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Croom wins historic debut

STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) -- Sylvester Croom needed just one game to
make 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."