Truly, the Bulldog halfback would have traded the ball, his record, and a whole lot more if he could have left the field a winner this day. Instead Norwood and team trudged to their locker room after a 28-16 loss to visiting Houston. While the Cougars (4-3) celebrated beating a Southeastern Conference program, the Bulldogs suffered a fourth-straight setback and fell to 2-5.
"They deserved to win," MSU Coach Sylvester Croom said, while at the same time showing his frustration with letting this one get away. "We had the opportunity to win and didn't take advantage."
Certainly State did not make the most of a record-setting afternoon by Norwood. The senior had runs of 66, 51, 28, and 27 yards, and blew by James Johnson's 1998 mark of 237 yards in just three quarters. He also put up the only Bulldog touchdown. And none of it mattered. "It's tough," Norwood said. "All the yards are good but we needed a win today and didn't get it."
The Cougars did get one they needed. With quarterback Kevin Kolb directing an efficient and often explosive offense, Houston shrugged off a couple of early Bulldog field goals and dominated the last three quarters. Even after Norwood put his team back ahead on that 66-yard dash for touchdown in the second period the Cougars were clearly setting the tempo.
"All you can say is they made the plays and we didn't," said cornerback Kevin Dockery, "that's basically what it boils down to."
Kolb definitely made plays. The junior quarterback, who beat State as a 2003 freshman in Houston, put on a passing show by completing 20-of-29 for 218 yards and one touchdown. Though sacked four times, Kolb also ran for yards as needed and distributed the ball to eight receivers…none of them a Bulldog defender as State never came close to a downfield interception.
"We knew he was mobile but he was a little faster than we expected," defensive end Willie Evans said. "We made some bad reads and took some bad angles at him and he made us pay."
But another Cougar extracted the most painful dues from the Dogs. Slotback Vincent Marshall, who Kolb has been throwing to all three varsity seasons, had four receptions for 49 yards, one reverse-run for 21 more, and 133 yards' worth of returns. One of those was the game-changer, a 56-yard punt return for a second-quarter touchdown that gave Houston the lead back at 14-13 and a big boost in second-half confidence.
Until then the Bulldogs were feeling good about themselves, having scored on three consecutive series and piled up unexpected margins in both snaps and possession time. State was most impressive in the opening quarter, going against a season-long grain by putting together extended drives that ate up ground and clock alike. "We moved the football, kept them off the field like we hoped," said Croom. The play-calling even showed some new twists, such as a halfback reverse on the very first snap from scrimmage.
Yet at the same time State was not maximizing their opportunities. Their first drive lasted 8:24 and 16 plays…and failed to produce points with a fourth-down false start in placekick formation moving the ball back a bit too far for a field goal try. The second and third drives did result in three-pointers by Keith Andrews, of 35 and 44 yards for a 6-0 lead at 14:03 of the second quarter. It should have been more. Before the first field goal quarterback Omarr Conner overthrew an open Eric Butler in the end zone. The next series Butler could not hang on to a good throw at the Houston 15-yard line and again State settled for three points. "We had a couple of plays that we could have scored touchdowns," noted Norwood. "We ended up just getting field goals."
"Playing an explosive football team, if you don't get those in the end zone it's going to come back to haunt you," said Croom. "And it did." State had used almost 14 of the 16 minutes run to score six points; it took Houston just 2:34 to get on the board and take a lead.
Kolb ran 23 yards on a keeper, and on 2nd-and-9 found tight end Blade Bassler wide-open over the middle. His catch and run covered 40 yards to the Bulldog three, where Jackie Butler was able to scamper into the end zone at 11:29.
Norwood showed his own explosiveness as three snaps later he turned a simple 3rd-and-3 blast at right tackle into his 66-yard dash, outrunning two pursuers and juking one last defender at the ten-yard line. Leading 13-7 the Dogs got the ball back, but Conner was sacked and Blake McAdams punted it 44 yards to Marshall at the Cougar 44. All coverage was shunted aside and once across midfield Marshall found a lane to his right that went all the way to the end zone. Ben Bell's PAT put Houston up 14-13.
That margin held at halftime as Tee Milons dropped a catch for big yards on 3rd-and-9, and after a deep punt State didn't seriously try to use their three timeouts to get the ball back. Houston didn't have to punt until 0:25, leaving enough clock for Conner to make one heave at Humphries, and take a sack.
Houston had the ball first out of the locker room and made it count, taking a short kickoff (Andrews pulled a groin) to start at their 40-yard line. A 3rd-and-10 strike to Kendal Briles netted 15 yards and Battle crunched ahead for 15 more to the Bulldog 14. On third down with three receivers split to one side and tilting the coverage outward, Briles ran a hard slant-in and Kolb drilled the ball in for a 11-yard touchdown at 21-13 lead at 10:13.
"Everything they did, we were prepared for," said Croom. "We just didn't make plays." Nor did the Dogs make offensive plays to immediately answer, going three-and-punt. A 40-yard return of a 50-yard McAdams kick came to nought as Houston's T.J. Lawrence missed a 36-yard field goal try.
Norwood gave his team a chance to respond. On 4th-and-short at the MSU 43 he broke free for 27 yards, and on 2nd-and-20 after a hold he turned an inside-reverse into 28 more yards to the Cougar 12. Conner hit Will Prosser on a slant for first-and-goal at the one-yard line. Having used speed to get there, the Dogs tried power with slams at center by Brandon Hart and Norwood and lost a yard. On third down Conner rolled right as far as he could with nobody open in the end zone, so Adam Carlson chipped the 20-yard field goal through at 1:29.
They'd cut the deficit to 21-16, but the Dogs knew they'd still come up short. "That's on the offensive line, whenever you've got it on the one-yard line it's our job to get push through," center Chris McNeil said. "We didn't get it done. I guess that's pretty much the story of the entire day."
The Cougars were certainly content to give up the three. Even missing a 52-yard effort early in the fourth period did no harm because State couldn't move the chains. Houston got the ball back at 11:36 and drove as far as State's three-yard line with Marshall barely stopped on a reverse. The Dog defense stiffened, held on three plays and forced a field goal try. Ben Bell was good but a flag flew as Dockery was called for roughing the kicker, to his surprise.
"When I came off the edge the guy grabbed my facemask and kind of threw me into the kicker. But I didn't get the call, I guess that's the way the game goes." The automatic first down put the ball two yards from the goal and Battle crashed over at 5:36.
Down by a dozen the Dogs tried to throw their way downfield, only to have Conner sacked repeatedly. Facing 4th-and-28 Croom opted to punt, which turned out a good call as McAdams' short kick nicked a Cougar and was recovered by Brett Morgan at the 33-yard line. Nothing came of the turnover as four pass plays became a sack and three incompletes.
After a slow start Houston netted 344 of their 370 yards in the last three quarters, with 81 by Battle. Kolb's 20 completions averaged almost 11 yards as he had little trouble picking State's zone coverage apart. And save for the final misplayed punt, the Cougars were practically error-free.
Norwood was nothing short of brilliant, vaulting into second place on the all-time MSU rushing list. "He gave us everything he had," said Croom. "The plan was to put him in position in different areas they hadn't seen, get the ball to him, and he had a magnificent day. But he didn't have a lot of help." The rest of the Dogs could only add 71 other yards to the team's total. Conner was 14-of-31 passing for just 84 yards, the longest completion covering 15 yards. McAdams averaged 46.2 yards on his six punts, yet even this strong showing was turned (re-turned?) against MSU.
So there was not much for the Bulldogs to celebrate after a Homecoming Day loss. Norwood will put his game ball in a place of pride, someday. "It's a good thing," he said. "But we need a win."