Coming off a dominating day at LSU, the Rebels have just broken into one national poll and are playing to improve their post-season position. They are expected by most to continue the since 2004-trend of the host team winning this rivalry, and Croom is not surprised at all to see Ole Miss strongly favored this time around. "They've played extremely well lately, and we haven't scored a lot of points this year. They're throwing the ball extremely well, it's been a while since we won that up there."
"But," the coach added, "that's the amazing thing, though; none of that makes any difference. We'll talk about that, we expected to be underdogs going in there. We've been underdogs a lot of times before so it's nothing new for us."
Not in terms of preparation or performance, simply because rivalry games offer enough intangibles to keep odds-makers antsy and coaches working later into the night than normal. But then that will be the case in both camps this week anyway with a Friday morning kickoff and one whole day less to plan and practice.
At the same time Croom said the players themselves can't be pushed as hard now. Not only is it a short week, but there are the annual stresses of the holiday season and upcoming final exams. So while the Bulldogs will be told to concentrate on mental aspects, physically he wants to keep the burdens as light as practical. State worked for 90 minutes in shells Sunday evening and will go about two hours today in the partial pads; then work in sweats and headgear the rest of the way. Or maybe shorts since going into the Egg Bowl this staff likes keeping the team indoors and out of public view. And Monday rains will likely make such a choice for everyone anyway.
Otherwise, "Our guys have got to get some rest, physically and mentally, and then focus because of an early game Friday." At least the Bulldogs have some benefit having played a home game, where the Rebels were on the road last weekend.
Mississippi State also is coming off its best offensive afternoon of 2008, and the best-balanced attack since the win at Kentucky last season. The ground game set a season-high with 226 rushing yards, 179 of that by HB Anthony Dixon on the most productive day of his college career. The junior scored on big rushing touchdown of 63 yards, and caught two shorter passes for another pair of scores. His 251 total yards and three touchdowns earned Dixon the SEC's Offensive Player of the Week recognition.
After the game Croom commented that Dixon showed the sort of on-field discipline, in terms of timing his steps and picking his spots, that has been encouraged for three seasons. "He only had one missed read, and that was a little impatience." Nor did Dixon ‘dance' around in the backfield as has been the case too often. It's a paradox yet the key to being given more liberties with the ball is demonstrating the discipline to correctly read and react.
"I always like to give running backs freedom," Croom said, stressing however that the back has to earn such freedom by consistently doing all the technical things correctly, such as running routes or executing blocks. "But, I've always looked at a running back as an ‘artist' in his own right," Croom said.
Another such backfield artist has emerged in the last two months, as junior Arnil Stallworth expands his production both via handoff or more often out in a passing route. The combo-back set up one touchdown against Arkansas on a shovel-pass, which is a running play all but statistically; then scored himself on a handoff at the other end of the field as State roared back from 14-0 down to tie and eventually win the SEC West shootout.
Stallworth is netting right at ten yards each time he carries or catches. But his snaps are coming at the expense of a classmate though, as junior HB Christian Ducre is settling for special-teams duties now. And Croom still hopes to get redshirt freshman Wade Bonner more chances here at season's end. In fact Bonner has taken the place of Ducre in those particular personnel packages the latter worked from the first two months of the season.
Falling behind two touchdowns so early didn't let State use those packages as much as intended Saturday. "The game was on the line," Croom explained. That was also why stated plans to play third quarterback Chris Relf never came to pass, or run. Bonner, Relf, and other youngsters such as Delmon Robinson and Arceto Clark will continue to prepare for game action and the offensive staff wants to play them…if the game's flow allows it. Especially in Relf's case, Croom said. "I'd still like to see him get some playing time this week."
But taking Lee out from under-center isn't as simple as it sounds, at least as long as the game remains in contention. Lee's development this junior-transfer season has been ‘the' story for 2008, and he goes into the Egg Bowl as a 60% passer with a positive touchdown-to-turnover ratio. Plus, his mobility under rush-pressure has given State's approach more flexibility given changes and injuries and inconsistencies elsewhere on offense.
"He's always having to maneuver around and make things happen," Croom said of Lee. The junior college transfer does that, and will only become more confident and comfortable over this varsity winter. Yet different tacks shown in offensive schemes and play-calling in the second half of this season hint at further changes to come in spring, given the maturing of a revamped line and personnel that is more productive in sets other than a traditional power-I.
"As frustrating as the season has been, we've had a lot of positives," Croom said. "We had a lot of young guys get a lot of playing time, they'll go in spring with game expand confidence and understand what it takes to play and win at this level." At the same time, in most MSU minds all that matters now is winning the single game that counts. So while the coaches can talk about off- and next-season objectives in theory, in practice—and practices—the focus is all Egg Bowl, all the time.
"I'm not worried guys will be excited and ready to play," said Croom, adding "But after that first lick all that excitement goes out the window anyway."