Sure, the other head coach was also feeling rising heat from an increasingly intemperate fan base unhappy about where they saw things headed. But his team was obviously superior to State in every way that mattered. And though every objective opinion foretold a lopsided affair, TV cameras were present for a presumably routine outcome.
Except a funny thing happened, as occasionally does here in the Southeastern Conference. The home team suddenly put a lot of things they’d been practicing into action, scored first, then responded to the visitors’ initial points with another touchdown. Aided by surprisingly superior kicking the defense gained confidence with every quarter and held their own against a high-powered attack, keeping the game tight enough until the offense came through with the decisive points. The clock wound out, students stormed the field, goalposts came down, and the Bulldogs celebrated with the visiting team vacated ASAP, with a newly-lame duck coach wondering how this ‘sure thing’ could have gotten away.
Oh, wait…you thought I was referring to yesterday’s 38-31 upset of #20 Florida? No, no. I’m thinking a little farther back…eight years, to be specific, when the 1996 Bulldogs stunned visiting and #8Alabama 17-16 at Scott Field. That is precisely the flashback I enjoyed Saturday evening while writing this most surprisingly pleasant 2004 game story, after Coach Sylvester Croom’s team scored what we can reasonably compare to his predecessor’s ‘signature’ victory under eerily similar circumstances.
I also have another reason for making this admittedly hopeful comparison, and not just because both Bulldog victories were the unspoken straw breaking camel’s (or Tider and Gator coach’s) backs in different eras. It’s that, as we soon saw, Jackie Sherrill’s upset in 1996 was when his most successful period in Starkville began. From knocking off the Tide that year to the Snow Bowl of 2000 New Years Eve, Bulldog football enjoyed a golden age.
No, I am not ready to anoint this 2004 upset of Florida as a sure sign we are in for an immediate re-blossoming of the program. I’m not even ambitious enough to think one win, no matter how impressive, means this team is certain of scoring others the rest of this season…though the odds surely look better this sunny Sunday. In fact, as I discussed with Mr. Omarr Conner after the game, the head coach’s biggest challenge to-date is going to be getting his team’s muzzles out of the clouds and all eyes focused on Kentucky.
But I do offer this utterly unexpected success as evidence that Croom indeed knows what he is doing, how he wants to do it, and that if given time and resources and support this new coach can restore State to some old glories. Maybe even sooner than the man himself still thinks.
“We beat a team that talent-wise is far better than we are,” Croom put it yesterday. “Our kids won that game strictly on guts and heart.” I can agree with that, without completely ignoring the talents that a few Bulldogs put to total use, such as Conner and Jerious Norwood. Is there anyone out there now that doubts State would have beaten UAB and Vanderbilt with a healthy Conner under-center? I’ve told y’all all along, Omarr is far from a textbook triggerman and Woody McCorvey does have to flex somewhat in his gameplan to let the quarterback roll and run more than a West Coast offense dictates. But Conner really is, as Croom said, the heart and soul of this team. Not just the offense, the team. I saw it last April, and now everyone else can see it. The Dogs have invested their hearts and souls in Conner this year.
And Norwood? That might have been the most impressive performance I’ve ever seen from a Bulldog running back. Other Dogs have run for more yards, against tougher defenses. But none of them were 200-pounders on rail-thin legs, slamming right into the thick of a SEC defense. Croom still wants to find a ‘big back’ to feature in the future, but for now he’s happy with J-Rock…though still preferring not to run him more than 20 times every game. November is a long month for speed backs.
But those were the ‘stat’ guys. This was as much as anything a win for a downtrodden, disdained offensive line that did what nobody—me included—anticipated. They took the fight right at the Gators, and won. Not always, but often enough to let Conner and Norwood do their thing. And they did it all day, with just one brief substitution when Johnny Wadley spelled a dinged Brian Anderson. The other four took every snap. They also allowed McCorvey to open up the playbook and hit Florida with some twists not seen on previous tapes. “We knew we had to open up our offense,” Croom admitted. “We tried a little bit of everything.” And those things worked because against all odds the Dog line wore Florida down, not the other way around.
