With their inter-conference win, and third such success in as many meetings this decade, Houston improved to 4-1. Mississippi State had its 2009 edition of Homecoming spoiled and fell to 2-4 midway of the season.
State won the toss but deferred, giving the Cougars first turn with the football. Not just that, but a facemask foul on the return that let Houston begin at the 36-yard line. The pass-oriented offense showed early on it could also get necessary ground gains as Bryce Beal advanced the chains twice. But once on the other side of midfield quarterback Case Keenum took over and for the first of many times combined with James Cleveland for a double-digit gain. On third down the Dogs stood everyone up and DE Nick Bell pressured an incompletion. But the chain gang failed to change the marker which still showed third down. Keenum’s low throw to Cleveland was dropped, but everybody lined up anyway before a review was called at 10:56 to prove it was indeed a fourth play.
Taking over at their 28-yard line the Dogs punched Dixon into the middle twice, then QB Tyson Lee found WR Chad Bumphis crossing deep-middle for a 23-yard gainer across midfield. They came right back with the same play and Bumphis was open, except he bobbled the ball incompletely. On 4th-and-2 the Dogs punted, but Heath Hutchins shanked it out at the 27.
Houston was able to cross midfield quickly enough, with Keenum keeping for an eight-yard gain and move of chains himself. He caught State in their first blitz for a 13-yard hookup with Cleveland at the Bulldog 28. A sack by LB Chris White cost five yards but an off-sides call negated five of that. But on 2nd-and-12 White again came clean through and pressured Keenum into an unload in traffic. SS Charles Mitchell read it all the way; he picked the sinking ball just above the turf and only needed White to block Keenum at midfield to have clear sailing on a 71-yard touchdown return at 5:07.
Carrier’s 33-yard return had Houston starting on their 38. On 3rd-and-5 State brought the pressure, but Mitchell had begun his blitz a step late. So even as he hammered Keenum the throw was leaving long for Chaz Rodrigues going down the left numbers. FS Wade Bonner was with him but didn’t have a chance to turn on the ball, and Rodriquez pulled it in at the 20-yard line.
A Beall burst of 14 yards made it goal-to-go. ON third down the Dogs called time to talk, but that let Houston also adjust and instead of going to the middle the route ran out for Cleveland to make the end zone catch and tie things up at 2:38.
Lee found Bumphis for eight yards and a first down, then call-kept it himself for eight more and a spot at Houston’s 41-yard line as the quarters changed. He began the new period with a 12-yard keeper and Dixon made it first down at the 18. On third down Lee drilled WR Brandon McRae right in the hands, but the wideout let the ball carom off and Brinkley was able to catch the ricochet. The Cougars didn’t use the turnover and punted 47-yards for fair-catch at State’s 24.
Three plays later State had the lead again. RB Christian Ducre burst up the middle for 21 yards on second down, then Dixon was handed the ball for a similar attempt. But he was able to cut behind a Bumphis block and break free between the hashes. Cougars Jamal Robinson and Nick Saenz caught up but kept the runner standing up, trying to strip the ball, which only allowed Dixon to keep chugging and gave Lee and Green the chance to charge in from behind and push their teammate across the goal at 9:30.
The lead lasted less than 90 clock-ticks as Houston really kicked the offense into hurry mode. Every snap came with at least 20 seconds left on the play clock and all gained ground in bunches; 15, 10, 12, until it was first down at State’s 16-yard line. There Carrier simply froze CB Damein Anderson into a statue, ran on by and caught the bullet for a 14-14 scoreboard at 8:03.
Bumphis’ 40-yard return put the Dogs in business at their 40, and a mix of ten-yard throws to Bumphis and Green around Dixon and Ducre pounding had the ball on Houston’s 21 with third down. Dixon caught the square-out but off-balance and got just three yards, so PK Derek DePasquale knocked the 34-yard field goal through for a 17-14 State lead.
That left 3:30 for the Cougars to play with. RB DeAnthony Sims squirmed for first down at their 44, and Keenum hit Patrick Edwards for 11 yards down to State’s 45. After using a timeout Keenum got Edwards for a nine-yard gain and first down, then found Cleveland in the middle at State’s 16. This time the Dog defense forced the kick as on 3rd-and-6 Keenum threw behind Cleveland at the goal line. It was just a 29-yarder for Jordan Mannisto but a Bulldog--it looked like DT Josh Boyd though LB K.J. Wright was officially credited--got a long arm in the way for a block at 0:59.
State didn’t just run out that clock either, after Dixon ran off 12 yards on second down. Ducre added 22 more to get down to Houston’s 46, then caught a 12-yard throw with six second showing. After taking time DePasquale was sent out to take a hack at a 52-yard field goal that went short-right.
To open the new half the Bulldog finally showed some real option plays, with Lee keeping for 22 and nine yards. Ducre took it down to the Cougar 30 with first down. A third-down sack by Tyrell Graham left the ball a little long to try the kick so State took a 4th-and-9 chance. Lee might have had enough open ground in front but couldn’t resist throwing to an open Leon Berry at the 4-yard line. Problem was the passer was a bit beyond the line of scrimmage, a loss of down and thus turnover at the 34-yard line.
