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Saturday, December 29, 2007
Liberty Bowl win just the latest building block for Croom

By Chris Low
ESPN.com

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Don't tell Sylvester Croom how ugly this was or how excruciating it was to watch.

Don't tell his seniors that, either, nor any of the 40,000-plus Mississippi State fans raucously ringing cowbells at a sold-out Liberty Bowl.

Sure, most of America watching on television probably flipped over to watch "Seinfeld" reruns by halftime.

But for Croom and the Bulldog Nation, nothing could have been sweeter than Saturday's slug-it-out 10-3 victory over Central Florida that for a while looked as though it might produce more punts than first downs.

"I'm not into style points," Croom beamed.

Considering what he's been through, and what this program has been through the past four years, who would be?

A million things trickled through Croom's mind as the final seconds ticked down in a game his team won in much the same fashion it has all year -- with heart, fortitude, grit and an unwavering belief in its coach.

He thought about the rocky journey and how difficult it's been since he walked into a probation-ridden program four years ago as the SEC's first black head coach.

He thought about the two men who shaped him: his late father, Sylvester Croom Sr.; and his late college coach, the legendary Paul W. "Bear" Bryant, who just happened to coach his final game on this same field 25 years ago.

Sylvester Croom
Sylvester Croom brought Mississippi State its first bowl win since 2000.
He thought about all the players, specifically this senior class, who laid the foundation for the Bulldogs' turnaround and never gave up hope that they would see better days after limping to a total of nine wins in Croom's first three years.

"They had a chance to give up themselves and give up on this program, and they didn't," Croom said. "Really, this team mirrors their character, and I told them that in the dressing room."

Similar to the Ole Miss game more than a month ago, the Mississippi State postgame locker room was again flowing with tears and emotion.

It was all outgoing Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton could do to keep from getting choked up as he stood in the end zone for those final seconds and then surveyed the scene in the locker room.

"Just watching those fans get their pride back … and those players," Templeton said, his jaw clenched. "To me, it was much bigger than a football game. This team developed the coach's personality."

And that personality was to persevere no matter what.

"When you go through something like we've gone through, you can't do nothing but believe," said Mississippi State running back Anthony Dixon, who scored the game's only touchdown on a 1-yard plunge with 1:54 to play. "We were down 14-0 our last game before this against Ole Miss, and believing got us through it.

"That's the way it is if you play for coach Croom. There ain't no quitting. He won't tolerate a quitter. Anybody who will hang their head or not run a full-speed route or not block full speed, you can't play for this team. No matter how many points we're down by, you better be out there full speed and trying to do your best.

They had a chance to give up themselves and give up on this program, and they didn't. Really, this team mirrors their character, and I told them that in the dressing room.

--Sylvester Croom on his senior class

"We call him 'The Big Dog,' and all of us know. You don't want the Big Dog to get on you."

The Bulldogs (8-5) won despite finishing with fewer than 200 total yards (199), and 59 of those yards came on their 10-play drive to win the game. It's a drive that was set up by Central Florida's fourth turnover.

Safety Keith Fitzhugh stepped in front of an errant Kyle Israel pass, Israel's third and most costly interception of the game. The Central Florida quarterback was plowed under by Mississippi State defensive tackle Cortez McCraney just as he threw.

One of the reasons Israel had trouble throwing the ball all game was that the Bulldogs never allowed Central Florida star tailback Kevin Smith get into a rhythm. Smith, who fell short of Barry Sanders' single-season rushing record, finished with 119 yards on 35 carries. But his longest run was just 15 yards, and he had only 42 yards after halftime.

Smith's take was that the Bulldogs' defense simply played faster than the Knights could block.

"We knew coming into this game that our speed would help us contain Smith. We kept him from breaking long runs," said Mississippi State safety Derek Pegues, who had two interceptions and earned MVP honors.

The other killer for Central Florida was a pair of missed field-goal attempts of 37 and 32 yards in the second half by Michael Torres, who had missed only twice all season coming into the game.

Combined, the two teams didn't total 130 passing yards, and they managed to go 0-for-16 on third-down conversions in the first half. For the game, the Bulldogs were just 2-of-13 on third down and tied a Liberty Bowl record with 11 punts.

"That's who we are. That's where we are in our program," shrugged Croom, whose club won four games this season by seven points or less. "There will come a time where we'll be more explosive on offense. We improved our speed on defense. We'll improve our speed on offense where we can find some more guys who can take the hitch pattern and break a tackle and go for a touchdown.

Derek Pegues
Mississippi State's Derek Pegues picked off two passes in the Bulldogs' win.
"You've got to get explosive speed, and it takes time to do that.

"But the thing that's happened right now is that we've learned how to win. The intangible qualities are in the program. It's in the people in the program. We know how to work. We know how to fight against adversity, and the next thing we've learned is we know now how to handle success."

Croom's next order of business is fulfilling a promise he made to Pegues and several others three years ago when Croom had nothing to sell but hope for a better tomorrow. Pegues, a highly rated prospect from Batesville, Miss., chose the Bulldogs over several other more established programs.

"When Derek Pegues called me three years ago and said he was coming to Mississippi State, I said, 'If you do, we'll win the conference championship before you go,'" Croom recounted. "Next year, we've got to get ourselves in position to compete for that conference championship. I don't know right now if we're good enough to do that, but that's what we're going to find out in the offseason."

Only time will tell if that's wishful thinking.

But if we've learned anything about Croom, it's that he's not one to make idle promises he can't keep.

Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Chris at espnclow@aol.com.