Somehow my name came up and voila, I’m covering two teams and writing two stories at the same time. It helped that the Chronicle only wanted an 800-word gamer and 400 words of notes. Heck, my Bulldog gamers often approach 1,800 words, so I had no trouble making the 7:00 deadline. I enjoyed talking to Kevin Kolb, too, who said nice things about State’s defensive progress since that 2003 meeting in Houston and even noted that the Cougars set a goal of taking the home crowd out of the game. Sometimes it’s helpful to look at ourselves through an outsider’s eyes, eh?
Anyway I got that side-job done and turned in ahead of schedule. Hmmm, just realized that I never actually talked specific money with the editor…where’d I leave that phone number? But in case one wonders, no, this didn’t cut at all into in-game and post-game coverage you fine folk pay for, as I still went first to Coach Croom’s press talk and came back to talk with four of the five Dogs who manfully reported to meet us media.
It can’t be easy for them now, no more than it’s easy for us to ask some of the questions we must at this point. Yet give the coach and players credit for stepping up to the mike and telling the straight story as they see it. Which is: they should have won, didn’t, and now go on to the next game and try it all over again and work towards a long-term goal.
Or to hear senior center Chris McNeil describe it, there was not a lot of post-game fulminating and self-flagellating over this non-conference loss. “After we got done we pointed out the positives and the negatives,” McNeil explained, “and we know come Monday we’ll work on something else.”
What? You hoped to hear wailing and gnashing of teeth protectors? In fact a tithe of an increasingly frustrated fan base would love to hear just that, and not unexpectedly. After another humbling defeat there are demands that literary fire and brimstone be poured on coaches, players, the program, the school, and for all I know the mascot. Come to think of it, I wonder if Tonka can get open on an out-route? Bet he’d put a mean block on a supporting safety.
Back to topic, Coach Sylvester Croom knows what to expect this week, after losing a game that Mississippi State had extra time to prep for and dominated for much of the first half. “We’re going to find out what kind of people we are,” he said. “Coaches, players, everybody, we’ll all get very seriously criticized.”
True enough. Folk willing to concede three-straight losses to league foes with clearly superior personnel aren’t so understanding today. Rightly or wrongly, SEC fans go into seasons marking almost all non-conference contests as Ws. Even State fans who should know better, though I did note last week our message boarders showed a healthy respect for Houston’s offensive personnel and experience. Put another way: playing on a neutral field, who would win—Houston or Kentucky, this weekend’s opponent? Right. Remember, the aforementioned Kolb and that superb runner/receiver/returner Vincent Marshall have played 31-straight games together, along with a good portion of the maturing Cougar roster.
Let’s also recall that Houston was only 3-8 last year with these same skill players. There’s something to be said for giving a team time to grow up together in a specific system.
Two Saturday aspects frustrate Croom and team most. First, they had a gameplan well-matched for Houston on both sides of the ball. Second, for a while it worked as intended. Better even, because State owned the ball and clock practically the whole first quarter (12:40 to 2:20!) and kept the defense nice and rested. Not only that, for three quarters Jerious Norwood ran wild and free, which was very much the plan for this day.
“We did a lot of things outside the tackle box and that created a lot of movement,” J-Rock reported. “And if I can get to the outside I can make things happen.” Obviously, as a record 257 rushing yards showed. Not only did Norwood re-write that line in the book, he’s now just 54 yards behind Walter Packer for the career rushing record. But as noted in the game story (the MSU edition) Norwood said he’d swap the record for a win.
The way his coach talks now, swapping body parts for victory seems a reasonable bargain. This was one Croom knew State could and likely should have won, because the Dogs had the right plans. “They didn’t do anything different. Everything they did, we were prepared for. We just didn’t make plays. I know it’s the same song, another verse, but that’s the reality of it.”
Yup. That’s entirely it. Not making the planned plays means defeat, again. Let’s take two situations, one critical and one not really so, as examples. Like most of y’all I second-guessed the decision, on first-and-goal at the one-yard line, to blast at center twice. Why not use the speed that got State there? On further review, though, another thought emerges: shouldn’t Mississippi State be able to go right into the pileup and gain one yard, even on the goal line? Inability to move the mob 36 inches is as clear proof of underlying offensive issues as anything else could be.
“We run the football down there,” Croom said simply, “and no reason we can’t run it in. That’s not very much toughness there.”
