"It's hard to win every Saturday," Houston Cougars head coach Kevin Sumlin said Saturday afternoon. "But to go on the road and win, particularly in a place like this with so much tradition, it's a big boost for us."
The Cougars defeated Mississippi State 31-24 on Saturday. And the win might have provided a boost for the Cougars players, but it also provided a big boost for the football program as the win vaulted the team back into both the AP and the Coaches polls while improving the team's record to 4-1.
The Cougars who played Saturday looked to be a much different team than the one that lost to the UTEP Miners two weekends ago. While the Cougars once again gave up big yards to the opposition running game, the defense this time found a way to get the necessary stops when needed, forcing four Mississippi State turnovers.
The offense also appeared to be different as this week the team found a way to both convert the turnovers into points and to put points on the board when inside the red zone.
Mississippi State jumped out to the early first period lead when Cougar QB Case Keenum tossed the first of his two interceptions on the day. This interception, coming as the Cougars appeared to be driving for a score, was doubly painful as it was returned nearly 60 yards for a touchdown.
But unlike last week, the Cougars drove right back down the field after getting the ball back, and on third and goal, Keenum and his offense did what they were so often unable to do against UTEP, score the TD as Keenum found receiver James Cleveland in the end zone.
The Mississippi State running game came to life in the second period, spectacularly so when stud running back Anthony Dixon broke through for a 50-yard run that put the Bulldogs up 14-7 -- Dixon dragging three UH defenders for most of the final 20 yards of the run as the Cougars appeared to be more concerned with stripping the ball from Dixon than they were with bringing him to the ground.
But the Cougars struck back when Keenum found Tyron Carrier for a 20-yard TD. Mississippi State had the 17-14 halftime lead as the Bulldogs made a 34-yard field goal and the Cougars had a 29-yard attempt blocked. But this game, the Cougars came out for the second half, and while only able to put up three points in the third period, the Cougars put up 14 fourth quarter points as Keenum found Cleveland and Carrier for touchdowns.
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The Bulldogs got a touchdown with 1:22 left in the game to make it 31-24, but the Cougars recovered the onside kick to solidify the victory.
"We had a bunch of guys get beat up," Sumlin said afterward to sideline reporter Chuck Brown. "This is a physical team we played. And guys kept playing. We had freshman come in the game in the [defensive line] and make some plays. We had guys all over the field step up....guys just went in there and kept playing. And that's been our thing: let's just keep playing."
That keep playing philosophy got the Cougars another victory over a team from one of the major conferences. But seeing as how they return to Conference USA play this week to take on the 2-3 Tulane Green Wave, the team needs to make sure that it doesn't allow another UTEP-type game to take place.
MISCELLANEOUS GAME NOTES: The Cougars are ranked 23 in both the AP and the Coaches poll....Keenum was 39 for 52 with 434 yards and four TD passes. He threw a TD pass for the 21st straight game, and this was the 18th time he has passed for more than 300 yards....The Cougars were unable to stop Anthony Dixon who rushed 21 times for 134 yards, an average of 6.4 yards per run, but the defense did force four turnovers, and Mississippi State has now turned over the ball 13 times in their last three games....The Cougars are now 3-0 against automatic BCS Bowl qualifying teams, and they are the only non-automatic qualifying team to go 3-0 against such teams this season....The Cougars play their third straight road game this week. This time they play the Tulane at the New Orleans Superdome on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. The game will be televised on CBS College Sports.