"Those guys want to end on a good note just like we do," Croom said. "Two teams out there battling for pride and respect, and just to feel good about themselves."
Arkansas has some advantages coming in, most obviously the open date this past weekend to rest up. And, more likely, to prepare for the schedule-ending stretch. As the staff evaluates their opponent, Croom says what stands out immediately is the way the Razorbacks are competing during a disappointing campaign of their own.
"They've lost some close ball games, but they're playing a lot of young kids out there and they're battling hard." This has been a transition year in Fayetteville with first-year Coach Bobby Petrino inheriting a roster missing the biggest names of 2007…names being heard at another level this fall. "They're starting all over, they lost a lot of talent that's playing on Sunday," Croom said. "But what he's done speaks for itself."
Then there's the simple fact that Mississippi State has struggled against Razorback squads for almost a whole decade now. The last Bulldog win in this West rivalry was 1998; since then Arkansas has always found a way to win, by margins large and small. "But what's happened the last nine years really isn't going to have an impact on Saturday," Croom said.
For that matter the struggles of previous Saturdays don't seem to have dogged State into the next game, an encouraging sign of program progress to Croom. That does not make the results at Alabama any less disappointing, though. "Our kids played hard and played very well on defense, they had us in the ball game," Croom said. "We gave up 16 points in the kicking game, that was the difference. We've got to come out this week, correct our mistakes, and get ready to play Arkansas."
Breakdowns in kicking—specifically, in punting and coverage—did negate three strong quarters by the Bulldog defense. Alabama scored one touchdown on a punt return, had another return put them on State's three-yard line for an easy touchdown, and then blocked the first MSU punt for a safety. Add in three Tide field goals and kicking accounted for most of the #1-ranked team's offense.
At the same time State's own offense continued to struggle in SEC competition, putting up just one touchdown all evening. It was a fine score, a 31-yard pass under pressure from QB Tyson Lee to WR Jamayel Smith in the end zone. But it was the only score, and the Dogs netted just 167 yards all evening…and only 33 for the whole second half, continuing this offense's second-half tendencies.
Sunday review showed all-too-familiar execution issues, even in the first half when the Bulldogs were moving the ball better…which was further complicated by having Tide punts downed at the one and three yard lines in the period, too. There was no one single aspect that sputtered, Croom related.
"I know exactly where it started. At times we don't do things like we practice. The effort is good, but at times we block well and miss a read; or the throw is there and we don't make it, or the catch is there and we don't make the catch. But that's what we've dealt with all year long." And, what the staff will continue to work on this week.
If things go as hoped, one part of the offense will look familiar; the offensive line's line-up. For the Alabama game State switched nine-game starting center J. C. Brignone to his old job at left guard, and gave redshirt freshman D.J. Looney the start at center…against one of the nation's most intimidating defensive lines and some aggressive linebackers. It was a necessary gamble as veteran guard Mike Gates was hobbled by both hamstring and turf toe problems and didn't do much during either the open-date week or last week. "He practiced a little but just didn't get enough in," Croom said.
"We just didn't feel good putting him out there with the limited practice he had, we wanted to get him well. With him out, the best five (linemen) were the five you saw." With senior OG Anthony Strauder having a rough season, State took the big chance and changed. Despite the obvious pressures, Birmingham native Looney graded well, Croom said.
In fact, "All five guys did well, Looney made some mistakes but I'm very pleased the way he played considering who he was going against." Looney made one very obvious gaffe, snapping the ball when Lee was walking up to the line to make a protection change for a suspected Bama blitz. Looney said, and Croom confirmed, the center just couldn't hear his quarterback and hiked prematurely. "And a couple of times he made protection calls that had us going not quite where we needed to, but I knew he'd make some mistakes against the number-one team in the country. I thought we played with poise and fought them all night."
This week Croom hopes Gates can practice enough to be back in the lineup. Gates is normally the backup at right guard to Craig Jenkins but both can play either side of center; if he can go, Brignone returns to center. "That's what we'd like to go with." And even with no depth—the starting five went every snap against Alabama—guard play was much improved from the Kentucky game. Still State wasn't able to repeat their work of 2007 against Alabama's defense and wear away at them with HB Anthony Dixon, or get them sufficiently spread-out to create running lanes with multiple receiver sets. "We got into the second half and had to throw the ball."
For one third-period series Wesley Carroll took over at quarterback as State showed some run-option plays that ought to be used more the rest of this season and on into the future. Croom said Carroll, the 2007 stretch-run starter, will see more duty depending on situations. "Wes has handled things extremely well, he's a team player. All the quarterbacks have cooperated very well with one another, the support each other. We'll probably pick spots and do certain things with Wes again this week."
Getting Gates back will have the offense just about full-strength, minus sidelined TE Marcus Green of course. The defense will be missing a big part though as senior DT Jessie Bowman tore a quadriceps tendon late in the game and had surgery Sunday morning to end his season and State career. Croom spoke with Bowman yesterday and called him late Monday morning after speaking with media.
S Derek Pegues was knocked out of the game, literally, by a concussion on Alabama's last touchdown drive when he collided with teammate S Charles Mitchell. He might not practice Monday but should be ready in another day or two. "Everybody else we think we can plan on having for the ball game," Croom said. "Whether they practice today or not is to be determined."
The defense has gotten some good news. Senior MLB Jamar Chaney told the coach last week to have State begin the application for an extra year of eligibility (a medical ‘redshirt') for 2009. Chaney broke an ankle late in the opening game at Louisiana Tech, ending his senior season. Since then he has been weighing the choice of coming back for another college year or turning professional, with Croom asking for a decision by December.
"He and I were just talking the other day at practice, he said I've already made my decision to come back," Croom said. "I said I appreciated that he let me know, and I planned to announce it tomorrow, but since you asked today!..." State's staff did think Chaney would come back to re-prove himself to NFL scouts, but official word was welcome not just for 2009 lineup purposes—Croom said Chaney will go back to his natural position of outside linebacker—but for this winter's recruiting.
In fact, the recruiting process is very much on MSU minds even with two games left on the '08 schedule. "This recruiting year is absolutely critical for the future of this program," Croom said, "because we've had two good years in a row. Our first two years were not very good. We were on probation, we lost a lot of players which I knew we would when I came here, and the ability to get players, particularly quality SEC players, was extremely difficult. The last two years we've been able to do that, and we've got some quality players committed to us. And we have to maintain that class."
But between now and Signing Day there are two rivalry games to be played. Whether or not they impact recruiting is debatable; how success will influence attitudes at the end of the season, especially this one, is not.
"It's going to be real important we finish strong here and continue to prepare well," Croom said. "We've got two games left, two big ball games, people in the SEC West that we play every year. It's real important we finish strong. And I believe our kids will do that."