*Houston made an appearance in the national rankings after two opening wins, at 23rd, before a loss to UCLA dropped them out.
*Houston owns the longest home winning streak in the NCAA at 18-straight victories. State's most recent non-conference road win was at Middle Tennessee last season. The last road win against a CUSA club came in 2007 at Tulane, though that December the Dogs also beat league champ Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl.
*State has another CUSA team on the schedule as Alabama-Birmingham comes to campus in two weeks for homecoming. Mississippi State has played more games against teams that currently make up the SEC's regional cousin than any other outside league, with a 84-62-3 scoresheet. State's most-played CUSA foe is Tulane, due to the Green Wave having been a SEC member for three decades.
*There are four Texans on the Bulldog roster; LB Emmanuel Gatling, K Derek DePasquale, DE Shane McCardell, and OL Archie Muniz. Linebacker Sammy Brown of Wiggins via Gulf Coast CC is the lone Mississippian playing for Houston.
The Opponent: A season holding such lofty Houston hopes has taken a painful hit, one that will also impact how Conference USA's crown is won, what teams go to what bowls, and even how the Heisman Trophy voting turns out. Fact is with Case Keenum healthy these Cougars could have run the '10 table, at least in their league. The other fact though is that even without him at the helm UH remains quite capable of rattling a lot of cages with as potent an offense as any in the college game. Nor is the defense quite the pushover perceived by careless observers. There isn't a game left on the slate, including this one, that Kevin Sumlin's squad can't win and a third-straight bowl trip under his management seems assured. Just maybe not as high-profile a trip as they would have earned without crucial, painful hit.
Offense: Say what one will about the competition so far, but points is points and Houston can pile them up with the best. The fastest, too. And this week State defensive coaches have stressed it is the successful system to fear regardless of what name is on the quarterback's shirt. Which most do expect to be freshman Terrance Broadway even if the UH staff is being verrrrry tight lipped this week. He was given the call after Keenum's injury and responded nicely with a couple of touchdowns against UCLA, then took care of Tulane. A free week to review his first start and refocus has to speed his transition too. He's connected on two-thirds of his throws already with a lone pick. Fellow frosh David Piland is listed #2 and has yet to throw a college pass. Neither will have superb wideout James Cleveland (20 catches, 324 yards, 3 TDs) to toss to though as he's under suspension. Never fear, there are plenty other targets in the four-wides scheme. X-spot Patrick Edwards has been good for 19 catches and 259 yards with one score, and Z Kerrie Johnson has a pair of TD grabs himself. Tyron Carrier hasn't had a huge game yet but is coming off consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons. And the typical catch by any Cougar nets over a dozen yards. What makes the air attack that much more potent is a ground game that has come into its own. Bryce Beal produces 6.7 yards per carry and 105 yards each week, and that's when sharing toting tasks with Michael Hayes. Between them these backs have scored 14 rushing TDs already, and Hayes is naturally a pass-catcher in his own right. All the skill folk operate behind a front line that has size and experience, as well as a new face in former defensive lineman Isaiah Thompson moved to starting guard. There might still be some adjustments to make with the new quarterback(s) though as after just allowing two sacks in three games, Cougar QBs were caught five times by Tulane. Fumbles and break-ups were also an unexpected issue in that win, too. But as often as the ball is going to get to the end zone, it will take even more such miscues to bring down this high-flying bunch.
Defense: It also allows a whole lot more defensive slack than most programs dare count on. No getting around it, the Cougars give up points to all opponents at over 26 each week. Give management credit for trying though with a new coordinator and fresh approach to harassing opponents. Not stopping, maybe, but certainly putting on more pressure which has resulted in over seven tackles for losses per game and 11 turnovers in four games. The big improvement so far has been in rushing defense, the real weak point historically here, with typical yield cut by 60 yards-per this season so far. The schematic shift has been from last year's four-front to a 3-4 set that puts a whole lot of muscle in the middle. The trio with hands on the ground are 290 or better across and each has at least one TFL already. Not surprisingly their tying-up the blocking frees the quartet of linebackers to attack at will, led by Marcus McGraw. The junior led CUSA last season in total tackles and is off to a fast '10 start with 33 stops, along with two forced fumbles. OLB Phillip Steward has four TFLs to his credit with three hurries and four more break-ups, while ILB Matt Nicholson is Mr. Turnover with one interception (run back for a TD) and a couple of fumbles recovered. But the top pass-picker is CB Loyce Means with three intercepts and a score. All corners are active for that matter as Jamal Robinson is second in tackles overall, leaving the safeties able to either support the run or swing into coverage as need presents. The coverage is indeed better with seven picks and 21 more break-ups, which is why foes have completed less than 52% of throws so far. Oh, and this defense isn't bothered by a very unbalanced possession time; Houston typically holds the ball 25 minutes leaving it in opposing possession the rest of the day. After all the best defense is a quick-scoring offense.
Specialists: Or, special teams that can score on their own initiative. Carrier ran back four kickoffs for touchdowns last year and is overdue for a score in 2010. Patrick Edwards is a big-time punt returner with an eye-opening 14.7 average gain. PK Matt Hogan has made four of his five field goal attempts though none longer than 34 yards, since his offense generally spots the ball in easy range. And the defense benefits form the 46-yard punting average of Richie Leone.
The Series: Houston has a 9-6 advantage in the intermittent series, and has won the last three meetings in 2003, '05 and '09. State's last win came in 1972, and the most recent win in Houston was way back in 1965. Houston also owns the largest margin of MSU defeat with the infamous 74-0 thrashing of 1969.
Bulldog Notebook: Mississippi State has scored a rushing touchdown in every game this season, and in 15 of Dan Mullen's 17 games.
*State has scored a touchdown on the first possession of a first half twice; and the first turn of a second half three times.
*The Bulldog offense is second in SEC third-down conversions at 50% even. *State is the only SEC team to have pulled off an on-sides kick so far this season.
*A year ago MSU was the only SEC team without a touchback. These Bulldogs have three non-returned kickoffs already.
*But, the Bulldogs have made a league-low one field goal, in three attempts.
*State is second in SEC net punting at 39.3 yards, behind only Florida's 43.0.
*A week ago against Georgia, the MSU offense opened eight possessions with rushes and two with passes. Against Alcorn State though the ratio flipped to 7 opening passes, five rushes, and one of those carries was a sack. Also, all seven series-starting passes were consecutive possessions.
*State has produced two touchdown passes in consecutive games for the first time since 2006.
*All four were thrown by QB Chris Relf, who now has equaled his TD pass total of 2009 with five this season in half as many games.
*Relf had a career day against Alcorn, completing 11-of-15 throws for 209 yards. He had just 283 passing yards all of 2009.
*In the last three games, Relf is 25-of-37 passing, 68%. He has been under 50% throwing just once all year, 12-of-26 against Auburn. Take that outing away and in his last six career games Relf is 39-of-58 or 67% passing.
*Relf only carried the ball himself three times against ASU. But against Georgia he ran for 97 yards.
*QB Tyler Russell did not play against Georgia, but made his presence known last week with 8-of-14 throwing and 127 yards. His is a tick-better than Relf in all-season accuracy, 61.2% to 61.2%.
*Relf's completions average 14.0 yards; Russell nets 16.1.
*In their two non-SEC games this season, the Bulldog quarterbacks are a combined 39-of-54 (72.2%) with seven touchdowns tossed and two interceptions.
*And where last year the two-QB rotation cost both statistical standings, both Russell and Relf are in this week's SEC rankings for pass efficiency, 5th and 6th respectively.
*That isn't the case for Bulldog runners, since that job is divided up among Relf and a trio of tailbacks, none of whom have enough yards to be listed in this week's league stats.
*But after three weeks where the ball-hauling was almost equal, TB Vick Ballard has come to the fore with 21 carries the last two games. TB LaDarius Perkins has gotten 14 rushes, RB Rob Elliott four.
*Ballard took advantage of Alcorn State to post his first 100-yard outing at State, with 119 yards on just eight rushes. In the process Ballard has raised his per-carry rate to 6.5 yards.
*Much more impressive is Ballard's impact on the scoreboard. He has accounted for eight of State's ten rushing touchdowns and has scored in every MSU game so far.
*This puts Ballard half-way to the all-time MSU record of 16 rushing TDs in a season, set by Jackie Parker in 1952. Anthony Dixon scored 14 times on the ground in 2007. If Ballard could conceivably keep up his current scoring pace he would obliterate all MSU records, because he is getting a touchdown once every 5.5 carries.
*This week Ballard is the SEC's leading scorer with 54 points, adding in his touchdown catch against Georgia.
*The top per-rush rate on the team though belongs to WR and part-time QB Chad Bumphis at 7.9 yards. Bumphis ran four times from a wild set against ASU for 38 yards.
*This hasn't cut into Bumphis' regular duty of catching passes though, and a nine-grab game against ASU pushed him to 25 catches on the year for 352 yards. He had a team-best 32 catches and 375 yards all of his freshman season.
*Bumphis has already matched his TD catch total of 2009 with four such scores this year.
*Bumphis' next 100-yard receiving game will move him into the MSU top-ten only midway of his sophomore season.
*He ranks 3rd this week in SEC receptions per game, and 4th in yardage. But Bumphis has not caught a TD pass in a SEC game this year.
*WR Leon Berry had a dry spell after five catches and a touchdown in the opener against Memphis. He returned to form with three catches and 97 yards against ASU.
*WR Brandon Heavens has been consistent with two catches the last three games.
*But injuries have cost the tight end corps greatly, lately. The unit has not caught a pass since Kendrick Cook's single grab at LSU. And Marcus Green is lost for the season with knee ligament surgery.
*State passers are getting the ball to a variety of scorers as the top four receivers, including WR Arceto Clark, have at least one touchdown.
*OT Derek Sherrod was named a semifinalist for the National Football Foundation's Campbell Trophy. There are 121 semifinalists for the award, with 15 finalists to win a $18,000 post-graduate scholarship.
*Perkins is the other MSU tailback with a rushing touchdown.
*Redshirt freshman OG Gabe Jackson has Mississippi State's other offensive touchdown for the season. He fell on a Relf goal-line fumble that rolled into the end zone. It was the first touchdown for a Bulldog blocker since guard Derrick Dean also recovered an offensive fumble in the end zone against Louisiana Tech in 1988.
*The offensive line has allowed just one sack in the last two games.
*The Dog defense had five sacks through four games. They came away from the ASU contest with four more, shared among three players.
*None belonged to DE Pernell McPhee who has yet to get his first senior-season sack after leading State with five baggings in 2009.
*McPhee does have 4.0 stops for losses and three credited hurries.
*It is senior MLB Chris White who has jumped in front, or rather on the other side of the line, with a team-best 7.5 tackles for losses and 2.5 sacks. All the latter came this past week against ASU. White had only a half-sack all last season working from strong-side LB.
*But White has fallen a bit behind WLB K.J. Wright in the unit competition for top tackler. The senior has 38 stops so far, White 35.
*And Wright only had one tackle against Memphis before sitting with an ankle injury. He's made 29 tackles in SEC play.
*His next tackle gives Wright 200 for his college career.
*Wright suddenly is tops on the team also in pass breakups with seven. He had a pair of potential picks on his hands against Georgia, only to clank both to his chagrin because in four years Wright has yet to intercept a pass.
*For that matter after picking three passes the first two games, State's whole defense has not gotten an interception the last three outings.
*State has recovered four fumbles this year; two of them on the same play. At LSU, CB Damein Anderson got a loose ball only to be stripped on the stop, with CB Maurice Langston getting to the second carom.
*Langston had two interceptions against Memphis.
*DT Fletcher Cox has blocked one field goal (Auburn) this year, to go with his rejection against Houston as a true 2009 freshman.
*Now his classmate and DT partner Josh Boyd has joined the block party, rejecting a field goal by Alcorn State.
*State connected on the first made field goal of the season when PK Sean Brauchle hit a 44-yarder against Georgia. He missed from 38 yards in the opening night; and last Saturday PK Derek DePasquale missed a 33-yard try.
*State has not missed a PAT in Mullen's tenure with Brauchle and DePasquale combining for 54-of-54 perfection.
*P Heath Hutchins is back over the 40.0 yard average benchmark (40.1), and the senior has had nine of his 18 kicks fair-caught. Eight of them have landed or been fielded inside the 20-yard line.
*State had been struggling badly in the return game, until Berry brought a kickoff back 97 yards for touchdown against Alcorn State. It raised his season rate to 28.3 yards, 4th-best in the SEC.
*Also, adding his 89-yard return last year against Georgia Tech, the senior now has two kickoff touchdowns and ties the MSU career record set in 1997-98 by Kevin Prentiss.
*Berry provided State's first non-offensive touchdown of the season. State had seven such scores in 2009.
*DE/LB Corvell Harrison-Gay became the third true freshman to play this season, joining ST/LB Chris Hughes and WR Michael Carr.
*Scholarship freshmen yet to play this year are: QB Dylan Favre, TE Brandon Hill, DB Matthew Wells, WR Jamerson Love, RB Nick Griffin, LB Jay Hughes, K Baker Swedenburg, LB Christian Holmes, LB Ferlando Bohanna, OL Archie Muniz, OL Dillon Day, OL Eric Lawson, OL Blaine Clausell, OL Damien Robinson, WR Malcolm Johnson, WR Robert Johnson, DL Kaleb Eulls, and DL Curtis Virges.
*OC J.C. Brignone and OG Quentin Saulsberry both have 29-game starting streaks. The defensive leader in total starts is Wright with 27.