"We've got a lot of things we've got to clean up," Croom said this morning. "What I'll do is look at practice this week."
Coming upon the heels of Croom's Saturday statements following a 38-7 loss at Georgia Tech that he was going to evaluate everything about what Mississippi State is doing, including himself, these Monday morning comments put the current situation in an interesting light. Asked what his Sunday evaluations revealed, Croom did not offer any factual or technical answers. Certainly he did not say or even hint at any significant changes in the 2008 approach.
Yet the implication still seems to be that the head coach wants to use this week, and likely the upcoming open date, to more fully evaluate the squad, season, and situation before…whatever it is the staff judges needs doing. What Croom did state was that he found no lack of effort in Atlanta. Nor were the preparations a problem in itself. "I felt good about what we had in the gameplan."
But, he added, "One or two things I'd have done differently with some of the people being young. We made some mistakes." Errors that came simply from inexperience; either defensively because the Tech option attack was nothing like what the Dogs have seen or will see again, or offensively starting with a line that has yet to meld.
So those hoping for radical changes of plan, most obviously to an offense with three touchdowns scored against three I-A competitors so far, will have to settle for a lower-key practice approach. Though, Croom offered, "We'll still continue to reduce things and increase our reps on (other) things." And, "We'll get some more people involved."
It will take a whole lot of involvement, effort, and much-improved execution this week. The Tigers are coming off an impressive and emotional showdown victory at Auburn that has put them on the inside track to another Western Division title. There might have been questions left following routine thumpings of Appalachian State and North Texas, but repeatedly rallying in the second half to beat an equal in hostile territory have left no doubts that LSU has another contender club.
"They're an excellent team, they played a great game the other night," said Croom, whose team lost 3-2 at home to Auburn. "LSU doesn't seem to have dropped off any from last year as far as I can tell. They're very strong in all three areas. And the offensive line and defensive lines are both deep and very physical."
Which has been the case since Croom returned to the SEC in 2004. In fact preparing for Tiger defenses hasn't been so very different than his game-week work back at Green Bay. But this year the offense is an equal contributor to LSU success. Prepping for league-leading rusher Charles Scott is one thing; but the Auburn win showed alternate quarterback Jarrett Lee's strengths. "The thing that impressed me was their quarterback making plays with his feet, probably more than their last two have, and also making the throw. The thing that concerns me is they've got a very solid running game, and a quarterback who can pull the ball down and make some plays."
Making plays is the top topic at State, too, but from the other side of the situation. Since putting up a pair of nice touchdown drives in the first half of the opening game, the Bulldog offense has failed to make enough plays—against comparable competition—and get into end zones. The Atlanta trip was the most frustrating example yet, because State took an amazing 80 offensive snaps and gained 407 total yards…but reached the goal line just once.
Four other possessions got into the Yellow Jackets' red zone and produced nothing but: a blocked field goal, an interception, loss on downs, and a 4th-down fumble. State also had another series end at the Tech 45-yard line with a loss of yards and ball on 4th-and-1. Failure in such settings only compounded the general offensive frustration that began in the second half at Ruston.
Croom said today that the "shock" of the opening loss brought the Bulldogs back to reality in one sense, that it revealed loss of intangible qualities the 2007 team had. Particularly, individual leadership. And the first month of play has demonstrated the penalty of '07 success in that opponents prepare much more intently for State. "Nobody takes us for granted, there are not any cheapos," Croom said. "We have to play at a very, very high level. We're missing tremendous opportunities."
That was completely clear in the first quarter at Tech. When after the home team scored first, State made a good first down only to have "the weirdest fumble I've ever seen," Croom said. As in, an unhurried, unpressured shotgun snap over the quarterback's head recovered by the home team. Then after a 71-yard run by HB Anthony Dixon and 3rd-and-goal from two feet, Tech was able to crash the middle of the blocking and keep Dixon from vaulting the line. And the fourth-down field goal was deflected.
There were plenty other opportunities to be missed while Tech executed their option game beautifully, even after the starting quarterback went down on the first touchdown series. And the final margin resulted from a defense that took too many chances in the second half, understandably trying for big hits and big plays but leaving lanes open for long runs. Though, Croom said, "What really hurt our defense was not getting points offensively to get them off the field and give them a lift."
