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Monday, September 25, 2023


Cougars earn third win over BCS opponent; move back into AP top 25

STARKVILLE, Miss. – UH’s defense was disappointed in the way it played in its loss to UTEP, allowing 581 yards last Saturday

Seven days later, the Associated Press No. 23 Cougars had plenty of reasons to feel great about shutting out Mississippi State’s offense for most of the second half of their 31-24 victory.

Players young and old stepped up when it mattered most Saturday, taking advantage of two turnovers in the fourth quarter that allowed UH’s offense to build a 31-17 lead. Head coach Kevin Sumlin was thrilled with the effort from his defense, especially his backups.

‘We had some guys come in and make big plays,’ Sumlin said. ‘I always tell my guys that you never know when it might be your time, so be ready. They were ready today ‘hellip; That gives me hope and confidence in our depth.’

The win – in front of a homecoming crowd of 48,019 at Davis-Wade Stadium – pushed UH back into the Associated Press top 25. However, the Cougars certainly had to earn this victory.

In the early moments of the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs’ rushing attack was having a lot of success, looking to break a 17-17 tie. On a first-and-10 at UH’s 23-yard line, quarterback Tyson Lee met nose tackle Ameen Behbahani.

The freshman tore through Mississippi State’s offensive line and sacked Lee for a 12-yard loss. After running back Anthony Dixon rushed for 7 yards on second down, the Bulldogs were forced to throw on third-and-15.

With several young players sharing time on the field because of injuries to two defensive starters (David Hunter and Matt Nicholson), UH (4-1, 0-1 Conference USA) needed an experienced player to make a big play.

Brandon Brinkley was ready.

The senior cornerback, who recorded seven tackles and a career-high two interceptions, picked off a pass from Lee inside the Cougars’ 10. This gave his team a chance to take its first lead of the game.’

‘Brandon Brinkley’s a guy who makes big plays for us,’ Sumlin said. ‘We need some senior leadership in games like these.’

For Brinkley, his performance was the polar opposite of what occurred in El Paso last Saturday.

‘It feels wonderful,’ Brinkley said. ‘Coming home from the road last week, (there was) silence. (We were) depressed, hurt. This week, apparently we’re going to be energized, happy and talking about the game.’

After failing to convert two Mississippi State turnovers into points in the first three quarters, UH refused to squander the opportunity that Brinkley provided. Quarterback Case Keenum engineered a 10-play, 78-yard drive – capped by a 3-yard touchdown pass to James Cleveland (11 receptions, 131 yards, two touchdowns) – to give the Cougars a 24-17 advantage with 6:23 left.

But the Bulldogs (2-4, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) were not done.

They moved the ball to the Cougars’ 16 on their next possession and appeared to cut their deficit to 1 point when Dixon leapt into the end zone with 4:57 remaining. The score did not count, however, because of a holding penalty that pushed Mississippi State back to the UH 21.

On the next play, another freshman stepped up for the Cougars.

Defensive end Zeke Riser pounced on a fumble by Lee, giving UH the ball at its 24. Two plays later, Keenum connected with Tyron Carrier on a screen pass for an 18-yard touchdown that put UH up 31-17 with 4:14 left to play.

Although he made some crucial throws in the fourth quarter, the junior quarterback praised the defense after the game.

‘Our defense did an incredible job of creating turnovers,’ Keenum said. ‘When (our defense) had a chance to get their hands on the ball, they got some turnovers. Those are game-changing plays.’

Mississippi State cut its deficit to 31-24 on a Dixon rushing score with 1:22 remaining, but wide receiver Chaz Rodriguez sealed the victory by recovering the ensuing onside kick.

Although the Cougars were quick to give credit to their defense, the unit’s performance was far from perfect. For the second straight game, UH allowed more than 300 rushing yards. Dixon led the way for the Bulldogs, rushing for 134 yards on 21 carries.

The highlight of the game for the 235-pound senior was his 50-yard touchdown run with 9:30 left before halftime. Dixon brought two Cougars with him for the last 20 yards, displaying more effort and desire than his opponents.

‘Dixon is a man,’ Sumlin said. ‘He carried half of our defense for 20 yards. The guy is as advertised.’

UH’s offense had another great performance, compiling 553 yards in 77 plays, but Keenum was not flawless.

He completed 39 of 52 passes for 434 yards, but threw two interceptions in the red zone that cost UH at least 6 points. Defensive back Charles Mitchell returned one of these picks 71 yards for a touchdown that gave the Bulldogs a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.

Mississippi State’s defense was active throughout the game, forcing Keenum to dissect its alignments.

‘They are a very good defense,’ Keenum said. ‘They came out and confused me a few times.’

Despite his struggles, the junior from Abilene was huge in the clutch.

‘We were able to get our guys in space and let them do what they are supposed to do,’ Keenum said. ‘Our skill guys played really well, catching the ball and getting up (the) field.’

Sumlin knew his team did not deliver its best performance, but the players’ strong effort made this victory sweeter than most.

‘I couldn’t be prouder of them. Guys just went in and kept playing,’ Sumlin said. ‘Our defense ‘hellip; has to be opportunistic. If the ball’s out, we have to get it.

‘Opportunistic is our word. It’s not easy to win any Saturday, but it’s certainly difficult to win on the road in the SEC.’

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