*This is also the last non-conference game of the schedule for State, which has beaten Murray State and Tulane. The Cougars are 1-1 out of CUSA play, having lost to Oregon and beaten Sam Houston State. Both teams have played Tulane, on a neutral field, and won; the Bulldogs by a 21-14 score, Houston by a 35-14 count.
*Mississippi State has an all-time record of 44-19-3 in Homecoming games since the tradition began in 1937. Three times the Homecoming guest has been Houston (1963, '67, '72) with the Cougars winning the 1967 game. State lost last year's Homecoming date with Alabama-Birmingham after victories in 2002 and '03. The record attendance for this game was set in 2002 with 49,546 at Scott Field.
About the Cougars: It's a key game in a key season for the Cougars and their third-year head coach Art Briles. A successful high school coach and three-year running backs coach at Texas Tech, he was hired to revive his alma mater's program. Briles has certainly made Houston an entertaining team to watch again, and his 2003 debut produced a 7-5 record and bowl bid. The second time around wasn't as much fun with a 3-8 finish as Houston couldn't just outscore everyone. Now after a frustrating home loss to Memphis the Cougars are at a crossroads of sorts. If they can get by the Bulldogs they are back in the bowl picture with some clearly winnable CUSA games left on the slate.
Offense: The numbers don't lie: Houston can move the football with an offense that tops their league in both yardage and scoring, ranking 16th and 29th nationally. Since Briles took over the Cougars have not been shut out and only once (by Michigan in 2003) have they failed to score a touchdown. They opened this season with a 400-yard night against Oregon and are averaging 468 yards after six games, as well as 32 points. Even in defeat to Memphis the Cougars netted 502 yards, 396 of them in the air. It certainly didn't hurt Briles' candidacy for a college job that he'd coached Stephenville High School where a promising passer was prepping. Three years later junior Kevin Kolb already has surpassed 7,000 passing yards in just 30 games. He's completing 58.8% of his throws this season and has 12 touchdowns, as well as nine interceptions. Kolb is also as mobile as any slinger State can face and will run for yards at any point. He has a fine group of targets to choose from but it's understandable if he favors senior slotman Vincent Marshall (37 catches, 462 yards, two TDs), a Biletnikof Award nominee after catching 1,000 yards' worth last fall. Marshall has a catch in 30-straight games with Kolb. But he's not the only threat. Donnie Avery has 23 catches and four TDs on a 16.0-yard average, and Anthony Alridge has turned eight grabs into 229 yards (a 28.6 average) and two scores. ‘Multiple' barely describes the variety of sets Houston aligns the wideouts, slotbacks, tight ends, and fullbacks to run patterns. Yet the ground game can't be overlooked; in fact the Cougars try to spread defenses out and give tailback Ryan Gilbert single matchups that the 230-pounder can win. He's netted 573 yards with a 6.5-average and six TDs in six games. Backup Jackie Battle (249 yards, 3 TDs) is a 250-pound bruiser. They find holes opened by a veteran interior line of huge guards Byron Alfred and Roy Swan around center Sterling Doty, all back from '04. SirVincent Rogers has moved to left tackle after an all-CUSA freshman year at RT to protect the backside with soph Dustin Dickinson promoted to the open spot. It's quite a productive unit by any measure, but Houston has also been dogged by breakdowns in general and turnovers in particular. UH also brings up the CUSA rear in penalties. Still what this squad might sometimes lack in consistency can be offset instantly by sheer ‘explosiveness' with plenty of scoring drives lasting less than two minutes.
Defense: Give the Houston staff credit for attacking their weaker side of the ball, with an aggressive new approach to defense. After watching opponents practically match score-for-score the Cougars have changed the entire scheme, going from the familiar 4-3 set to an odd-man front and variable setups with the four linebackers. There's good reason for the shift, such as a hefty trio of down linemen. Two-year letterman Marquay Love is a 320-pound bulwark at nose tackle, though minor knee surgery has slowed him this season. He's flanked by ends frosh Cody Pree and senior Kade Lane, bringing the average size of the front to 300 pounds. Senior DT D.J. Johnson is also back in the rotation after missing three games for eligibility. The linebacker corps has both athleticism and size, ranging from 220 to 244 pounds, and allows varied sets with a big ‘backer often lining up as an extra end. SLB Brendan Pahula not only leads in team tackles with 52 but in stops behind the line (9) and sacks (2). Wade Koehl is the roving linebacker and has six tackles for losses, while Cody Lubojansky keeps control of the middle. Rocky Schwartz is only a sophomore but already a fixture at strong safety after an all-CUSA freshman debut. He's second in team stops supporting the front, but also covers passing lanes well. The secondary had to make some adjustments when Will Gulley was ruled out with injury, and redshirt Kenneth Fontenette has stepped into the free safety role. His strip at Tulsa was a game-deciding play for UH. Soph Ricky Wilson has taken over one corner with two interceptions and junior Willie Gaston is back at the other. There has been some progress by this unit worth noting as UH is improved in rushing defense (5th in CUSA at 171 yards per game). Overall though there's still plenty room left for improvement as UH ranks 80th nationally in total yardage (408.2) and 96th in pass defense (236.8). And the aforementioned turnover margin means the defense too often starts series in tough field positions.
Specialists: Kicking questions are being answered by a couple of new specialists. Walk-on T.J. Lawrence and freshman Ben Bell have split the placekicking and together are 7-of-10 on field goals. Lawrence tries anything over 40 yards, Bell the short field goals and PATs where he is 19-of-20. Punting is not as productive so far as junior Justin Laird is averaging 38.4 yards, and Houston's net-punting of 27.2 yards ranks 117th in the latest NCAA stats. But cornerback Ricky Wilson offsets some of this with a 10.2-yard average running back punts and a 21.6-yark mark on kickoffs.
The Series: Once upon a time this was a regular rivalry as the schools met a dozen times from 1956-72, and when the series stopped the ‘score' was tied at six-all. Houston won the first two games, then the Bulldogs reeled off five-straight successes in 1961-65. The Cougars responded with four more wins, including the infamous 1969 meeting in the Astrodome when the home team went for two points late to expand the final margin to 74-0. It was the largest margin of defeat ever for State. The Bulldogs came back with a 27-13 win in 1972 at Scott Field and stopped the series, which only resumed in 2003 when Houston won 42-35 on their campus and took the current 7-6 edge overall. The return game was delayed one year to this season. State is 3-3 in games played on campus.
Cougar Notes: Kevin Kolb is the fifth UH quarterback to throw for over 7,000 career yards, a mark he reached on October 1 this season.
*When the Cougars won at Tulsa to open this month they ended a nine-game losing streak on the road.
*Houston's offense has gained over 400 yards 21 times in Briles' 30 games as head coach.
*Wideout Kendal Briles wears the same jersey number, 5, that father Art did as a Cougar player from 1974-77.
Connections: Bulldog d-line coach Brick Haley was an assistant coach at Houston in 1997, coaching inside linebackers. Bulldog line coach J.B. Grimes and UH linebacker coach Alan Weddell worked together at Texas A&M from 1998-2002.
*There are two Texans on the MSU roster; fullback Bryson Davis (Plainview) and wideout Tay Bowser (Gilmer). There are no Mississippians playing for the Cougars.
Did You Know? Mississippi State is the only SEC school Briles has played at Houston.
*Houston's home facility, Paul O'Quinn Field, seats an official 32,000.
Bulldog Record Watch: A week-off let halfback Jerious Norwood rest the hamstring that tightened up on a 76-yard touchdown run at Florida, so the senior is ready to resume his assault on the school career rushing chart. Norwood now stands fifth on the ladder with 2,510 yards, having just surpassed James Johnson (2,452 from 1997-98). The next MSU great Norwood is trying to chase down is Michael Haddix with 2,558 from 1979-82. Norwood is 310 yards behind all-time record holder Walter Packer's 2,820; with Michael Davis ranking #2 for now at 2,721.
*Norwood also posted his 10th 100-yard game as a Bulldogs with 111 at Gainesville. That ties him for third in MSU annals with Dicenzo Miller, Davis, and Haddix. He is averaging 70.7 yards per game this senior season and 5.2 yards per carry.
*Senior Willie Evans was credited with a half-sack in the Florida game, which gives him 16 career sacks. Evans is now tied with Robert Young (1987-90) for sixth place. Greg Favors (1994-97) is fifth with 19.5 sacks. The career record of 49 by Billy Jackson (1980-83) is out of reach and likely always will be, though 25 years ago the statistic was judged differently.
*Sophmore tight end Eric Butler has been shut down the last two games, but still already holds the school record for touchdown catches by a tight end with seven in a season-and-a-half. Butler has caught three scoring passes this season. He set the position-record for a season with four touchdown catches in 2004.
*Keith Andrews continued his perfect record on PATs by making his lone attempt against Florida, raising his career mark to 27-of-27. The MSU record for consecutive made-PATs is 37, set by Kinney Jordan in 1975-76. Andrews was good on one of his two field goal tries at Gainesville and is 9-of-16 in his two seasons.
*Junior quarterback Omarr Conner has thrown eight touchdown passes in six games this season, including a 66-yarder against LSU. It was the longest scoring throw of his two years under-center, though Conner did toss a 84-yarder at Mississippi last year that was fumbled short of the end zone. In this year's opener Conner tied the program record for game TD passes with four, against Murray State, matching the standard Derrick Taite and Tony Shell. Conner now has 2,007 passing yards in 14 games at quarterback.
*Conner has completed 54.7% of his passes with five interceptions this season.
*Junior flanker Will Prosser has as many pass receptions, 20, as the next two teammates combined on the catching chart. Wideout Tee Milons and Butler have ten catches each.
*After six games, safety Jeramie Johnson and middle linebacker Quinton Culberson are in a tight race for the team tackles lead. Johnson has been credited with 45 stops and Culberson 41.
Rookie Report: 11 of the 21 true freshmen on this 2005 roster have played in at least two games. The latest to be activated were OT Calvin Wilson and LB Jimmy Miller. One true frosh is a starter, P Blake McAdams, and WR Aubrey Bell is in the regular rotation of wideouts. Seven others are in backup or special teams roles for now: KR/CB Derek Pegues, DE Charles Burns, LB Jamar Chaney, OG Anthony Dunning, CB Keith Fitzhugh, OT Michael Gates, and RB Brandon Hart.
The newcomers who have not played yet are: WR Tay Bowser, OG Johnny Carpenter, WR Adron Chambers, QB Ty Evans, WR Corey Gardhigh, OT Craig Jenkins, DB Jarvis Kyles, QB Tray Rutland, OL Chris Spencer, and DE Quinton Wesley. Of those, Carpenter and Wesley are dressing for SEC games and Chambers is now practicing at defensive back.