Opponent's Take- Mississippi State

Although his program hasn't produced a lot of wins yet, Mississippi State head coach Sylvester Croom is confident that he has things going in the right direction.

Croom's Bulldogs will play their third top ten opponent in five weeks when the Mountaineers visit Starkville on Saturday afternoon. The Bulldogs are just 1-4, with the lone win coming at Alabama-Birmingham in overtime.

The maroon and white will be without starting defensive lineman Deljuan Robinson, who is out with a knee injury. Robinson, a 6-4 296 pound senior, would have been helpful in trying to slow down the vaunted West Virginia rushing attack.

"It definitely weakens our depth there, particularly against a team with the type of speed that West Virginia has," said Croom, the third year head coach who took over when former Pitt head man Jackie Sherrill stepped down.

When he took over the Bulldog program prior to the 2004 season, Croom was left with a mess to clean up. During Croom's first season, the Bulldog football program was placed on probation as punishment for violations that occurred from 1998-2002 involving two former Sherrill assistants. The sanctions placed on the program included a limit on scholarships for the 2005 and 2006 seasons, and restrictions on expense-paid recruiting visits for the past two seasons.

As a result, Croom was placed in a difficult situation. Still, the former NFL assistant coach feels that things are looking up in Starkville.

"I think the program has definitely improved. The win-loss record isn't where I want it to be, but we're getting better," he said. "We'll be back to a full 85 scholarships next year, and we've had a lot of transition over the past couple of years which is what I anticipated coming in.

"We're playing a lot of young players. When you play young players, mistakes occur," continued the former Alabama offensive lineman, who earned first team all-America honors as a senior in 1974. "That's part of the process, but it's not fun. We still need more depth, and we still need more speed at certain positions, but I like the intangibles we have in our football program. We play hard, and our guys play with a lot of fight."

A lot of that youth is in the offensive backfield, where the top two tailbacks are both freshmen. Starter Arnil Stallworth is a graduate of Daphne (Al.) High School, the same school that produced West Virginia quarterback Patrick White. The 5-10 200 pound Stallworth has picked up 90 yards on 25 attempts with one touchdown. His freshman running mate in the backfield is Anthony Dixon, who leads the Bulldogs with 247 yards on 65 carries, including two touchdowns.

Having a pair of youngsters toting the football has given Croom a glimpse of the future in Starkville, but also taught the coach a lesson or two in patience.

"It's a unique experience when your top two running backs are both freshmen, especially when their styles are so different," Croom explained. "The thing you're always concerned about is getting their running skills onto the field and into the game plan without them having to do too much thinking. The biggest concern that you have with them is pass protection. Once you get past that hurdle, it's a matter of making sure that they understand the blocking schemes. There's a lot of detail that goes into it other than just their ability to run the football, and it's not something that's going to happen overnight."

Defensively, the Bulldogs are very impressive against the run. That should make for a pretty good match up when the Mountaineers have the football on Saturday.

"We have to prepare for a different kind of offense that's a lot different than anything we've seen this year," Croom said of Saturday's match up. "It also gives us an opportunity to play against one of the best teams in the country."

One of Croom's SEC counterparts described just how difficult it is to stop the Mountaineer offense.

"They just are so good at what they do, and because that quarterback is a running threat they really out even out all of those numbers that defensive coaches like to have," said Georgia head coach Mark Richt, who lost 38-35 when his team battled the Mountaineers in the Nokia Sugar Bowl. "You can bring a safety into the box and they're still going to have a hat on everybody with their scheme of blocking."

Some analysts feel that to beat West Virginia, you simply have to outnumber them in the box by bringing more people to the line of scrimmage than the Mountaineers can block. That sounds nice in theory, but Richt noted that it isn't that simple.

"If you want to outnumber anybody in that type of scheme, then you have to bring both safeties up and when you do that you are still very susceptible to the deep ball, and quick screens," he said. "(West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez) does a good job of seeing all of that, and making the right call. It's just very scary."

"Scary" is also the word that Richt used to describe Steve Slaton, the Mountaineers' sophomore running back who torched the Georgia defense for a Sugar Bowl-record 204 yards this past January.

"He really is scary to watch. It's no fun to watch because they're just so efficient at what they do. He's just a talented young man. They've got that 1-2 punch with the quarterback."

No matter what Richt says, you can bet that Croom's team will be ready to play when the ball is kicked on Saturday afternoon in Starkville.

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