From The Dawghouse

The comments are still echoing all across Bulldog country. But responses to Coach Sylvester Croom's Saturday statements, recounted word-for-word in our game coverage from Atlanta, have surely shifted from ‘what did he mean' to ‘what does it mean' for the balance of this 2008 Mississippi State season. And, for seasons to come.

Because the initial, unavoidable reaction listening to Croom was that changes are in store for Mississippi State in the aftermath of that 38-7 thrashing. Specifically, though it was only one part of the entire talk, to an offense that has scored three touchdowns in as many games against I-A competition.

Does anyone else find it interesting that such implications of change coincide with changes of seasons? Or put another way, right when State's on-field season is in dire need of changing course? Yeah, probably just coincidence.

Before reading further, and if you have the time, it would be really beneficial to pull up the posted post-game interview and read Croom's quotes in-full again. Just to keep things in some perspective. Picking-and-choosing comments to commentate on inevitably, if unintendedly, plays to personal impressions and prejudices. Paid-pros like myself included. Besides, and as I mentioned to A.D. Greg Byrne there in the Georgia Tech weightroom serving as temporary interview room; I thought that was one of Croom's best post-games in his five seasons at State. Too bad the audio wasn't available to fans because transcripts can't reflect how calm and deliberate the coach was.

Take this example: "More than anything else right now I'm evaluating myself…I have to look at what I'm doing because I know we're a better football team than that but we're not showing it on the field." No, this was neither an indictment of his team nor one of those phony ‘I'm in charge, blame me' we hear from coaches all the time to cover for their players' failures. Though, I'm always fascinated to find, fans favor such false modesty over accurate assessments; they seem to prefer the boss on the sideline take blame for on-field missed blocks, wrong reads, or a just-plain great play by an opponent. Oh, well, it comes with the paycheck.

Regardless of impression, the fact is that failures in 2008 offensive execution is bringing a thorough evaluation, or rather re-evaluation, of why what won't work with who when. Which naturally raises the question, what took so long to bring on such an evaluation? This: because here in '08 Croom and offensive staff believed they finally had enough personnel in positions to execute what they spent four previous seasons building to. An experienced, successful, and HEALTHY quarterback, for one thing; talent and variety at running back(s); and enough good receivers with both speed and size (an overlooked aspect). And until late March the offensive line was similarly and sufficiently advanced, at least until You Know What happened.

Even then, without Mike Brown's all-SEC talents and a forced reshuffling of the front further compounded by camp injuries, expectations were that there was enough skill and experience elsewhere that this offense would execute what they practice in games. For two quarters at Louisiana Tech it looked as if the staff was correct.

Three-and-a-half games later, it's an entirely different picture. Oh, even the harshest critic must admit this is not the same offensive scheme as 2004-07. We've seen more sets, groupings, and patterns in one '08 month than in the previous four falls combined. Few of these were truly ‘new' plays either but stuff State had wanted to work ever since this staff arrived. But until now the personnel couldn't reliably execute it against their own defense in practice, so those things stayed on unused pages of the playbook.

This year the Dogs are supposed to be running, and passing, those plays along with the basic stuff. The plays are being called, and run/passed. And State isn't scoring points. Yesterday was all the more galling because 407 net yards on 80—80!!!—offensive snaps implies victory, or at least a scoreboard-burning shootout. Not one touchdown, by the backup quarterback and after giving up 38 points to the other side.

Thus, Croom's comment about evaluating himself. Which I'll guarantee every single soul that heard this heard or read as ‘evaluate my offense.' That's not entirely correct, because to Croom everything is supposed to operate as a single system. That is, defense and kicking/covering are cooperative functions of the offense. After all, the Dogs gave up a heck of a lot of points even when Tech had to start deep in their own half of the field. And as Croom noted, blocked placekicks are almost inconceivable given how intensely State practices such things. But it happened all the same and was the single most emotionally devastating point of the afternoon.

