Much of the preseason hype surrounding Mississippi State’s trip to Houston this weekend has gone.
Gone is Houston’s Heisman Trophy candidate as quarterback Case Keenum suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament and is out of the rest of the 2010 season.
Gone is the national ranking Houston carried into preseason.
Gone is the proficient pass-happy offense that Mississippi State saw last season when the Cougars took home a 31-24 victory at Davis-Wade Stadium.
However, what remains is that the game is crucial for both sides tonight (7 p.m., CBS College Sports)
It is certain that full throttle football message the Mississippi State program has preached since the beginning of spring practice will be taken to another gear by a Houston offense that simply doesn’t slow down.
“It’s like full-court basketball,” MSU defensive back Corey Broomfield said. “They do the same with the football with all those screens and draws, and (running) backs coming out, linemen running all the way out. It’s crazy.”
Houston (3-1) averages nearly 7 yards per play this season and has led 12 scoring drives less than two minutes long in its three victories. The Cougars also hold an 18-game winning streak at Robertson Stadium dating back to a 2007 defeat to East Carolina.
Mississippi State has more on its mind than simply the revenge factor of last year’s loss due to the fact that a victory would put the Bulldogs two victories away from its first bowl-eligible season since 2007.
“The halfway point of the season is a lot different being 4-2 than 3-3, so this is a huge game for us this weekend,” Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said. “I like how we’re improving week to week.”
With a victory over Houston, MSU will achieve its first four-game non-conference winning streak since winning eight in a row from 1998-01.
The Bulldogs (3-2) will attempt to get some of its defensive confidence back after a lackluster second-quarter where they allowed 28 points to an instate, Football Championship Sub-division school.
“I don’t want to slight (Alcorn State) in any way because I thought they came out and out-played us in the first half,” MSU defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “Sometimes what happens in a game like this is your goal is to dominate and then all of sudden they land a punch like that…and we did not respond.”
While it seems it can be assumed that Mississippi State will start and rely on junior quarterback Chris Relf to take most of the snaps, Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin is holding his quarterback decision as a mystery before today’s kickoff.
Relf was impressive during his time against Alcorn State piling up 11-for-15 passing for 209 yards and a pair of touchdown strikes in only three quarters of work.
“That's what Chris does well," Mullen said. "His running has really helped open the passing attack for him. It just shows if you really work hard, the improvements that you can make and that's the most important thing you can do."
True freshmen Terrance Broadway and David Piland are as their head coach put it "very close right now" in the two-week contest to see who will get the start against Mississippi State.
“No matter who the trigger man is they are going to move the ball and score points,” Diaz said.
Houston announced Monday that senior wide receiver James Cleveland will be suspended for today’s game against Mississippi State.
The team's co-captain and leading receiver is being disciplined for what Sumlin is calling a violation of team rules. Cleveland has 20 catches for 324 yards and three touchdowns for the Cougars.
"James made a mistake, which is uncharacteristic of him," Sumlin said in a statement released through the school. "I am disappointed because up until now he has done everything we have asked of him. He is very remorseful and hopefully will use this as a learning experience and be ready to go next week."
Cleveland was not only the 2009 Conference USA Newcomer of the Year last year but more importantly to MSU fans had a team-high 11 catches for 131 yards and two touchdowns last year at Davis-Wade Stadium. UH lists junior Justin Johnson (three catches, 39 yards this season) and freshman Kenneth Bibbins Jr. (one catch, 12 yards) as Cleveland's primary backups at inside receiver.
The defense could be improved simply by getting sophomore defensive tackle Fletcher Cox back from his ankle injury from two weeks ago. MSU is also likely to see more action from tight end Brandon Henderson.
“We’ve had a pretty solid week of practice so far,” Mullen said. “We’re getting some guys healthy that have been banged up a little bit. We’re excited to get on the road and go play a big-time non-conference opponent.”