The coach knows very well what a September SEC success can mean. It was at Auburn one year ago that the Bulldogs took advantage of an Auburn miscue to drive for a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth period; then held on four downs in their red zone to preserve a 19-14 victory. The win proved the turning point for the entire 2007 season. Fast-forward a season and the '08 Bulldogs find themselves in a similar situation. Or as Croom sees it, with similar opportunity.
"You just look forward to playing good football teams like this. This is why you want to be in the Southeastern Conference, to play great teams like this."
And Auburn has shown early potential to be a great club again. Little needs noting about the Tiger defense, which follows the same fast-and-physical formula established practically from the day football arrived on the ‘plains.' What is behind this year's buzz is the revamped offense under coordinator Tony Franklin. In their 27-13 win over Southern Mississippi, the Tigers piled up the yards for three quarters before dialing it back. But they showed enough of the arsenal to make this weekend's challenge to the Dog defense clear enough.
"Like a lot of spread offenses they give a lot of different looks," Croom said. But regardless of look he said the first priority must always be stopping the ground game. "You're more worried about the run than the pass. To me, if a spread can run you've got real problems. Because the pass is already going to stretch your defense and match up athletes in-space and create tackling problems.
"We've got to gang-tackle and get guys down when they're in the open field. That's where we have to start with this offense and any other spread."
State's defense got a look at Auburn's first trials of a spread-system last year when then-backup Kodi Burns came off the bench and directed both Tiger touchdown drives. "He gave us problems last year, and we've got to contain him better," Croom said.
But Auburn can go another way with junior transfer Chris Todd, who can throw in the pocket or on the roll. "And both of them are pretty effective," Croom said. "We've go to be ready to play well against both of them." For that matter Auburn could just as easily play a straight power-run game if they wanted, using either Ben Tate or Brad Lester behind what is likely the best offensive line in the league this year.
"We need to play our best to have a chance," Croom said.
The Dog defense is having to play without the best middle linebacker, with senior Jamar Chaney lost after the opening game. Croom said Chaney was missed in the win over Southeastern Louisiana, and even after the win middle linebacker is still a by-committee matter right now. Redshirt freshman Jamie Jones got his first college start as the MLB, and alternated with true soph Karlin Brown who had been suspended in the opener. Results were mixed, Croom said.
"Karlin probably played better than Jamie, and he should because he's been at the position a full year. We may give him the nod this week. Jamie didn't hurt us but he wasn't as active as we want our middle linebackers to be."
State compensated somewhat for the loss of Chaney in game-two both by using the younger MLBs, and using a three-lineman front with an extra safety, or two, supporting the ‘backers as needed. This certainly made for a faster defense overall. "Our pass rush definitely improved," Croom said. "Which we had a lot of room to improve." After not sacking anyone at Louisiana Tech, the defense bagged Lion quarterbacks five times.
Plus, the tackling as a whole made necessary progress from first game to second. Not that tackling those Lions will be anything like taking on these Tigers, of course, yet on the whole State's defense was more technically sound the second time-out. It wasn't a coincidence that S Derek Pegues returned to action after an opening-night suspension.
Croom said Pegues was obviously rusty, having spent much of August not working with the first team in first-game preparations. In particular his work on fielding and returning punts was off, with one drop—recovered—and "one bad decision" when Pegues caught a kick at the goal line and only got a yard farther before tackling. "I think it was a little anxiety on his part to do well," Croom said.
"But it was definitely a lot more comforting having him back there. I think the whole team was glad to see him back as well. He brings so much to the table, in no uncertain terms he's the best player on the team. And he's a commanding personality. He doesn't say a lot but when he does players listen to him, and having him there is a stabilizing effect for our entire defense."
Getting sophomore tackle Derek Sherrod should certainly strengthen the entire offensive line. Sidelined most of two weeks by a serious foot infection, Sherrod got maybe a dozen snaps in relief work Saturday evening. And relief is a good word to use about this situation, because the best young tackle is needed at full-speed as soon as possible. He's not there, yet.
"He did some good things considering he hadn't practiced for nearly two weeks," Croom said. "It showed because he had two or three missed assignments, and he never misses assignments. It shows that everybody needs to practice. He'll get all the reps again at left tackle and should allow him to play better, and definitely make us a better offensive line."
Two-game starter Mark Melichar will still be ready to work at either tackle. Melichar had to deal with his own health issues late in August, losing over a dozen pounds with a stomach virus. "And he hasn't regained his strength yet, it showed some the other night," Croom said. "But he held his own." Quentin Saulsberry will start again at right tackle. Croom said guards Anthony Strauder and Mike Gates have played well in both games and center J. C. Brignone has been very efficient in his first year snapping the ball.
"And with Derek back the starting group should be a solid unit." It's the second team that is still not entirely settled, though Croom says the potential is there with improved work from tackle Chris Spencer, a reliable Craig Jenkins, and the emergence of redshirt Dakota Merritt. Versatile Addison Lawrence is also one to watch. "He has the ability to definitely move into our second unit at tackle, but he's got to get more focused on the game. He's into being cool right now."
Other freshmen are getting their turns to contribute, too. Croom said redshirt HB Robert Elliot, in his first college carries, ran hard and protected the ball. True frosh DT Joshua Jackson was put on the field for the first time and will be worked into the tackle rotation quickly. Rookie WR Delmon Robinson didn't get as many snaps against SELa as in an impressive opening game, with other wideouts having big nights, but did exactly what he was asked to on the snaps he got. And while freshman S Charles Mitchell had one "critical error" when he allowed an inside route to be run against specific instructions, he still clearly has the talent to play in safety rotation. "But where he really shows up is on special teams," Croom said. The kid has already shown a knack for getting to the ball after kicks.
Croom updated a couple of health situations. TE Marcus Green, who had a 50-yard catch-and-run Saturday, left the game on crutches after aggravating the same hip hurt in mid-August. "He's a day-by-day situation, he won't practice today and we don't know if he'll play for sure." And redshirt kicker Eric Richards is more doubtful after making his college debut kicking-off against SELa.
"He will probably not play," Croom said. "We'll try to give him a shot this week to help the tendon causing the irritation. If we do he's probably out this week. As of this moment he is less than probable."