By the way, give Croom credit for explaining—note, no excusing—why preceding that failed kick try Anthony Dixon wasn't relieved after his 71-yard rumble and given the handoff to run wide on the next snap. A.D. himself didn't complain about the opportunity when I asked him, either. Or the call to accept the second-down run and not take the penalty. I had no problem at all with letting the ball be placed on the two-foot line instead of closer to two yards back. I'd have made the same choice, and I suspect at the time 90% of y'all would too; only in retrospect would we say take the penalty and two chances to score from a little farther out.

Nor have I any issue with letting Dixon have the third-down handoff and be pointed at one guard or the other to vault the line. It worked at Memphis last December, you'll recall; it should work all the time, every time. But not when blocking breaks down and there's penetration in the middle that doesn't let A.D. set his feet and jump. That's execution, folks, not excusation.

Or take the 4th-and-1 last week against Auburn when Christian Ducre gets the handoff…and interior blocking assignments are missed and the ball goes over on downs. Or again yesterday in another 4th-and-1 when Dixon is headed for right tackle, except big Yellow Jackets are pouring through that side by the time he gets the handoff. It has little to do with predictability—big strong backs ought to make at least one yard two-thirds of the time--and everything to do with execution.

Yet…that also comes back around to the bigger problem which is surely what Croom implied in ‘evaluating' everything today. If Mississippi State cannot consistently execute something as fundamental as a halfback blast, even against a defense prepared for it…how is the unit going to operate other things involving more moving parts over all areas of the field? And do it against the sort of defenses we're facing that have enough speed and quicks to make up for their own mistakes in pure execution and still stop State's play? Georgia Tech's front-four was superb, SEC quality; but as the Dogs showed they are vulnerable if you can get past the line of scrimmage. Unfortunately State was beaten there too often to maximize all those snaps and yards.

Thus this further Croom comment: "The only way I can answer it, guys, is it's me. It's gotta be. I don't have any other way to figure it out. And I've just got to look at everything I'm asking them to do." The irony is that during this past week, after going offensively-scoreless against Auburn, the staff did simplify some parts of the scheme…even things the Dogs did well enough last year when Wesley Carroll was an unproven quantity and passing options were limited. Because, Croom said, they weren't being successfully executed in this season's games the way they were in practices.

Now let's be clear on one fact: systems by themselves are neither good nor bad. The NFL-dominating West Coast offense (which is not truly what State has been running for a while now anyway) works just as well as a college wishbone (which is not exactly what Georgia Tech ran, either). And as to the popular theory that college coaches should ‘adapt their schemes to fit their players', well, that's an easy and unfortunate oversimplification. If you wait until observing your personnel to decide what to run them out of, well, good luck with that. It also is no way to recruit. Besides, State's staff is not nearly as inflexible in adapting to talent(s) as many want to believe.

So no, I do not expect to hear Croom tomorrow morning tell us media that he's junking the current system and turning to another. Not immediately, anyway. Instead of revolution I'd expect more an evolution…to what? Presumably adaptations that don't demand all 11 players to execute perfectly every play after play after play for a drive to end up in the end zone. Now I don't want to be guilty of over-simplifying either, and there is no system out there other than back-yard ‘fake left, cut right at the gardenias and go long' that does NOT require accomplished overall execution.

But…there must be ways to minimize how some breakdowns these Dogs are prone to can crimp production without gutting the complete gameplan or entirely changing the system. There are teams out there that could do it mid-season, of course; they're in the top-ten. They could run anything they want and still win because that's the level of talent available to work with. Yet we also have to admit that other programs have shown ability to adapt quickly. Georgia Tech hasn't taken very long to catch on to the option-based attack that was actually developed back at Georgia Southern two decades ago. Remember the ‘Hamm Bone' anyone?

