Had the Yellow Jackets and Bulldogs won this past Saturday, the inter-conference contest would likely have been picked up for ABC telecast. Then again, network executives might have been leery about marketing prospects for a matchup that looks to be low-scoring at best. Mississippi State did little to attract attention by scoring just two points against Auburn, that forced by the Dog defense when the Tigers were caught holding in their end zone. Offensively State was, well, in-offensive with 116 net yards on 55 snaps.
That wasn't enough to knock off the #9-ranked Tigers. "We had a tough loss against a very good team," Croom said. "Our kids played awful hard. We played excellent on defense, we were very good in the kicking game except one play."
Then, "Our players on offense played hard but we didn't play smart a lot of times, especially in some crucial situations. It stopped us from getting in position to put points on the board and win the game." And as the SEC opener played out, any offensive points would have tipped the balance. Or for that matter the one mistake in the kicking game referred to; when a field goal hold was bobbled and the kick to tie at the time missed.
But it wasn't that one breakdown Croom spent his weekend watching over and over and over. Nor a defense that clearly took care of its business. He watched the offense with a critical eye, and the initial focus on himself.
"The first thing I do is look at myself and say ‘am I asking guys to do too much'," Croom said. "I've looked at this film all weekend; no, we're not asking them to do too much. There's no excuse for what happened, but I've got to get it squared away."
What the head coach does not have in mind is any drastic alternations in State's basic approach to offense. "We're not going to change the scheme," Croom said this morning. This, too, he said is supported by what he saw on video. "We just had some breakdowns. If you get one guy not doing what he's supposed to do then the play doesn't have success. A lot of times it was very crucial situations, both 4th-and-1s had missed assignments."
Croom affirmed there is no need for changing quarterbacks, either. This did not mean Wesley Carroll avoided criticism. "He did some good things, he made some good throws. He had an obviously bad one, the worst one and the one everybody remembers when he had three guys open and goes to his left." Still Mississippi State's offense remains in Carroll's hands.
"At this point I still feel he gives us our best chance to win. If I feel I need to do something in the game, I'll do it."
What Carroll and Croom can't do is utilize injured personnel, or not much. State tried to get as much milage as Anthony Dixon had to give on a groin strained late in Thursday's practice and unreported until the halfback came up gimpy in the second quarter. Dixon netted five yards on seven carries against Auburn's speedy support and only played a handful of snaps after halftime. Christian Ducre did his best to replace the starter and netted 49 yards on 16 runs, but without Dixon the Dogs struggled. And both 4th-and-1s could have been played, and defended, quite differently with a healthy Dixon as a factor.
As of this morning State, and Georgia Tech, can't know how to plan on or for Dixon. "He's still sore," Croom said. "It's day-by-day, we won't know until later in the week exactly how much he can do and if he will play or not. It's too early to tell now." Allowing that Dixon's power might not be available, Croom will figure ways to make use of Ducre's moves and the speed young Robert Elliot can offer. "We've got to get Elliot in the mix. He and Ducre will be the guys to carry the load, them and Arnil Stallworth."
State will also keep working on correcting Carroll's reads in big-play situations to make the most of the veteran wideouts who have played well all three games this year. Asked about rookie Delmon Robinson's limited snaps since an impressive season-opener, "It's my fault on that," Croom said. "It's tough to take Brandon McRae off the field." But the goal is to come up with additional, or as Croom called them ‘special,' personnel groups that Robinson fits into. The freshman did have a poor practice week before Auburn but Croom is confident Robinson will get better. "And he can possibly gives us some explosive plays."
If Dixon is day-to-day, TE Marcus Green is much more doubtful. "Extremely," Croom said. Green did not play Saturday with his hurting hip. Nor did kicker Eric Richards with a sore hip tendon. At this point Croom doesn't want to gamble their long-term development on this weekend, no matter how crucial this game is to the '08 outlook.
"Those are two guys we were counting on to be impact players for us. We're going to give them every chance to get well so when they do get back they can help us." Croom was glad to get soph OT Derek Sherrod back into the starting lineup, at left tackle, though the rust still showed against Auburn's aggressive pass rush.
"He had a rough start. He had about eight or nine missed assignments to start the game. He got better, but it's obvious the time he missed has hurt him. But to his credit after the first twelve plays he picked up from that. He made some serious mistakes but that's from lack of practice." Croom said center J. C. Brignone played "extremely well" and right tackle Quentin Saulsberry continues to improve. "The only thing I'm disappointed with the offensive line, the guard play was inconsistent."
While the Bulldog defense earned applause for their heroic efforts against Auburn, they aren't taking any breaks this week. Because Mississippi State has to prepare for an entirely different sort of attack, the true triple-option Coach Paul Johnson has brought from the Naval Academy to Atlanta.
"Well, we've got a lot of work to do," Croom said. "Because you're talking about total different system now. Getting our guys to learn the fits and assignments, that's the hardest thing about playing the wishbone. It's the discipline and making play when the opportunity presents itself."
Of course Croom himself knows something about the wishbone, having played center in that system at Alabama. This old line-Dog has a fondness for the triple-option as a former player, and a dread of getting a team ready one time for an utterly different scheme. "It's both interesting and annoying!" Croom chuckled at the notion of a ‘throwback' game this week in Atlanta. "It's probably a few throwback fans, I guess."
But the game is played by today's athletes, and a Dog defense used to attacking the ball now all of a sudden has to show restraint that goes against their grain. "It's extremely difficult," Croom said. "Because you've got gap responsibilities. Who takes the dive, takes the quarterback, takes the pitch. To play the run and be able to react to the pass creates problems. And, having people to simulate the offense in practice."
State's staff spent time in summer breaking down Navy's offense under Johnson, and they have all three Tech tapes from this season to help in game-prep.
"Our defense will have a good plan, but discipline is the big things," Croom said. "Guys doing exactly what they're supposed to do to prevent breakdowns."