HOUSTON – Houston’s offense had its fun on the first drive of the game.
After that, all the fun belonged to Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs quickly solved the riddle of Houston’s relentless passing attack, pounded it out on the ground to the tune of 409 rushing yards, and cruised to a 47-24 victory Saturday night at Robertson Stadium.
By halftime, when State led 33-10, a few in the 32,067 sellout crowd had left for home.
It was the third consecutive win for MSU (4-2), its first three-game winning streak since 2007 and only the second since 2000. It also snapped Houston’s 18-game home winning streak.
At the season’s midway point, State needs just two more wins to guarantee bowl eligibility.
“One thing we all know as a team, we can’t be satisfied, being so close,” offensive lineman Quentin Saulsberry said.
The Cougars (3-2) came out with a bang, marching 64 yards on eight plays on the game’s opening drive. Freshman quarterback David Piland, who was 5 of 5 on the drive, hit Kierrie Johnson from 18 yards for a 7-0 lead at the 12-minute, 2-second mark.
But that was pretty much that, as the Bulldogs turned up the pressure and forced the Cougars off track.
“That was kind of shocking, that first series they drove right down our throats,” said linebacker Chris White, who had 11 tackles. “We kind of got mad about it, and we just picked it up after that.”
Houston had 403 total yards, 356 of those through the air. But much of that came during garbage time – the Cougars had just 185 yards at halftime, while MSU had 255.
The Bulldogs finished with 538 total yards.
Piland, who had been battling with fellow freshman Terrance Broadway all week for the starting nod, finished 30 of 57 for 301 yards and two touchdowns. He was intercepted twice by Corey Broomfield, who returned the first one 27 yards for a touchdown to give MSU a 33-10 lead just 23 seconds before halftime.
“It was a huge play. I mean a huge play,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said. “Because we’d come down and kind of fizzle out there in the red zone and don’t convert. We come back to make that play and it gave us a lot of momentum coming into halftime.”
It was the third interception returned for TD in Broomfield’s career.
“He was a young quarterback, so I knew he was going to look that way and want to throw it, so I was just in position,” the sophomore cornerback said.
Houston’s QB quandary arose when senior Case Keenum, who burned MSU last year in a Houston win, was lost for the year to an ACL injury three weeks ago. His backup, Cotton Turner, was hurt in the same game.
Tailback Vick Ballard had his second consecutive 100-yard game, gaining 134 on 14 carries and scoring three touchdowns on runs of 5, 12 and 12 yards. The last score came on the opening drive of the second half and gave State a 40-10 lead.
“The O-line did a great job blocking,” Ballard said. “(Fullback) Pat Hanrahan, he did a good job blocking. And like I always say, if everybody does their job, it makes it easy for me.”
MSU’s rushing total was its highest since gaining 464 yards against Arkansas State in 1992.
Quarterback Chris Relf had another strong game, completing 7 of 14 passes for 57 yards while rushing for 96 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. He left early in the third quarter after getting the wind knocked out of him, and Tyler Russell drove it home.
LaDarius Perkins rushed for 78 yards and a score.
The win did not come without a high cost: Receiver Leon Berry left with a broken leg, while center J.C. Brignone suffered a sprained knee. Mullen said Brignone could return for the next game against Florida, but Berry is out for the regular season.
After Houston scored to open the game, MSU stalled on its first drive but got it right back when Marvin Bure forced a fumble on the punt return. Deep snapper Aaron Feld recovered at Houston’s 7-yard line, and Ballard scored from 5 yards two plays later to tie it.
“I’ll give you the stat of the game,” Mullen said. “Ready? They had three turnovers, we had zero.”
MSU’s defense then put a stopper in the Houston offense. The Cougars missed a 42-yard field goal, and State proceeded to cover 75 yards on three plays: a 54-yard Ballard run, a 16-yard Relf scramble, and a 5-yard Relf TD run with 6:20 left in the quarter.
A three-and-out for Houston followed, and then MSU was more methodical, covering 84 yards in 13 plays for a 21-7 lead on Ballard’s 12-yard, tackle-breaking touchdown run.
The Bulldogs’ defense kept the pressure on Piland, and a holding call on Houston left tackle Jaryd Anderson in the end zone gave State a safety and 23-7 lead.
Sean Brauchle’s 47-yard field goal, the second-longest of his career, opened up a 26-7 lead.
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Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal