TE Brandon Henderson stayed inside as well to rest the hamstring he tweaked in practice last week, but played on—despite obvious limping—Saturday. "I told him he could come out if he wanted to," Croom said. "In fact I pulled him out, and he went back and made a catch after that." WLB Karlin Brown was limited to protect a mild shoulder separation that he also played with Saturday.
Nobody has to play this Saturday with the open date. Or for that matter will the Bulldogs have to practice too much this week. There are scheduled afternoon sessions for Tuesday and Wednesday, in shells. "Then they'll lift and run on Thursday and Friday," Croom said. The players report back Sunday to begin preparations for their Nov. 15 road trip to Alabama.
At the moment though State coaches and players are still evaluating what went wrong in their 14-13 defeat by Kentucky, looking for corrections to a litany of mistakes and missed chances to take control of that SEC game early and thoroughly. After dominating the first quarter, the Bulldogs did take a lead into the locker room but only 7-0. The reprieve allowed Kentucky to come out strong with a couple of third-quarter scores State failed to offset, though they had chances. A blocked PAT game the Wildcats their winning margin, though State special teams also had to miss a go-ahead field goal try that hit an upright for the one-point difference to hold.
Croom said staff review showed nothing new. "Pretty much the obvious. We didn't make plays and we had several opportunities." The failures came in all three areas of the game, and began long before the frustrating fourth quarter kicks. Had S Derek Pegues held on to a sure interception, he would have extended his school record for turnover-return touchdowns and likely put State in charge to stay. Yet that one play typified to Croom the whole day, because other than that dropped pick and a pair of third-quarter penalties—which contributed to Kentucky's crucial touchdown drive—the coach said Pegues graded out well. It was the three bad plays that get remembered, though, an evaluation that holds for many other Bulldogs even if their isolated errors didn't get as much notice.
And this has been an uncomfortable trend most of 2008. "We're in a situation where our better players have to make plays," Croom said. "That's just where we are right now because when they don't make plays it's usually going to be a game-deciding play."
There were good efforts all across both sides of the ball, marred of course by the occasional gaffes which too often Kentucky took advantage of. But Croom noted an area that had little positive to report. "The biggest thing is our guards didn't play well." This, along with Gates' damaged big toe, led to a different front-five Monday afternoon.
Center J. C. Brignone, for example, stayed on the first team but was lined up at left guard; the position he played as a backup in 2007 before moving to the middle in spring. He's started all nine games at OC this fall but concerns about guard play have State's staff checking their options. D.J. Looney moved up to #1 center for Monday, and veteran starting LG Anthony Strauder was running on the second unit. RT Quentin Saulsberry, RG Craig Jenkins, and LT Derek Sherrod were in their usual first-team slots. Jenkins has started since Gates began having back, then toe problems, but also ‘swinging' to LG a good bit the past month. Any further revisions, or returns, on the first line will be watched the next two practice days.
After that the Bulldogs get a real November break to relax and refresh for the three-game SEC West run to end the '08 schedule. It begins at Alabama (game time still tba), which just moved into first place in the B.C.S. standings. The Crimson Tide will be defending their top status, as well as working for some revenge on a Bulldog program that has won the last two meetings.
"It's a big game for us, against one of the best teams in the country. In fact the best team in the country," Croom said. "Right down the road, a SEC game, and a real big game for us. And an opportunity. When you lose a game the next one can't get here soon enough."