The Bulldogs have been besieged by injuries at quarterback over the past couple of seasons, and the parade of injuries has contributed mightily to MSU's offensive woes. Michael Henig began last season as the starter, but gave way to Omarr Conner after being injured. West Virginia knocked Conner out of the team's game in Starkville, and Henig returned to once again pilot the team. In 2007, Henig again began the season as the starter, but he suffered a broken hand in the ‘Dogs win over Auburn, and was replaced by the tag team of Wes Carroll and Josh Riddell. That pair split time until the UAB game, when Henig returned, but Carroll, a true freshman, has now seized the reins and is MSU's starting quarterback, with Henig set as the number two.
The quarterback merry-go-round, not MSU's need to deal with West Virginia's speed, is the major storyline heading into this week's game.
"He's our starting quarterback right now," head coach Sylvester Croom said of Carroll. "As far as I'm concerned, he is the guy. He has carried us to this point. Mike Henig is not healthy yet. We talked to him about getting ready, because he is one play away. We are hoping that his hand will heal up quickly, because we will need him."
One of the issues with continually switching quarterbacks is the problem of developing timing, comfort and confidence between passer and receiver, and the Bulldogs have struggled to do that over the past couple of seasons. As a result, MSU has been near the bottom of the SEC's, if not the nation's, offensive rankings. The Bulldogs are 115th in passing offense and 110th overall heading into the game with West Virginia.
The finger of blame can't be pointed in any one direction, however. With quarterbacks shuttling in and out from week to week, it's nearly impossible to develop any continuity. Add in the fact that Croom is now deploying a true freshman under center, and the hurdles are even higher.
"We are playing better [at quarterback], but the injuries impede progress," Croom rumbled "There is timing with the patterns, and you have to decide what you can do and can't do. It's just a continuous process, especially with a freshman quarterback. Wes has come along, and he threw the ball extremely well [against Tennessee]. He had a couple of misfires early, but he fights through those things.
"We've basically had to start all over with the passing game," Croom said of the decision to go with Carroll. "When we put something in, we have to rep it many, many times, so he can see all the coverages and see what could happen to him on game day. I think he has handled it far better than I would have anticipated than a freshman kid would do. And I think our coaches have come up with some things that he can execute, and he has done a good job with that."
Croom isn't just whistling in the dark. Carroll completed 18-of-33 passes for 203 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions against the Volunteers, and has yet to throw an interception in college in 74 attempts, and could break Derrick Taite's school record of 96 with another error-free outing against West Virginia.
Buoyed by Carroll's command, Mississippi State enters the West Virginia game with much more confidence, and, indeed, a better chance of winning, than it did a year ago at home. In order to do that, the Bulldogs will certainly have to keep up with West Virginia's offense, but it did that to a great extent a year ago. MSU's defense held the Mountaineers to 14 first half points, and only a late game weardown pushed the final score to the comfortable 42-14 final margin.
The key, then, to this game, is Carroll's play, not that of the defense. If he can stay in the game for four quarters (he suffered a concussion against the Vols but returned to play the second half), the Bulldogs might be able to build enough offensive continuity to make a game of it against the homestanding Mountaineers. However, if the merry-go-round at QB continues, it may be tough for them to hang in the contest.