"That's really the bottom line," Croom said this morning. "And they've done a great job doing that. They're at the bottom in offense but on top of the East which is considered one of the toughest (leagues) in the country. They know who to win games. And I'm happy for them because I have the greatest respect for that coach."
Indeed, Croom is perhaps the best-qualified coach in the SEC to appreciate what Bobby Johnson's program has achieved here in year-seven. It took four years for Mississippi State to show any real results of Croom's patient approach to rebuilding, with the reward a 8-5 finish in 2007 and 4-4 conference mark. And those Bulldogs did it more by not-losing than outright winning games, too.
Thus his professional regard for Johnson's current success. "Because we've both in our programs been underdogs, I always pull for him. I'm happy that they're doing well, and the way they're doing it. They've got the fewest turnovers and fewest penalties, they don't beat themselves and keep coming and keep coming and keep coming. That's the way we won last year. And obviously I haven't done a good enough job up to this point to make them understand that's the way we have to do it."
Because the Bulldogs (1-4, 0-2 SEC) have fallen from their winning ways of 2007. And where fans and media look immediately to stats and scores, Croom points to the more fundamental fact that State is doing things to lose games. Turnovers, penalties, execution lapses, missed opportunities; all the things that seemed corrected last November have resurfaced in the first half of 2008. Fixing these faults is the first and only way to get back on the sort of track State enjoyed last year and Vanderbilt is thriving on this season.
Croom hopes an open date was part of fixing the current problems. If nothing else, taking a break after a brutal stretch of games against Auburn, Georgia Tech, and LSU had to do some Bulldog bodies and minds good. State had three practices last week, then the players were turned loose after a Friday conditioning session while as many staffers as the NCAA allowed hit the recruiting trail. Croom liked what he saw when everyone reassembled Sunday evening.
"Our guys are back in and ready to go to work. It was a good rest for the weekend. We have a big game with Vanderbilt, they had a big win and they've got a lot of momentum going their way. We're looking forward to playing a big game here at home."
The staff is looking to have a reasonably healthy roster for mid-October, too. "I think everybody is a lot better than when we left," Croom said. It still stings having lost two players, starting MLB Jamar Chaney and HB Robert Elliot for the year to season injuries. And while Croom still has some hopes that TE Marcus Green's hip will heal enough for him to play again soon, he isn't building any gameplans around that just yet. "I'm not anticipating him being back this week, I wish he were, he'd add a lot to the offense."
Whoever else the offense has to work with this week, it will be Tyson Lee under-center Saturday afternoon in his second college start. "It's his job right now," Croom said. "But I do reserve the right to make changes if I feel in the course of the game we need to."
That doesn't and shouldn't imply that the head coach will have a quick trigger this week with Lee, who made his first State start at LSU and was reasonably effective. Lee was 17-of-26 throwing for 175 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown, with no fumbles or interceptions. He also scrambled for a third-down conversion that led to State's first touchdown at Baton Rouge.
"He was very accurate, quick with decisions, he pulled the ball down and made some plays, he threw the ball away," Croom said in review. "Just overall his decision making was very good, and he didn't turn over the football." Which was an unexpected problem that sophomore Wesley Carroll had been struggling with this season. Entirely unexpected, because it was Carroll who as a true freshman successfully ran a low-risk, low-turnover offense that won six of his nine starts.
But Croom stressed the change at quarterback after four games was not a case of Carroll losing the job. Lee won it on his own merits in September practicing. Lee was actually a rotation quarterback with Carroll at Louisiana Tech but that didn't work out well initially. "The first game we didn't like the way he responded to some things, we didn't think he totally understood the offense," Croom said. Particularly worrisome was Lee's decision to slide short of the mark on a third-down scramble when the first down was within range…leading to a punt from the MSU end zone, a Tech touchdown before halftime, and total turning of the game.
That and other plays confirmed some spring and August camp concerns about how Lee handled broken plays. But to his credit Lee stuck to the task and after working most of the second half at Georgia Tech he seemed an entirely different triggerman practicing for LSU.
"It just seemed the LSU week everything clicked," Croom said. "That (Tuesday) is when I first saw he had a total different demeanor, how he stepped into the huddle, he was totally in command. It just clicked. I said let's see if this is a one-day deal; he did it Wednesday and again Thursday. I had confidence in him, I saw that spark in practice."
This doesn't mean Carroll has been exiled to the sideline, though. "It has energized him, because he is a competitor," Croom said. "He said he will fight and get his job back, and I expect no less." Croom also emphasized there will be no ‘short leash' on Lee this week. "I've told him that and he understands that," the coach said about being ready to change quarterbacks as he sees the need. "But I won't do that if he has a bad play. He doesn't have to look over his shoulder. But I do expect Wes to get better. Both have strengths the other doesn't have, so if we need to take advantage of something the other has we'll do that."
Croom also said that the overall gameplan won't change with different starters. "But there would be some things we'd emphasize more with one or the other in there. That's really with all three of our quarterbacks." A comment that indicates redshirt Chris Relf is in the picture; in fact Croom had expected to use Relf at LSU in some settings, until Lee proved able to handle all the situations that arose in those matchups.
"We've got to give (Lee) better protection, run the ball better, and make plays in the passing game," Croom said. And speaking of running, he made it clear that greater expectations are going to be placed on the broad shoulders of HB Anthony Dixon. "He's got to go every snap now," Croom said. "He's just got to go no matter what package or personnel group, he's staying on the field unless he's tired."
Now that is a slight exaggeration; there certainly can be situations a big back isn't necessary on the field. But not many. "He's got to carry the load now," Croom stressed. This is partly because of the loss of Elliot, a quicker sort of runner and better receiver in most sets. But mostly because Dixon is State's best offensive weapon and it is time to maximize his opportunities in this matchup. "Christian Ducre will come in when he's tired, or Wade Bonner. And I'm pretty much going to leave it up to A.D., if you need a rest throw your hand up." But Croom is warning Dixon to get his rest each evening this week. "Because we're going to ride him."
State's offense will ride the same six-man group of blockers, too. OG Mike Gates is back from his leg injury but for another week Craig Jenkins will open at right guard. "We consider him a starter anyway, and the swing guy," Croom said. "Gates will come off the bench."
Meanwhile the Bulldogs are back to game-week work as they prepare for an opponent that has stopped being just a SEC surprise story and is simply seen as successful by State's staff. And a team that has done it by a very familiar formula, Croom repeats. Don't make mistakes, don't draw flags, don't give the ball away…and don't lose.
"I hope our kids see that when we watch the film," Croom said. ""But somebody is going to have to step up and make a play this game."