But those expecting instant and total changes this week will have to wait. Croom insists the fundamental philosophy remains in place. "We're still a football team that relies hard on the discipline, the teamwork, all the intangible qualities. They have to be in place, we have to have it. We're not good enough to compete in this conference without those things."
As far as the intangibles, Croom says he did see something encouraging Saturday. "It may not seem like a big deal," he said. But "There was excitement when we scored at the end. Guys were ecstatic. Even though the game from a mathematical standpoint was over they were playing it to the end. Not only from Robert (Elliot) scoring, but the other player as well. That's a positive thing, even the guys on the sideline were still into the game."
And speaking of Elliot, the redshirt freshman—who notched his first college TD with the six-yard spurt up the middle—has earned a promotion. "He gave us some energy out there and made some nice plays. He'll be playing even more," Croom said. Dixon will still start, but some very uncharacteristic mental errors by Christian Ducre have altered the rotation. "Robert was working extremely well in practice, we wanted to give him an opportunity," Croom said. "I think he had one missed assignment, he lined up wrong in a ‘broken' set. But he ran hard and protected the ball. I saw him get stronger as the game went on. Ducre will still play, right now Rob is the second guy."
Croom said Wesley Carroll will start this week as usual. "Then we'll see what happens how we use the second guy." As in Lee, who played most of the third and all the fourth quarters. "I thought he and Wes performed about the same in a lot of areas," Croom said. "One moves around better and has a strong arm, one understands the system and makes better decisions."
Then again everyone on offense makes decisions every snap, which to Croom's mind points up a facet that reviewing last year's LSU game made clear. Though that team was routed 45-0 by the eventual national champions, they also battled to the end. Especially on the offensive line that had been abused all evening but still scratched and clawed in the fourth quarter as the first. This '08 line is not the same bunch, either in experience or so far intensity.
But that should be expected, Croom admits, with a redshirt freshman right tackle, true sophomore left tackle who was the backup RT last year, and converted guard at center. Croom is still certain all will develop into excellent college blockers…in time. "The adjustments have taken longer than I thought it would. If you want to think that's an excuse, so be it, but that's the reality."
Here, too though Croom saw some promising signs. Such as RT Quentin Saulsberry, who after being abused all first half put in a good second half. And the first line stayed in all game with RG Craig Jenkins the only substitute after starter Mike Gates hurt a leg. Weekend re-evaluations showed that State simply has to allow for a re-aligned line to develop.
"None are playing badly but none are playing great. We've got a breakdown here or there. I don't mean to put everything on the offensive line, because those guys are working awful hard. We just have to continue to work so we're a single, cohesive unit."
Gates will miss Monday practice. Croom expects him to play Saturday but missing work means Jenkins will likely start at LSU. Other than bumps and bruises there were no other injuries at Tech. Croom said KS Eric Richards should be back to kicking today after missing most of two weeks with a hip problem. TE Marcus Green though is probably out for another week with his hurting pelvis.
Green would be a helpful addition to the gameplan, because Croom wants to use every available offensive tool. Because that is where State's practices must focus first this week, next week, and for the rest of this season.
"We've been through a great deal of adversity here before," Croom said. "We've dug ourselves in a hole, we expect our guys to fight our way out of the hole. The thing I've got to do is find ways to help them and use more of the weapons we have. We have to give ourselves a greater chance to get the ball in the end zone. We moved the ball well (at Tech), threw well, had some nice runs. But we've got to get the ball in the end zone. That will help our defense."
For that matter putting up points is the best way to help the entire team's mindset. Which still can stand improving, Croom said. The effort has been good this year but without the "sense of urgency" shown last year in how the whole squad did things. "I haven't seen that consistently this fall. But it's not too late to get it. And we'd better get it this week or we'll get embarrassed. Maybe this is what we need. Our guys have got pride and I expect they'll rise to the challenge."
"I think the ingredients are there," Croom said. "They just have to be mindful of not letting negatives and doubts creep in. Because they have control over what happens, what anybody else says or thinks doesn't matter."