They did. From now on, though…
"There will be no strategy," Croom said. "Wes will be our quarterback. We'll win, lose, sink or swim with him. Tyson may play but in a backup capacity. But until the game is in control Wes is our quarterback."
Croom did make it clear, quarterbacking didn't directly cost this game. After all, those 257 passing yards and a touchdown would have been a big night for State triggermen in recent years no matter who the opponent was. "They made some plays, but they missed some reads." Not just in some incompleted opportunities, but three intercepted Carroll throws and one, late in the third quarter when State was 19 yards from regaining the lead, that killed momentum and mood alike.
It was a performance utterly uncharacteristic of Carroll, or at least the freshman Carroll. "We've got to get Wes back on track," Croom said. "I think Wes tried to do too much, he threw well last week in practice. Wes wasn't having a great night himself, he had six or seven plays in a row where I thought he didn't perform up to expectation." It's being almost overlooked that the changes in quarterback only came after interceptions.
Yet even had Carroll been perfect, Lee was booked for playing time in this first opportunity. "One of the things I was concerned about going in was to get everybody a chance to play that I felt could play. Guys are going to have to do that on the (practice) field and when they do get a chance, perform." Which at first Lee seemed to, hitting some throws and not turning the ball over. But as the game went on his efficiency fell off.
Thus, "We're going to continue to get Tyson and Chris Relf ready. I'm not sure who is number-two right now, but Wes is number-one. We will play Wes until we get the game under control." Croom added that it isn't the case State's staff does not want to play Lee, or redshirt Relf for that matter. For all the second-guessing today, it's worth remembering that Croom is justifiably wanting, after the hard injury experiences of 2004-07, to have at least two quarterbacks with game experience as soon as practical. Especially with Auburn looming on the schedule.
So this is the week for Lee and Relf to fight it out in practice. "Once they decide who is clearly number-two, then we may end up playing two again. But right now we've got one guy I'm totally confident in. Some things changed in the course of the game, practice is one thing, the game is another.
"But I'm going based on what I saw in practice, going into the game. All my decisions are based on what I see in practice. Anybody else's opinion doesn't concern me one bit. I have no regrets because I felt going into the game he (Lee) could have done that." Besides, Croom noted, "It shouldn't have come to that in the first place."
‘That' being a fourth quarter deficit Lee was asked to counter. For that matter there was no reason for the Bulldogs not to have at least a 14-3 halftime lead and complete control midway of the third period. Instead PK Adam Carlson's kickoff went out of bounds and Tech started from their 40-yard line down 14-3. It might not have seemed much at the time, but Tech's following punt was downed at State's one; P Blake McAdams had to hurry off a 33-yarder returned all the way to the MSU 13; and Tech punched in a momentum-turning touchdown.
That score, and the fumbled kicks early in the next period, changed everything for State's worse and led to this morning's session. Certainly the staff hopes senior S Derek Pegues will take care of return issues; he was suspended for the opener after missing spring classes. Croom is glad to have Pegues back for all sorts of reasons.
"Because he's our best football player. I fully expect his presence to make an impact, in a lot of ways." Including leadership, something that didn't show up early or often Saturday. Odd as it seems for someone who took himself from the lineup, Pegues is still to be asked to set a tone now that he's activated. Croom said Pegues, usually a voluble Bulldog, didn't chatter much in camp. "He knew he wouldn't play. It's tough to lead when you put yourself in an awkward position.
"He was a different guy this morning, he was asserting himself this morning." Which can only mean good things for the defense, especially with the loss of Chaney. Croom said defensive linemen Tim Bailey, Cortez McCraney, and Sean Ferguson had good games, and the unit did put a lot of hits on Tech quarterback Taylor Bennett.
But, "Their quarterback did an excellent job not taking sacks. A couple of times I thought he was close to grounding. You're not going to always get sacks, but we always want to make the other quarterback move and get hits on him."
Also related to kicking teams, redshirt PK Eric Richards was an unexpected scratch Saturday when he aggravated the hip ligament that had caused problems for a week in mid-camp. If Richards is healthy, he will kick off this week. "And he'd probably have had a chance to punt if he'd been healthy," said Croom. But Richards strained the ligament last week "and didn't tell anybody. He thought he could kick with some rest. He got out at the game and couldn't do it. We'll find out tomorrow."