Houston really pushed the pace again, snapping before the defense could set up and reeling off five fast first downs all the way to the Bulldog 5-yard line. State had to burn a timeout when just ten defenders were on the field, too. A blatant hold of DE Pernell McPhee was ignored on first down (incomplete pass) and Beall was caught for a one-yard loss. UH’s Edwards did get utterly open back of the end zone on third down and just dropped Keenum’s perfect throw, so Mannisto tied the tally 17-17 at 6:39.
A 14-yard throw to WR Brandon Heavens got another Dog drive going, and Ducre burst for ten yards to the Cougar 37. But on second down Lee didn’t pull the ball out of Dixon’s ribs cleanly and the fumble was recovered by Graham. Houston tried to strike while the momentum was in balance, with Beall surprising State for a 15-yard gainer. The big play came as Keenum beat a blitz by milliseconds and hooked up with Cleveland at the 20…who then spun away and got down to the three-yard line. Keenum tried a quick flip to 35, but LB Jamar Chaney was in the way and made his first career interception at a very good time.
State couldn’t use the break either as Arnill Stallworth was stopped a yard short on 3rd-and-4 and it was deemed too risky to go for a fourth down. The choice was correct as Houston had to punt it right back in the fourth quarter, though the Bulldogs negated field position by drawing a holding penalty. Still they were able to work out from their 23-yard line with Lee finding McRae for 18 yards and Stallworth converting 3rd-and-3 with a 17-yard scoot through left guard down to the Cougar 23. It was field goal position already, except UH’s Ameen Behbahani somehow slid between blockers J.C. Brignone and Quentin Saulsberry who by all rights had him sealed. Even a late block by Dixon only shoved the defensive tackle faster into Lee for a 12-yard sack.
So on 3rd-and-15 Lee had to either throw for kicking position or first down. He went into the end zone for Bumphis but hung the heave so Brinkley could come over for the pick and return to the 22.
If the turnover wasn’t painful enough, the Cougars were able to finally complete a go-ahead drive. It took ten plays and the biggest, of course, were off Keenum’s arm. A 15-yard toss to Rodriguez, 25-yard grab-and-go by Beall, and shorter strikes put Houston on State’s 12-yard line. Even a penalty, on an illegal block, wasn’t going to stop this surge. Because Cleveland cut inside against slower coverage for 16 yards down to the seven, and two snaps later Keenum needed barely a second to cock-and-throw to Cleveland at the goal line for the 24-17 lead at 6:23.
Playing from behind for the first team, Mississippi State did give it a good run; as in a 27-yard keeper for Lee, padded with 15 more yards as Houston’s Brinkley hit him out of bounds. For a few moments the home crowd thought Dixon had re-tied the tally as he swept left end and vaulted the line…until a flag was noticed back around the 15-yard line. One person in the whole house thought Stallworth had held on his cut-block, and his hankie was all that counted.
It was still first down at the 21, but Lee left the ball tucked in Stallworth’s gut a bit too long before withdrawing and another handoff-fumble was recovered by a Cougar. This was the fatal blow, too, because on the first snap Sims took a short throw and ran a long way down to MSU’s 18, a 58-yard gainer. Keenum’s touchdown toss to Carrier at 4:14 seemed entirely inevitable under the circumstances.
So Houston was only interested in making the home team burn clock on the next drive, and succeeded. State was able to put up points, on a one-yard scoot from Dixon, but needed 11 plays and almost three minutes to do so. The expected on-sides kick was fielded by an unidentified Cougar at 1:22 to seal the outcome.
The only final number that didn’t live up to expectation was the game’s mere three-hour duration; shockingly fast considering 153 total plays (with UH snapping just once more than MSU!) and 1,043 combined yards. The Cougars had the better side of the stat sheet with 553 total, 434 of that in the air. Keenum accounted for all with 39 completions in 59 tosses, and if two balls were picked—as many as Houston had in the previous four games—Keenum did throw four scores.
Cleveland was the top target with 11 receptions and 131 yards, two touchdowns, but nine other Cougars pulled in a pass. The surprise was Beall’s efficient running with 94 yards on 15 carries.
It was a mixed day for Dixon, who couldn’t entirely enjoy posting his fourth-straight 100-yard game. The senior had 134 net yards on 21 carries, a 6.4-average, and two touchdowns, though the one that did not get counted stung. Dixon moved into a tie with Jerious Norwood (2002-05) for the program record with 13 100-yard games.
Ducre had 87 yards of his own on nine totes, almost a ten-average, as State ground out 330 rushing yards. It was the highest total since the 2004 Kentucky game. The Bulldogs might have been content with 160 passing yards, too, had not Lee had a pair of balls picked. He was 15-of-the-other-21 throws, and spread the ball around to eight targets. Tight end Green had four catches, Bumphis three.