October 10, 2009 11:37:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- Quarterback Tyson Lee, tailback Anthony Dixon, and linebacker Jamar Chaney don''t have time for growing pains.
At this point of the football season, the Mississippi State seniors don''t have a choice.
The Bulldogs admit there are problems that need fixing at the halfway mark of the schedule. Those things became evident once again Saturday in a 31-24 loss to the University of Houston before a homecoming crowd of 48,019 at Davis Wade Stadium.
Lee and Dixon didn''t like seeing MSU turn the ball over four times against Houston, and 13 times in the past three weeks.
"We realize we''re trying to establish a program," Lee said. "As seniors, it hurts to lose football games. That''s the hardest thing when you think you can do things to control it. The past three weeks, we''ve beat ourselves."
Chaney also doesn''t like that the defense allowed 434 yards passing and 553 yards total to the Cougars. The Bulldogs have surrendered 1,032 yards the past two weeks.
As bad as those numbers look, MSU has lost the last three games by a total 22 points.
"It''s more frustrating because we''re close," Chaney said. "It''s like coach (Dan Mullen) says, nothing good comes from losing. We''ve got to find a way to get it together. We''re capable of beating a top 25 team, but we''re just not finishing."
MSU (2-4) has road games left against Middle Tennessee next week, Kentucky, and Arkansas and home games against Florida, Alabama, and Ole Miss as it tries to achieve a winning season and possible bowl trip in Mullen''s first year.
"We need that final step to push us over the top," Mullen said. "I told (the team) we''re close. In the course of building a program, we came here with the idea we wanted to build a championship program. That starts with guys who are going to play for four quarters and play with great effort. We have those things, but we need to take the next step in winning football games."
Chaney realizes it takes longer than a year to build a program, but he''s not ready to give up on the season.
"If we keep fighting hard and show these boys how to play and how to lead, it''s going to carry over, but we can''t just think about next year," Chaney said.
Dixon had a season-high 134 yards rushing for his fourth-straight 100-yard game of the year. He is only 49 yards from breaking the school''s all-time rushing mark held by Jerious Norwood.
Dixon, who has 3,064 career yards, didn''t have the look of a player who was about to break a record. His discouragement was evident after the game.
"I set out this year to play tough, lead my team to victory, and have fun doing it, but it''s just not happening," Dixon said. "There are some positives to take away from it, but I can''t really enjoy it like I want to."
The Bulldogs had 490 yards of offense, but two fumbles and two interceptions, all by Lee, killed drives and prevented points. Three of the turnovers came in the red zone.
"As the quarterback, I can''t continue to put our team in situations like that," Lee said.
Mullen said Lee must make better decisions. His choices came into question during a play on MSU''s first possession in the third quarter.
Lee ran out of the pocket and found Leon Berry for a 25-yard completion on fourth down to push the ball to the Houston 4. The only problem was Lee was beyond the line of scrimmage when he threw the football and was called for an illegal forward pass. Lee could have run for a first down on the play.
It loss-of-down penalty gave the Cougars the ball.
"I just can''t do that," Lee said. "I thought I was behind the line, but I wasn''t. Especially on a play like that, coach puts the ball in your hand to make a play on fourth down, you can''t let your team down."
Mullen said the only way he knows to correct those types of mistakes is continued practice.
He wasn''t able to run a two-quarterback system to get Lee to the sideline for brief teaching sessions during the game because sophomore Chris Relf was suspended due to violating an unspecified team rule.
When asked how long Relf''s suspension would last, Mullen opted not to comment.
"I''m not answering any questions about Chris Relf," Mullen said.
MSU''s offensive highlight was a 50-yard touchdown run by Dixon with 9 minutes, 30 seconds remaining in the second quarter. Dixon carried several Cougars on his back for the last 15-20 yards to the end zone.
"It was really bad tackling on their part," Dixon said. "I''ve got this never-say-die attitude where I don''t choose to go down and not trying to get tackled."
MSU''s other scores were a 71-yard interception return for a touchdown by Charles Mitchell in the first quarter, a 34-yard field goal by Derek DePasquale in the second quarter, and a 1-yard run by Dixon in the fourth quarter.
Houston quarterback Case Keenum (39 of 52, 434 yards) had touchdown passes of 5 and 18 yards to James Cleveland and 16 and 3 yards to Tyron Carrier.