The other example came after Blake McAdams’ one poor punt became a UH turnover (oh, would that a previous kick not been so good after all). Down a dozen comeback was unlikely but on 2nd-and-24 Omarr Conner had adequate time for a change, and fired for the spot Keon Humphries should have been open. Which he briefly was, before the redshirt frosh forgot or got confused or something and turned the other way to look, then back the right way but too late. “It should have been a touchdown,” Croom said.
So should Conner’s first-quarter pass too high for Eric Butler to snare on the run in the end zone. Score seven instead of three there, then go on to add the second field goal and Norwood’s bolt-of-lightning TD run and maybe the Cougars rattle, get out of their plan, and State keeps setting the tone. Or maybe not, as Houston is rightly confident in their offensive prowess. But as Kolb told me, when State was held to just two field goals after three impressive drives it gave his team needed encouragement.
And left the Bulldogs wondering, again, what if? “We should have had touchdowns,” said McNeil, “we were driving first down after first down. We’d stall at the end, and that’s on us. It’s our fault, if we’d sustained the drives we’d have scored touchdowns and probably won the game.”
Even the most rabid critics of State’s offensive play-calling has to admit that the open-date allowed some new twists to be installed, most of them for Norwood’s use. I mean, a reverse on first down? Or how about that quick cut-in reverse in the third quarter on 3rd-and-long? Even a toss-sweep or two was shown, and they worked. So did lining Norwood up as a flanker or slotback.
Of course that points to two more, related facts: not only is Norwood the best play-maker, he is also the only legitimate threat to plan around. “It was no secret we were trying to get the ball to Jerious as much as we possibly could, because he is our best receiver,” said Croom. “Brandon Thornton is our next-best receiver. We try to get the ball to Eric Butler and those two, that’s where we are right now. We watch everybody else making big plays with their wide receivers, that’s just not happening with ours.”
No, it’s not. Even when Conner has time to throw, and when he throws the ball properly (another growing issue after some errors in either touch or timing yesterday) plays are not being made. Croom is correct that the ground game is improved going into the second half of the season. “Now the passing game, I don’t know how much better we’re going to get. That’s disappointing.”
“The thing offensively is what I’ve said all along, playmakers have to step up. Our biggest playmakers right now are our halfbacks. Will Prosser gives us everything he’s got, he hasn’t been healthy all year. When we get him open in space Joey Sanders does some good things. Beyond that…”
In case one wonders, the coach is equally hard on special teams play which has taken a serious turn for the worse the past two games. That Marshall kid can play alright, but his 56 and 40 yard returns weren’t much more than just taking off as initial coverage…wasn’t. One bad game can be a breakdown; two is a trend and now jobs are in jeopardy. Croom is to the point now of putting starters and playmakers on kicking teams, despite the acknowledged risk of injury and overwork. “Now we’re going to wear out before the half,” he muses. “We have to do something to stop giving up points. Some guys are must mis-matched physically. It’s not their fault, it’s just what we have to do at this point.”
A coach has gotta do what he’s gotta do. And his team has gotta get re-focused on the next matchup. If I can offer one encouraging thought, it’s that these Bulldogs have certainly shown themselves as resilient from week-to-week. And no, I don’t think this should be interpreted as resignation. The relatively few upperclassmen left on this roster still want to win something before they’re done; the younger guys like their chances of growing into a ball team in time.
Besides, as soph defensive end Titus Brown told us, while losing is frustrating the players still buy into the bigger plan for the program, and even fans (and heaven knows there can’t be a more die-hard bunch than Dog fans who each week summon fresh faith) are supportive as far as he can tell. “The fans are encouraging, they keep telling us to keep doing what we’re doing.”
And the head Dog? Croom figures there will be the temptation to point fingers in the locker room “But I’m not going to allow that to happen. I told them anybody that doesn’t believe we can get ready and go beat Kentucky then don’t come out to practice Monday. We won’t have a problem with that.”
Actually, senior McNeil doesn’t forsee that sort of problem at the moment. “We’re never going to get down on each other. That’s something that has been instilled in us ever since spring, no matter what we go through this team is not going to fall apart.”
Alright, then, what about the rest of the season. McNeil shrugged. “What can I say? We’ve lost four games in a row, we’ve got to win four in a row to go to a bowl game. That’s all there is to it.”