It was after halftime that the missed chances really hurt, as the Volunteers asserted themselves first on offense and then broke it open with defense; turning consecutive interceptions into touchdowns that inflated the final margin of MSU's defeat. The loss left State 2-5 overall and 1-3 SEC, and erased most of the good feelings inspired a week earlier by the home-field win over then-#13 Vanderbilt.
"The big thing is we continue to talk to the players about taking it one day at a time," Croom said. "The only way to get out of this bad feeling is winning a ball game. I try to be as honest with them as possible; we played hard, we didn't always play smart, we missed some huge opportunities. And we were in it until the fourth quarter."
The underlying challenge for State now is that here in the second half of the 2008 season there aren't as many chances left to succeed, both weekly and for the year as a whole. "No question, there's been a sense of urgency for some time now. We're trying to get back on track and hopefully get on a roll. No question there's a sense of urgency because the opportunities are getting fewer week by week."
Mississippi State's next opportunity is this weekend at home, as Middle Tennessee State (2-5) comes to Scott Field. The Homecoming game is 6:00. This is the first visit by the Blue Raiders since 2000, but while the teams haven't played recently State's staff has been compiling scouting material for a while. Croom himself will go over the offense this afternoon before practice, but has already reviewed the defense.
"They're very fast, they play a lot of schemes with eight-man fronts," he said. "Their kids play hard, they're got a talented front and a good middle linebacker in #44 (Danny Carmichael), they really run to the football. He's around the football all the time, he and #97 (defensive lineman Trevor Jenkins). They are sound, well-coached, and will battle you for sixty minutes. They're not intimidated by anyone."
When Croom gets into the MTSU offense he will see a unit that throws about as often as they run, with quarterback Joe Craddock having tossed eight touchdowns and completed 64% of his throws. The ground game isn't as productive with five touchdowns and an average 87 yards gained per-game.
But then Mississippi State's offense hasn't put up much in the way of numbers this year, via ground or air. In a sense the most recent loss was the most frustrating yet, as the Bulldogs moved the ball well in the first quarter at Knoxville with 83 yards and took 22 snaps. They finished with only 189 yards for the whole evening, and failed again to reach a SEC end zone. Croom's frustration is there were excellent chances to do just that in the first and second periods, and not because Tennessee broke down.
It was because State had the right calls at the right times to score on big-strikes…and did not maximize these manufactured chances. "It's frustrating to all of us," Croom said. "The kids were playing as hard as they can play and we thought we had excellent plans on both sides of the ball. We talked to their people and we were on the same page, they thought we had a good plan of attack. The big thing is we didn't take advantage of critical situations early."
Those situations were painfully clear even at the time. And ‘painful' had added meaning because QB Tyson Lee suffered a knee strain on the very opening series, having directed a game-opening drive from State's 16-yard line to the Vol 19. Then Lee was sacked, hurt the knee, and while being checked on the sideline a routine field goal was missed. But this wasn't the really frustrating series. That came when Lee returned and from State's 37-yard line had WR Brandon McRae breaking wide-open on a post pattern at the UT red zone. Lee threw, and over-threw. In the second period, from the Vol 26-yard line, he missed WR Jamayel Smith on a tough but makeable play in the end zone…which was more aggravating because on the other side of the field another Bulldog wideout was positioned for a touchdown catch.
So Tennessee's staff wasn't just offering kind compliments, they were providing professional appreciation of what State's offense was able to set-up…easy for them to do because the Bulldogs didn't finish the plays off. An obvious question of course is did Lee's injury, which had him scrambling in a brace the rest of the night, play into those missed connections?
"The throws were a little bit off," Croom admitted. "And his drops, he wasn't as sharp as he normally is, some of it had to do with his drops. And some of that, I don't think any question the injury had a negative effect on him. I can just see some things in his delivery, particularly in the first throw to B-Mac in the post, he didn't set and step-through the throw like normal." It was an even more abnormal game for Lee in that after getting through his first six games and three more quarters, he suffered his first college interception. And two more, for touchdown returns. Lee tried to downplay the knee, just saying he missed his targets for those picks, but the impact was evident.
Croom doesn't expect Lee to miss any practice days or this game, though his work might be limited depending on what the quarterback feels like this afternoon. "He's a little sore but we expect him to be able to go this week. We'll take it day-to-day but nothing makes us think he won't be able to play this weekend."
At the same time Lee has to be protected better when he is throwing from the pocket and not rolling and reading. A five-sack night such as Saturday isn't the best way to keep a quarterback healthy. Though, Croom noted the offensive line had some good showings.
"Derek Sherrod played an outstanding game. Quentin Saulsberry was solid, he gave great effort. He made a couple of mistakes but I make allowances for him at this point because he is still learning to play the position. J. C. Brignone was solid. Our play at guard was inconsistent, Craig Jenkins did some good thigns but it was up-and-down there. I thought our protection could have given the quarterback more time. That was something we emphasized because our intent was to throw the ball up the field. Sometimes it was there and sometimes it wasn't."
The downfield passing theme was a shift from the previous week, when State typically threw to either side to keep Vanderbilt's coverage wide. Against Tennessee the better way to attack was going longer, and by halftime Lee—despite the knee—had 81 passing yards and 8-of-13 accuracy. But State didn't ditch the ground game at all; play calling had 16 designed runs (with two Lee sacks counting against the total) and 16 throws, spread across all down-and-distance situations. But when the Vols took the opening turn of the second half for an 11-play touchdown drive, the game changed for State's worse. Tackling was lacking in the last half, too, as Tennessee took advantage of their offensive size and strength.
Lee had the closest to a significant injury in the game. DE Brandon Cooper (neck spasms) and CB Jasper O'Quinn (left arm) were helped off the field but nothing long-term was reported. DE Jimmie Holmes (left leg) played as many snaps as possible but was limited. Croom hopes to have the senior back this week as Holmes has come on strong since the LSU game.
Otherwise, "We've got some guys a little sore. We won't know for sure about them until later today." That's the physical report. What is of more concern outside the locker room is the emotional status of the squad. The disappointment, the letdown was clear on player faces leaving the field last Saturday, and Croom allowed them Sunday to think of what went wrong and why. That 24-hour period is done and it's back to work this afternoon.
"And I think the kids are honest with themselves," Croom said. "They've put a great deal into it, so I don't want them backing off or not giving the effort and concentration. I fully expect them to come today and give a good day's work. You're never happy when you lose. But we've got another game coming up. Win that one and feel better and move on to the next one."
Just don't expect State's staff to do any consulting with their Raider counterparts this weekend. "It's the guys we're not going to play again for a while," Croom explained. And were there any interesting tid-bits from the Tennessee staff…or anything State noted for the Vols' own future reference? "I'm not going into any details about them!" Croom said.