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Can't use win total to measure MSU's progress
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GREGG ELLIS: Can't use win total to measure MSU's progress
11/29/2004 12:15:26 AM
Daily Journal

STARKVILLE - New coach. New quarterback. One thousand-yard rusher.

Still, Mississippi State can't do better than a three-win season and climb out of the cellar of the Southeastern Conference's Western Division.

Funny thing, though. The Bulldogs head into the offseason more optimistic than any of the previous three years combined.

While the win/loss column isn't an indication of how much this program has indeed improved under first-year coach Sylvester Croom, MSU's demeanor - both on and off the field - certainly is.

Sure, the Bulldogs ended the 2004 campaign on a sour note with a lackluster performance against arch-rival Ole Miss this past weekend in Oxford. But to fully appreciate all that has been accomplished, you have to look at the season as a whole.

First, Croom quickly instilled discipline throughout the team, a component desperately needed to regain order. Problem players were sent packing, sending the message it was Croom's way or the highway.

Second, he implemented his system and never compromised, even when it appeared 1-10 was inevitable after MSU lost five of its first six games, including back-to-back losses to Vanderbilt and UAB.

Third, Croom got his team to finally buy into what he and his staff were teaching every day in the film room and on the practice field. As a result, vast improvement was seen on both sides of the football, as well as with special teams.

And fourth, all of the hard work dating back to the spring was finally rewarded when the Bulldogs stunned No. 20 Florida 38-31 on Oct. 23 at Scott Field, then backed that win up with another after turning back Kentucky, 22-7.

Yes, more than anything, this season will be remembered as the one that got Ron Zook fired at Florida.

However, it's far much more than that, as the win against the Gators was just a small piece of the puzzle.

This season proved that Croom was ready to be a head coach. He kept his team together through the hard times, and when the Bulldogs won, they won with class.

Then there was the maturation of sophomore quarterback Omarr Conner.

Every week, there was improvement. The more understanding of the offense he grasped, the more prolific the unit was on Saturdays.

And of course, running back Jerious Norwood validated the claim coming out of high school that he could be one of the top running backs in the SEC.

Eleven games, 1,050 yards, 7 touchdowns, second-most productive back in the SEC.

But if there was a most-improved award to be handed out, it would have to go to the offensive linemen.

Early on, the men in the trenches took a lot of heat for the Bulldogs' offensive woes. Not helping their cause were injuries, which denied them continuity.

However, it's no coincidence that once Mississippi State began to move the football consistently, the line was healthy.

Also showing immeasurable improvement was the defense.

It was a unit pushed around early and often, but during the bye week after the UAB debacle, personnel changes were made. True freshmen linebackers Titus Brown and Gabe O'Neal were inserted into the starting lineup, while Quinton Culberson made the transition from the secondary to the linebacking corps. Almost instantly the defense began to make plays. Missed tackles became fewer and blown assignments were no longer the norm.

Thus, the improvement down the stretch.

Obviously, major strides still have to be made in all facets, which usually is the case following a 3-8 season.

However, the groundwork has been laid, and it's imperative the Bulldogs have great success recruiting.

Inking a top-notch receiver is priority No. 1, while signing highly touted linemen on both sides of the football is a close second.

If recruiting goes well and the coaching staff can continue to develop the veteran players, climbing out of the bottom of the Western Division shouldn't take long.

Who knows? Maybe it's a feat that can be accomplished by this time next season.

Gregg Ellis (gregg.ellis@djournal.com) covers Mississippi State for The Daily Journal.
11-29-2004 07:52 PM
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