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College Sports: Croom wins Mississippi debute

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posted on Sep, 5 2004 @ 12:29 PM
Mississippi State feel like a winner again.

Croom won his head coaching debut, with Jerious Norwood rushing for 112 yards and a touchdown in the Bulldogs' 28-7 victory over Tulane on Saturday night.

"Even on the bus ride over, I thought to myself, 'Twenty-eight years working toward this day, and now it's here,"' Croom said. "A dream that was an impossible dream at one time today was a reality."

The Bulldogs held their helmets in hand, whooping and dancing around Croom, the first black head football coach in Southeastern Conference history, as the clock expired. Flashbulbs sparkled throughout Scott Field, and Croom jogged off to a standing ovation from the crowd.

Croom, a longtime NFL assistant, was passed over by his alma mater, Alabama, when its coaching job came open last year. The Tuscaloosa native played and coached under Bear Bryant and was crushed when the Crimson Tide choose Mike Shula over him.

So, Croom took his years of experience and West Coast offense to Starkville when the Bulldogs were looking for someone to rebuild a struggling program.

"Anything less than a conference championship or a national championship, I don't know if I could be much more proud of these guys because of how much they've grown up since last December," Croom said.

Mississippi State hired Croom just days after the 2003 season ended to replace Jackie Sherrill.

Omarr Conner threw for 135 yards and a touchdown in his first start a quarterback for the Bulldogs, who scored on their first two possessions of the second half to break a scoreless tie.

"Coach let us know that we are the hardest-working, hardest-conditioning team in the nation," Conner said. "(Croom) gave us a great talk at the half, and we came out motivated. Everybody just put it together."

Mississippi State, which has just eight wins in the last three seasons, has a winning record for the first time since winning the 2001 opener against Memphis - when this year's seniors were freshmen.

Tulane closed to 14-7 early in the fourth quarter on Lester Ricard's 59-yard touchdown pass to Chris Bush.

But the Bulldogs countered on their next series, when Norwood's 43-yard off-tackle run set up Fred Reid's 5-yard TD run to make it 21-7.

Tulane (0-1) didn't cross midfield the rest of the way.

Conner, a star high school quarterback who played receiver last year as a freshman, was 9-for-17 and rushed seven times for 25 yards.

"I wanted to let my teammates know that I can make plays," Conner said.

Ricard, an LSU transfer also making his first start, completed 16-of-31 passes for 135 yards, but was intercepted twice.

"Lester can learn from this game and continue to get better," Tulane coach Chris Scelfo said.

The Bulldogs held Tulane to 70 yards rushing - 26 in the second half. Green Wave leading rusher Jovon Jackson ran for 65 yards, but just 17 after halftime, against a Mississippi State defense that was one of the worst in the nation a year ago.

"This is the beginning of a new era right here," safety Darren Williams said. "The defense is together as a unit, and we believe in each other."

The Bulldogs' defense set up their first lead under Croom.

Williams picked off Ricard on Tulane's first possession of the second half and returned it to the Tulane 13. Two plays later, Norwood scored from 10 yards out.

"I saw a big ol' hole. As a matter of fact, I saw two or three of them," Norwood said.

Conner then hit Eric Butler with an 11-yard touchdown pass on the Bulldogs' next series to make it 14-0.

The teams labored through a sloppy, scoreless first half marked by dropped passes, penalties and near-turnovers.

Tulane blew its best scoring chance late in the half, when Clarence McDougal intercepted Ricard's pass in the end zone after the Green Wave drove to the Bulldogs' 5.

"We did not convert, and it turned into a 14-point swing," Scelfo said. "(Ricard) got a little excited ... and he made a bad pass. That was the biggest missed opportunity of the game because it changed the complexion of the game."

Rico Bennett appeared to have scored the first points of the Croom era when he returned Ricard's fumble 70 yards for a touchdown. But an official blew the play dead, and after a conference, gave Tulane the ball back and ordered the down replayed.

In the locker room, Croom wanted to see how his players would handle what they perceived as injustice.

"You have something bad happen to you, that's the least that's going to happen to you as you go along in life, so how are you going to handle it?" Croom said. "They responded."

[Edited on 9/5/2004 by Ben]

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