“We start back with them again, huh?” Croom mused in his Monday morning press teleconference. Indeed he, and his Bulldogs, do get to start league play with a familiar foe. An impressive one, too, the way Croom describes the upcoming opponent for Saturday, with kickoff at 11:38 a.m.
“Auburn has an outstanding football team, as they always are. They are one of the best not just in the conference, in the country. They have tremendous talent in every area of the team. We are really going to have to prepare well, play a lot better, be a lot more efficient and exact in our assignments and techniques to have a chance to stay on the field with them.”
Certainly Croom would love for his current program to score the sort of success he once enjoyed at Auburn’s expense both on the field and on the sidelines. The fact that he is fuzzy on details about his last Tiger tiff (1986, in Birmingham) is probably because Alabama lost that game 21-17. That was the exception to Croom’s career rule, though.
“It’s funny, I have some good memories and one nightmare,” the former Tide offensive lineman recalled. “I was in the ‘Punt’ game (1972). But the great thing was, that was the only time I lost to them the next eleven years. The year after that was a fun game, 35-0 I think. Games with Auburn were always great, you knew you had to live with the outcome to the next one and we took it very personally.”
Now, Croom is looking for a personal approach from the Bulldogs to this weekend’s collision with an Auburn team. More to the point, the coach just wants to see how his team will perform coming off an opening-day win and in a league matchup.
“Conference play is intense,” Croom said. “We’ll see where we stand. And we’re starting out with one of the best teams in the conference. I don’t think we’ll have any problem getting guys motivated.”
The Bulldogs were motivated enough to win the first time out, and Croom said reviews of the game reinforced his original impressions. “We really got things done pretty much the way we wanted to,” he said. “We had some guys play extremely well.” Among them were linebacker Clarence McDougal, defensive end Willie Evans, tackle Ronald Fields, and Norwood. The best individual performance the coach saw, though, was from offensive tackle David Stewart. “He had a great effort, not good, great.”
Stewart’s effort headlined a better-than-hoped evening for the entire offensive line. Croom expressed surprise along with relief that the unit got through the first game with no re-injuries and few problems. Starting guards Will Rogers and Johnny Wadley were not outstanding individually, but Croom said this was due to ‘rust’ from limited practice snaps and conditioning drills. He noted that both gave put back on ten or so preseason pounds that will have to come off gradually during the campaign. Otherwise the Bulldogs appear to be full-strength for the SEC opener, save only for wideout Ray Ray Bivines who is still battling back from the hamstring and nerve injury.
Croom is still concerned about depth, most of all on the offensive front where he counts eight players he would use in what he called “critical situations.” Some other units are still developing the rotation of starters, backups, and reserves, such as at wide receiver. Veteran Tee Milons did not dress out for the opener, for what Croom called inconsistency in practices. The coach has even raised the prospect that if Milons does not get into a groove he might be redshirted this season.
“I told him if he picks up and plays like we want him to play, beats other guys out, we’ll play him. Otherwise we’ll redshirt him and give him time to improve. I don’t want to waste that talent, but he’s still got a lot of growing-up to do.”
At the same time Croom admitted he had wanted to play rookie Gabe O’Neal in the opener. “That was my mistake, we should have gotten him in there. He will be in this week, I want him to play because he’s going to be a good player.” Using O’Neal would also allow starter Clarence McDougal to rest some series.
Against Tulane, State shuffled the linebackers to put Kenny Kern in the middle between Rico Bennett and McDougal. Croom said Kern has evolved into the better middle linebacker and spring #1 Marvin Byrdsong, who played little in the opener, will play an outside position. “So he can run to the ball better and not have to worry about signals and those things. With Kenny and Brad Horton in the middle to handle communication things. That’s an area that is really going to get tested this week.”
Because unlike Tulane, Auburn is a proven ground-pounding team with potent tailbacks Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown. Croom joked that the best defense for Williams would be to have an archer wound him in the leg. “Our defensive coaches are scratching their heads figuring what to do. We’ll just have to see if we can get 11 guys off their blocks to tackle him. I wish those two (backs) had gone to the NFL last year, it would make my life easier.”
Croom doesn’t understand the criticism of Tiger quarterback Jason Campbell and the lack of respect Auburn’s air game gets. “I watched enough tape on them, they can hurt you. We can’t go to sleep back there thinking they’re they will hand it off 40, 50 times. I’m sure they’ll use play-action and take some shots down the field, we have to be alert to that.”
Auburn also has another new offensive coordinator, this one an advocate of the West Coast style. A quick look at the first game showed Croom that the Tigers do run many of the same things State does, with two significant difference. First, Auburn has a few more ‘gadget’ plays in the plan. Secondly and more importantly, their schemes are more developed than what the Bulldogs are capable of executing at the moment.
“Right now we’re going to keep it simple and hope we don’t beat ourselves,” Croom said candidly.
The Bulldogs did not self-destruct in their first turn in the spotlight. In fact the coach was as pleased with how his team handled early adversity—a called-back touchdown return and inability to score in the first half—even better than the staff. “The other key part came when they hit a big touchdown on us, shocked us there,” said Croom of Tulane’s fourth-quarter score. “We were able to take the ball down the field and score.” In short, the Bulldogs showed some intangibles the staff wanted to see.
“I was really concerned with that going in,” Croom said. “We know we’re not the most talented team in the conference by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re not worried about that because we can’t do anything about it. We’ll maximize the ability we do have and use the resources we do have to win.”
And if the Bulldogs can give a maximum effort, maybe their coach can begin another streak of success against an old rival on this new stage.