"Anybody that comes back out today not ready to work is going to have a hard time from me," Croom said. "Every detail had best be adhered to at practice."
This weekend's gametime is 6:00 with no telecast. Mississippi State is offering a reduced-price ticket, in the west side upper deck, for $15 for this home game. The same ticket is available for the home game with UAB on October 6.
This would seem to be a week with all sorts of reasons to guard against a letdown. Most obviously because the Bulldogs (2-1, 1-1 SEC) coming off a win worth extra celebration, decided on both an impressive fourth-quarter drive and then a superb defensive stand inside the ten-yard line. And not only was it a SEC victory, on the road, but it was the first September conference conquest by State since the 2000 season.
Then there's all the effort the Dogs put into the contest, body and soul alike. "Our guys played extremely hard, it was a very physical game," Croom said. "Of course it came down to the last play." So there is always the threat of some sort of ‘hangover' from the game and celebration both, hence Croom's reminder of that 24-hour rule and what it implies.
"We literally are going to take one game at a time, I know it's a cliché," the coach said. "But we've got a 24-hour rule, if you lose you feel bad for 24 hours, if you win you celebrate 24 hours." Then, he added, return to all-business right down to every detail, and woe to any Dog who lines up at the start of today's drills with a chinstrap un-snapped or gloves hanging by the belt.
It matters all the more because of who Mississippi State is getting ready for, as few if any Bulldogs likely had ever heard of Gardner-Webb before the 2007 schedule was released. These (other Bulldogs) hail from Boiling Springs, N.C., and play out of the Big South Conference where they tied for second overall last season. G-W was 6-5 in 2006.
They come into this game 1-1 after splitting games with Ohio and Jacksonville. "My concern is they were off last week and had extra preparation for us," Croom said. The good news is that State has more material to prepare with this week than against some past foes, such as the limited information that was available to scout Tulane two weeks ago.
"We didn't have any problem getting film," Croom said. "In summer we had four of their games to break down, and we have two this season." The head coach has only had time through this morning to go over G-W's defense, which he said resemble the formations run by Auburn. He will have more talking points on the visiting Bulldogs by Tuesday.
In any event, "This is a big, big week for us as far as how we go about things. We have to come back to work and put Auburn behind us." That holds for the fans, too, he added when asked so, as they are just as likely to let a big league win linger and overlook this week's relatively obscure guests…even with the specter of past home-field disasters such as Maine, UAB, or Tulane hovering in the background.
Actually the topic on most MSU minds going into the week is quarterback. Veteran starter Mike Henig suffered a broken bone in his throwing hand on the first series at Auburn, and after Sunday surgery the prognosis is he's out for two-to-four weeks. Croom couldn't be more precise as of this morning. "From there it's how fast he heals. But right now that's the only time I've been given." Which turns attention instantly to who is now the starter. Croom is not telling or even projecting whether freshman Wes Carroll or junior Josh Riddell will take Saturday's first snap.
"Right now Wes is ahead," Croom said. Carroll replaced Henig after the injury and played into the third quarter when Riddell took over for three series. Then it was Carroll called back in to direct the winning touchdown drive, handing off on every snap until the Bulldogs had taken the lead. His lone pass that series was on a two-point attempt that was incomplete; for the game Carroll was 3-of-10 for 10 net yards. Riddell was 1-of-5 for 15 yards in much less playing time.
Carroll got all the game-ending snaps against both LSU and Tulane, too, though that was because Riddell had earned a mid-August suspension and did not dress the first game. The true freshman used that time to catch up with the junior who'd been through spring camp.
"Of course the door was opened when Josh wasn't practicing," Croom said. "Wes made a lot of improvement. He's managing the offense very well, he gets us in the right plays, he's not turning the ball over, he's making good decisions."
Fans and media will look at that fourth-quarter drive, the fact Carroll didn't have to throw a pass, and wonder how much decision-making was demanded. More than meets the eye, Croom notes, though at the same time he agrees Carroll was not being asked to win the game himself. That's a good indication of State's plans for whoever is under-center while Henig is sidelined, in fact.
"Right now Wes doesn't make mistakes to hurt the offense, and right now we're doing things at the other positions pretty well. The main thing we need him to do is get us in the right plays, get the ball to the right people, and let them make the plays."
So Carroll is ‘number one' when Monday's afternoon practice begins. Nothing else is set for the rest of the week, Croom says. "Both are going to play. And who starts I might not even announce. I might wait until game time and go play. It's not a big deal as far as I'm concerned because they're both going to play."
As for number-three, a subject of obvious import given State's tough injury luck with quarterbacks of late, Croom said Zack Harrington and freshman Chris Relf will also get ready. Neither were dressed at Auburn as the roster was limited by SEC rule to 70 traveling players. Relf is also being redshirted, though this means he's gotten some tougher practicing in along with all the reserves, redshirts, and previous game's non-participants who report in full pads and scrimmage every Monday at the end of practice.
Not to be forgotten from the win was that the first of State's two touchdowns was provided by the defense. In fact the player who scored, safety Derek Pegues, was named the SEC's Defensive Player of the Week for that 20-yard return as well as five official tackles and a spectactular hit to separate a Tiger tight end from the football. It's the second-straight week State has had a Defensive POTW honoree from the SEC, after linebacker Gabe O'Neal won the recognition for his own interception-touchdown return at Tulane.
Pegues had won POTW before, but for special teams work on returns last season.
That pick-six was only the most notable turnover collected by the Bulldogs. They also forced two fumbles, by DT Quinton Wesley and S De'Mon Glanton; and got other interceptions from CB Anthony Johnson and S DeMario Bobo, the latter setting up the fourth-quarter touchdown series. Johnson and middle LB Jamar Chaney—who deflected an Auburn throw into the end zone on the final stand—both had eight total tackles, though it was WLB Dominic Douglas who topped the team with nine stops.
And the game was kept in-check by a Dog-ged defense, Croom said. "The big thing going in was we felt we had to play smart football. Then we had to run hard and hit people." State did that. But even more telling was how the whole squad handled serious setbacks, such as losing the veteran quarterback so early. Or, when Pegues lost the handle on a kickoff return that set up Auburn's second touchdown for a 14-13 halftime lead. Croom said obviously if not for that turnover-of-events things would have played out differently.
Yet, he added, "The good thing is when they scored just before the half we didn't lose our poise. It's happened in the past, they've come out flat the second half. It didn't happen this time." Instead State shut the Tigers out on their own field all second-half and manufactured the one touchdown needed for victory.
"We battled to the end. We made plays in all three aspects of the game which gave us a chance to win. It was a big win, a conference win, on the road. All of that is positive for us." Which naturally produced a cautionary note from the coach. "We've got a lot of getting-better to do," Croom said. "But it's a lot easier to get better after a win."
Everything is a lot better after a win, in fact. Such as recruiting, which Croom and staff will get back to after setting the Gardner-Webb gameplan. "Of course we're going to burn the phone lines up, I assure you of that!" Croom said, asked if a big win—as well as a big loss by an in-state recruiting rival—is showing results at the moment. "We'll find out if that's true," the coach said.
"But one prospect in state we've had difficulty getting in touch with, he finally called us!"