Back when Steve Spurrier was making a mockery of the SEC, he was hailed as having changed the way our stodgy old defense/kicking/running league played the game. Well, maybe, though if you check the numbers those 1990s Gator teams were pretty darned good on defense too, and sent about as many backs to the NFL as receivers…and very few passers. Because Spurrier could have lined up those rosters in a straight-I and run the old Southern Cal toss sweep all the time and still won nine, ten games. They had the talent to play the game any way they chose.

Mississippi State doesn't have that luxury for now. But there is more than enough talent in enough places to score touchdowns and win games. This season, I mean. Because there are winnable games ahead if, IF, the Bulldogs figure out the right formula involving the current personnel. This O-line is only going to get better if the three-game run they're in doesn't break them. We know there are guys that can catch a pass, particularly the sorts of passes being thrown now. And while A.D. is just a tenth-of-a-tick shy of true breakaway-back status, we've finally gotten a glimpse of what Robert Elliot offers both running and receiving. Maybe a scheme that doesn't demand perfect pass-blocking from a back would open up other opportunities.

As for quarterback…well, it's going to be an interesting week. We don't get to watch team-on-team practices so I can't promise any accurate insight into who gets more number-one snaps in drills. And I imagine comments from staff and players will be limited on this topic for the time being, understandably. Happily, from what I judge of Carroll and Tyson Lee, they're not going to let this become anything harmful to the whole. Wanting to win takes precedence over personal ambitions at this point.

So look for a lot of questions to be asked the next couple of days of the head coach about what his evaluations reveal and imply for the next two months' opportunities. The trick, to me, is that whatever Croom's decisions are they not merely apply the current lineup. It needs to take into account the fact that 2008 has actually turned into the start of what we could call ‘phase two' in the program. Instead of a follow-up to 2007. What I mean is, most of these Dogs are coming back for '09 and beyond; and that doesn't factor in the talents being recruited…or who can be recruited once a clearer offensive course is set.

But before wrapping it up so I can get busy finalizing the November-dated (October mailed) D.B. magazine due tonight, here are a couple more coach quotes worthy of evaluating.

"The main objective of the offense is to keep you from losing." And, "The offense's No.1 job is not to give the football to the opposition. The second job is to move the football in order to give the defense some rest. And finally, if the offense can do these other things, their third objective is to try to score."

Now most will surely suspect this quote was retrieved from the first couple of seasons with this staff. Nnnnot quite. Well then, it sounds like Jackie Sherrill in his ground-pounding prime? Sorry, try again Oh, right, it's pure Emory Bellard wishbone-style conservatism. Uh-uh.

That quote is resurrected from the August 31, 1977 issue, straight from Bob Tyler's mouth as State went into that season running a true wishbone. It would start out well enough, then mid-year lose five of six games with a four-game stretch scoring five total touchdowns. In October, Tyler was again quoted in D.B. saying "We threw out two-thirds of our offense and concentrated on the remaining one-third so that we could become proficient with our execution." And, "We do not have problems other than losing football games and an offense that hasn't been successful."

My point, other than to show you younger generations that we old Dogs have seen this show before, is that this offense stuff is not as simple as choosing a system or relying on personnel. It's not one or the other, it's both. The right players in the right system, and vice-versa.

And by the way, do we remember what happened in 1977? Three series into the Alabama game, Tyler junked the wishbone and went with a pro-set. It was a total change of scheme two months into a season, and it worked well enough to beat Auburn and Ole Miss and play LSU down to a field goal. Then the next year, with punter-turned-passer Dave Marler operating the pro-set, State set all sorts of passing records and went 6-5…but also was shut out by Auburn and held to a single TD in the Egg Bowl and didn't get a bowl bid. By January, Tyler was gone and Bellard brought the wishbone which he himself had invented at Texas a decade earlier back.

Which, after a 3-9 year, he revised into a ‘wingbone' set that won 17 games the next two seasons…while he had the right linemen, backs, and receivers. When that talent ran out, even the great John Bond couldn't make a wingbone work.

Confused yet? It's not that hard. System and players; players and schemes. That is what Croom and staff are evaluating today; the right system for the right players.

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