"I know how Rich Brooks coaches, we play them every year and it's always a tough game," Croom said this morning. "They've been through a lot of the same things we have and they know how to handle adversity. They're going to be at their absolute best Saturday, make no mistake about it."
At their best this year, the Wildcats can be good. Their defense dominated rival Louisville to open the season, and gave league-leading Alabama all they could handle right down to the final horn. And the UK offense came alive in time to rally past Arkansas a week ago. So the Bulldog staff is not reading too much into the rout at Gainesville, noting that two quick Gator touchdowns off blocked punts spun things out of any control very early. Besides, Croom—who knows too well about watching blowouts play out—knows what his counterpart was doing this past Saturday as the clock slowly wound out.
"I'm sure in that fourth quarter all Rich was thinking about, how to finish this game and then what to say back in the locker room. You're now worried about the next one, how the team is going to handle it. It's hard, and you have to key into your leadership on your team. And you've got to punch the right buttons to get them going again, but Rich has had experience and he knows how to get that done."
The Wildcat offensive staff knew 2008 would be a transition season, with the graduations of quarterback Andre Woodson and top runner Rafael Little. But the process is much harder now with injury taking speed back Derrick Locke and veteran receiver Dicky Lyons out of the lineup. Physical back Tony Dixon is doing workhorse duty on the ground, and some option wrinkles have been added to the plans. Croom is concerned about UK's ability to run the ball well against some good SEC defenses.
"They're taking a different approach. Last year they did a lot of two-by two sets and throwing the ball, now they are using multiple sets, two backs or three receivers, some zone-type deals, even a little option in situations. I'm sure that's due to the change in quarterbacks."
A change which is ongoing. Sophomore Mike Hartline has been the starter, and fits the pocket-passer role UK had been working from. But now Randall Cobb, a receiver, is getting more turns under-center where he can run off the direct snap or look for a target. Interestingly, both Hartline and Cobb have near-identical completion rates of 54%, despite differing approaches to the passing plays.
One possible Bulldog benefit from how Kentucky played the Florida game is that it offered more tape to evaluate Cobb's skills, running and throwing. Still, "We have to prepare for both," Croom said. "And in this point of a season it's about doing what you do and doing it well. The biggest thing from a defensive standpoint is coaching our players what to expect when each quarterback is in there, and try to eliminate as many things before the snap as possible. And, how to play the schemes based on whoever is in the ball game."
As far as State's offense is concerned, schemes don't matter as much as technique and toughness. Because, Croom said, "Their defense hasn't changed much. They have a veteran front and they're strong." Very strong, in fact, even by SEC standards. Croom doesn't want his offensive linemen simply trying to match muscle on muscle this week. "We've got to play with good pad level and our footwork has to be absolutely perfect, our sets and our hat placement. Because these guys will throw you out of the way if you're too high."
Speaking of being too high, Croom is telling the Bulldogs to put their 31-22 Homecoming win over Middle Tennessee State aside right now. There were aspects to celebrate, such as a three-touchdown outing for HB Anthony Dixon—who set the career rushing record mark in the process—to go with his 126 yards. And QB Tyson Lee was 17-of-25 passing for 197 yards, his best outing to-date. The quarterback also distributed the ball remarkably, with FB Arnil Stallworth and WR Aubrey Bell both getting four balls; and other catches by halfbacks, split ends, flankers, and even two tight ends.
He also praised the kicking game. "We got more consistency out of our kickers, our coverage was good, we came close a couple of times on kickoff returns." But it wasn't all a happy Homecoming game. "And after looking at the film the only thing that was disappointing to me is at times we didn't tackle well on defense." Missed, or more often incomplete tackles allowed the Raiders to maintain drives and keep this game much more competitive than the Bulldogs hoped for.
That did not apply to MLB Dominic Douglas. "He played an outstanding game, he was just all over the place. And he did tackle very well." So did SLB K.J. Wright. But it was an offensive player, and a blocker, who got the weekend's most notable award as OC J. C. Brignone was named the SEC's Lineman of the Week. "We were concerned he wasn't even going to play," Croom said, as Brignone was held out of most work following a concussion at Tennessee. "He only practiced Thursday…so I guess so much for practice!" Croom said. "But he played an outstanding game."
The whole line did well, and had to because the five starters handled every official snap. State normally uses just six linemen anyway, rotating starting guards R Craig Jenkins and L Anthony Strauder with Mike Gates. But Gates was kept out with a ‘turf toe' that came up in practice, and Croom was relieved to get through the game without either substitutions or injuries. He hopes Gates is able to practice this afternoon, and this won't nag at him as did a hamstring problem earlier in the month. "I didn't know Mike could move fast enough to get a hamstring," Croom quipped.
"(RT) Quentin Saulsberry is playing better now, (LT) Derek Sherrod is back to his old self after all the time he missed and is starting to play solid football again. And Jenkins is playing at a high level now." Still the coach noted that overall the pass-protection remains an area of practice emphasis.
As far as other injuries, S Derek Pegues might be held out Monday to have a hurting hand checked by MRI. "Other than that we came our reasonably well, hopefully we'll get through the week like that."
Pegues has plenty of chances to hurt himself, playing almost every defensive snap at free safety and returning both kickoffs and punts. Croom is now of a mind to relieve the senior of some stresses, perhaps allowing another to field kickoffs. And he has a true freshman in mind now, who just saw his first college action in the MTSU game. Much has been made since of taking the redshirt off WR Arceto Clark, particularly after he got one carry for two yards and didn't touch the ball again.
That is focusing on the wrong facts, to the head coach's mind. Clark is going to be worked into more situations where his fresh speed can add to the attack, presumably. Originally Clark was to sit the whole season, and for that matter he was recruited first as a cornerback and only switched to receiver during the summer. WR O'Neal Wilder was supposed to bring the new burst at wideout, along with redshirt TE Marcus Green on slot and mid-field patterns.
"I'm sure you guys remember, one thing we had to do to make us better offensively was get more speed. We thought that would be Wilder, Green, and (injured HB) Robert Elliot. Well, they're gone." But in recent weeks Clark, on the scout offense, has suddenly been showing up the varsity defense with his wideout work.
"Of course it's taken him some time to develop, but the last two weeks in our preparations he just started to catch your eye, he was playing faster. We decided in an effort to improve our offense there was only one guy left that can give us some speed. We didn't use a lot of the stuff we had the other night, and he needs a lot of work to execute it, but we'll get him more work. And we'll start training him as our kickoff return man. I'm worried about wearing Derek down, and Arceto is a guy who with the ball in his hand can hit a home run."
"He probably won't get 100 snaps, there are only four games left. But weighing that against four years from now, and we have a chance to win more games, we need speed and he's the only one who can possibly change our speed." Besides, Croom notes, since the Georgia Tech game there have been clear openings for several really big kickoff returns that Pegues just didn't fully exploit. The coach wants Pegues or Clark or somebody to break one of these, though "hopefully we don't get too many chances!"
What Mississippi State has is four chances to win enough games to gain bowl eligibility and, as Croom said, "finish the season strong." But that attitude has to be balanced against the one-at-a-time necessity this week, because the Bulldogs have little room left for any error against these four conference opponents. Croom doesn't even want much talk about the upcoming open date after Kentucky.
"We've in a very similar situation to what we were last year. It's going to be a real character test to see if we've got it in us to finish strong. I think we can, and that's the challenge I presented to the players after the game. Practice and play as good as they can for the rest of the way and let the chips fall where they may."