Croom knows Fulmer’s position all too well
Posted: Friday, October 17, 2008 4:58 pm
By: By BETH RUCKER, Associated Press Writer
KNOXVILLE (AP) — Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom has plenty of sympathy for coach Phillip Fulmer and his Tennessee Vols.
Both men are fighting to turn around a season that currently finds their teams sitting in the basement of the SEC.
“You know you’re being criticized. You hear it, your coaches hear it, your players hear it. And that’s the tough part, keeping your players believing in themselves and what you’re doing as a head coach,” said Croom, who’s had three losing seasons out of four with Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs (2-4, 1-2 SEC) took the first step in righting its path with its first league win last week over No. 22 Vanderbilt and hope to continue with a win over Tennessee (2-4, 0-3) on Saturday night in Knoxville.
The Vols are still looking to make that first move after a tough loss to No. 10 Georgia.
“There’s concern. I’m not going to sit here and say there’s not,” Fulmer said. “There’s concern by everybody that loves Tennessee football and Tennessee athletics about where we are and having opportunity here to still turn the season around.”
Fulmer was concerned enough about a string of losses that he took a hard look at his entire program this week, looking for potential changes that could be made to spark the team.
After noting that the Vols had been practicing well all season but have struggled to perform as well in games, he increased the amount of contact among players during practice.
Not a bad idea as Tennessee has struggled in recent games to run the ball and Mississippi State has a physical defensive front that’s come into its own lately.
The Vols also have memories of their 33-21 win at Starkville, Miss., last season.
“Everybody on the offensive line agrees that definitely was the most physical game that we played,” Tennessee center Josh McNeil said. “You could just tell after the game that it was just a smash-mouth, man-on-man type of football game, and that’s what I’m expecting again this Saturday.”
If the teams need an idea of what else the game will be like, they should just look at themselves.
Aside from very similar records, Mississippi State and Tennessee have a lot in common.
Both teams are struggling to put points on the board and pick up yardage. Mississippi State ranks 103rd in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total offense (300.67 yards per game) while Tennessee is 104th (299.5). The Vols average 17.33 points per game, the Bulldogs 16.33.
Both teams began breaking in new quarterbacks in the fourth game of the season. Tyson Lee took over the Bulldogs’ reins after showing improvements in practice as starter Wesley Carroll struggled, and Nick Stephens did the same for the Vols, replacing Jonathan Crompton.
On the flip side of the ball, both Tennessee and Mississippi State’s defenses have carried their teams through the struggles on offense. The Vols’ defense has allowed an average 280 yards per game, and the Bulldogs’ an average 294.3.
“They’re just like we are,” Lee said. “They’re trying to turn their season around like we are. That was our theme Saturday, you know don’t focus on Vanderbilt, focus on Mississippi State and what we can do to get better as a team. It’s the same mentality this week.”
Croom drilled that approach after tough, consecutive losses to Auburn, Georgia Tech and LSU. He knew expectations for success were high after last year’s 8-5 season and didn’t want any of his Bulldogs giving up after a disappointing start.
It paid off as Mississippi State handed the Commodores the first loss in their storybook season.
Fulmer, too, has been keeping a lookout for players who appear to be having problems with effort on the field or in the classroom. So far so good: Players are attending class and study sessions, they’re attending their strength training drills, they’re positive in team meetings and they’re competing on the practice field.
“I don’t see our team making excuses or having a lack of effort,” Fulmer said. “Those are real positive signs that our guys are really listening and staying the course and they’re anxious to get this turned around like we all want to.”
Associated Press Writer Chris Talbott in Jackson, Miss., contributed to this report.