For their part the Bulldog defense won by not losing. And by tackling like demons, especially in the first half. The Gators had to be startled at multiple hitters swarming from all angles, something State definitely had not been doing before. Skaking up the linebacker lineup helped, as expected. But did y’all notice that when some of those good-hit/no-tackle veterans rotated in they also put Gators down to the ground? The flair of those kids rubbed off on the older Dogs.
And let’s not overlook special teams, which at last really were special. We finally witnessed what Croom saw on recruiting tapes in Jonathan Lowe, who could become our next Tony James/Kevin Prentiss. “I don’t know why he took so long (to score),” Croom said, only half-joking. “That’s why we signed him.” But don’t forget the revived Jared Cook, with a 55-yard average (aided by two badly-played punts) and all four of his balls downed inside the 20s.
We should also admit one other fact here, even if it offends some true-believers. The Bulldogs caught some breaks. Getting Conner back was the biggest, but a healthy McKinley Scott was a factor, too, allowing McCorvey to mix his wideout rotation and sets. That in turn helped Conner to use Florida defensive speed against the Gators. On defense I recall at least three pass plays that should have gone for huge gains, if not touchdowns, that Florida managed to misfire on. Any of them would have changed the game’s attitude, certainly that of the day-long, downbeat Florida sideline. Maybe their minds were on another Bulldog team already. Who cares? As Croom said, “We had some things go our way for a change. But things usually will go your way if you’re giving a maximum effort.”
And why, exactly, did Mississippi State give a maximum effort this time? Or a better question is how did a team with, seemingly, nothing to play for and little outside encouragement not just maintain but upgrade their efforts two months into an agonizing season? It wasn’t the open date. It’s the guy in charge. Even as the Bulldog faithful became more open in their frustrations, the coach stuck to his guns and gameplan…though he admits to frequently questioning himself.
“I have been forced daily to re-check my plan, for what we want to get done,” Croom said. “And every day the plan checks out. But in moments of weakness, in frustration, you want to change.” But he hasn’t. Nor has he changed his handling of players, his staff, and for that matter the fan base and media. Croom believes in himself and the plan, and no matter how the Florida game had played out he would have stuck to it. It’s just a lot easier when others can see on a scoreboard the same slow progress the coach has been pointing to for weeks now.
It’s also a lot easier to convince prospect, too, something Croom used his press conference platform to do. “More than anything else it inspires confidence in the people that we’re recruiting. They can see we’re not the same team we were six, seven weeks ago. It started at Vanderbilt, we started to look like a football team. And it got better against UAB. We didn’t win either of those games but we were a better team.
But this win does tell our prospects we will get better and we will build toward a championship program. I hope this will inspire confidence in them.”
So when Croom says he will not deviate from his plan, you can believe it. Whether you choose to believe in it or not, well, that’s up to the individual. And if the Bulldogs don’t build on one remarkable victory with further wins, the questions will continue. Presumably there’s nobody left on the schedule of Florida’s caliber. And heaven above, some fans were so post-game giddy they were talking about a bowl bid.
Eeeeeasy there, kids. Take a deep breath, relax. Let’s enjoy this one for a bit longer. In fact, Croom took off Saturday curfew so the Bulldogs could unwind a bit. “They didn’t hear anything I said after that,” he admitted afterwards. But I’ve a feeling few of these players ran wild. Because they’ve just had a first taste of SEC success, and want more. “Right now we feel like we’re 1-0 in the second part of the season,” said Mr. Heart & Soul Quarterback.
“We’re going to take it as end on a good note and get ready for next season, let everybody know that we’re trying to turn this program around.” And, Conner added, “I think Coach will get us prepared. We’ll come back Monday and get it started again, working for Kentucky.”
Which is a good thing. Because, we must note, one week after that 1996 ‘signature’ win those Bulldogs were brought back to earth by Arkansas, at home and in overtime. Hmm, maybe I ought to tell somebody on this staff about that year…