"We did some good things in the game. The things I was most pleased with was we were very physical, we didn't turn the ball over, our tackling was much improved, our pursuit on defense was excellent. And we got a lot better on third-down conversions on offense. Just in general we really played as a team and got better."
And, Croom added, "We still need to do that this week." Likely much more so, because despite the lack of a ranking and their slowest SEC start in two decades, this is playing Tennessee (2-4, 0-3 SEC) in Neyland Stadium with all that implies. If anything, the Volunteers are likely to be that much more hazardous a matchup for MSU this weekend as their own overall season hangs in the October balance.
"They're struggling a little," Croom acknowledged. "But hey, they're playing at home, they're a very talented, dangerous football team." Why then are the Vols struggling so this particular season? Croom is well-acquainted with Coach Phillip Fulmer's record, not to mention his regular recruiting, and praises the athletes that will be lining up on the home sideline Saturday. "It's just one of those cycles you go through," Croom said of Tennessee's problems in the first half of 2008.
"There's a great deal of parity now, and they're going through one of those spells right now." A spell that Mississippi State's staff is not counting on continuing this weekend, at all. This after all is the defending SEC East co-champions, with a lot of the personnel back from the team that out-muscled MSU in a 33-21 battle at Scott Field a year ago. Even in defeat at the time Croom enjoyed the ‘old school' style both teams played that game.
So he's not putting much stock in the fact Tennessee netted just one rushing yard last Saturday at Georgia. Croom is preparing for a Vol team that would be on top of their game at home, thus "We've got to be at our best" he said.
"We feel we can play with anybody at this point. The key is us doing what we're supposed to do. More than anything else I'm worried about us doing our part; being physical, not turning the ball over, no missed assignments, kicking the ball well. If we do that then we've got a chance to win."
Mississippi State had, and took advantage of, its chance to win against Vanderbilt to a large extent because they made the most of the open date. The break couldn't have come at a better time, it turns out. The Bulldogs had garnered a measure of improved confidence by how they played in the 34-24 loss at LSU, but they needed some down-time to fully evaluate everything. And, to put all the first five games in the right perspective. Croom said it's only natural for everyone, players most of all, to assume at 1-4 things are worse than they really are.
Instead he used the open date, and the unplanned but perfectly-timed upcoming game, to correct some mental aspects to State's season. "We looked back at how played last year, we showed how we were not playing now. It was good Vanderbilt was the next game because of the success they were having and the way they were doing it. We got a chance to emphasize that. It's obvious we hadn't been reading our own book lately."
The Dogs did resort to the old style-book and beat Vanderbilt at their own '08 game, the same style of game State thrived by in 2007. Patient, physical offense, no turnovers, fast and physical defense that created turnovers, and minimal busts in assignments. There were still too many of the latter to suit Croom, who today is pointing out what he called lack of discipline in those areas. But the rest outweighed the breakdowns, and "The results you saw on Saturday."
What State folk saw was the difference QB Tyson Lee brought to the offensive philosophy. The junior transfer, in his second college start, didn't lose a fumble or throw to the wrong team. In that he followed the script that QB Wesley Carroll thrived by in '07. What Lee added, though, was a wild-card element in that he used nifty footwork at a few key times to keep—or just get--the Dogs moving.
"He made I think three big third-down conversions by moving out of the pocket," Croom said. And, by reading both the field and the possibilities, something Lee did not do well or at all in September. Croom sums up the change in Lee's perspective by pointing to the third-down scramble just before halftime at Louisiana Tech, when—in his first college game admittedly—he chose to slide short of a first down instead of running for the marker. It proved a pivotal point in State's stunning opening-night loss.
But during his relief work at Georgia Tech and sharper practices that earned the starting nod at Baton Rouge, Lee showed he'd learned the lessons and made some sort of breakthrough. It was his third-down scamper for 12 yards, when the Dogs needed 11, that got the first MSU touchdown drive going in the third quarter and changed this game for the better. "It's something he's had to learn to do," Croom said. "And he's athletic enough to do it. And that's the way college football is going now, the quarterback has got to move to keep drives going. And when he moves around, something we've had him work on a lot, is in the pocket he's protecting the football."
Plus, being smart in where he throws it. Lee was 12-of-22 passing against Vanderbilt and didn't get to 100 total yards. But one of his tosses was for the go-ahead touchdown; and none were intercepted. And, his fancy footwork earlier helped freeze the VU defense when State lined up for 3rd-and-goal and gave HB Christian Ducre a tiny bit more time to make the winning touchdown run.
He didn't score but starting HB Anthony Dixon had his best day of the junior season, netting 107 yards for his first 100-yard output since last October. During the week Croom said State intended to ‘ride' Dixon as long as the big back could and would go. Dixon responded long before the game, though, putting in an excellent week of preparation. In fact, counting the open date, "It was the best stretch of practice he's had probably since he's been here," Croom said. "Six in a row, he practiced with a focus he hasn't had before, finishing plays, finishing runs, really trying to get his conditioning up to where he wouldn't fatigue." In fact Dixon never signaled to the sideline that he wanted a break.
"All that time off did help him," said Croom, who actually put Dixon on the sideline one day last week to make sure that September groin problem didn't resurface. "We couldn't afford to lose him." Which also indicates that Dixon is booked for even heavier duty this weekend against a Volunteer defense that is both faster and more physical than Vanderbilt's unit.
For their part the Dog defense has tilted more to speed of late, going with a three-lineman, three-linebacker, and five-secondary set. But this isn't because State expects a lot of throwing; safeties are the strongest point of this unit against both pass and run. "The great thing is we put De'Mon Glanton and Keith Fitzhugh down there, they play like small linebackers," Croom said. "it gives us a plus putting an extra guy down there, and allows us to get our best people on the field. And it gave us more coverage and more speed on the field. We were able to keep our ‘edges' intact and make everything go inside." And it allowed State to go with the three-man line most of the time without resorting—often anyway--to blitzes.
Maybe the best aspect of State's win was getting away with no new or notable injuries. "We're very fortunate, we didn't lose anybody," Croom said. "We had some aches and pains and we'll try to do some things to help them heal up, but we're probably as healthy as we've been coming out of a game."
In other Monday morning news, the Southeastern Confernece notified State that ESPNU will televise next weekend's Homecoming game with Middle Tennessee State. Game time moves from 1:30 to 6:00 for the cable-cast.