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Comeback Cougars stay undefeated

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STARKVILLE, Miss.—Another close game, another come-from-behind win.

It's almost becoming routine for the BYU Cougars, who defeated Mississippi State in dramatic fashion on Saturday night before 43,156 fans at raucous Davis Wade Stadium.

Quarterback Brandon Doman engineered a last-minute drive — again — that set up placekicker Matt Payne's game-winning 25-yard field goal as time expired to break a tie and lift the Cougars to a 41-38 victory.

For BYU, it marked its first-ever victory over a current Southeastern Conference team. The Cougars were the highest-ranked non-conference team to visit Mississippi State since Miami in 1983.

"We've had to do it before," Doman said of his teams' late-game heroics. "Our guys believed we could do it. What more could you ask for than a chance to make a game-winning drive against an SEC team?"

"I was proudest of that last drive," said coach Gary Crowton. "We went right down the field and they knew we were going to run and we did it. We ran down there, got in field goal range and won it."

Afterwards, the players and coaches whooped it up in the locker room, celebrating their 12-0 record. "What an awesome year," Doman said.

Amid the excitement, though, the Cougars were concerned about the status of Luke Staley, who rushed 28 times for 149 yards. The junior running back picked up 33 yards on BYU's final drive before going down with an leg injury on the third-to-last play of the game. He skirted right and gained 5 yards before being hauled down at the Bulldog 7-yard line, setting up the winning kick.

Team doctors said Staley has a possible broken left fibula and will be examined again today. As of Saturday night, the Cougars did not know if he would be able to play next week at Hawaii in the regular-season finale.

"I'm hoping he can," said coach Gary Crowton. "I'm thinking positive."

Meanwhile, BYU's BCS hopes remain alive. Thanks to more upsets around the country on Saturday, there will be another shake-up in the Bowl Championship Series standings on Monday. The Cougars probably didn't earn any style points with the BCS — a Sugar Bowl official was in attendance — but they were able to score enough points against Mississippi State.

The Cougars struggled mightily at times against an inspired Bulldog team, and trailed 31-21 until late in the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, BYU scored 17 points on its final three possessions, including touchdown catches by Doug Jolley and Spencer Nead.

Doman finished with 390 yards and five TD passes, but he also threw three interceptions and was sacked five times. Receiver Reno Mahe caught 10 passes for 189 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while Staley was a workhorse. "What a gutty performance," Doman said of Staley. "There's no doubt he's the best running back in the country. If he doesn't win the Doak Walker Award, it's crazy."

Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill, who saw his team fall to 3-8, was bitter about the officiating, especially a pass interference call on his defensive back, Shawn Byrdsong, that led to the Cougars' penultimate touchdown.

"I've coached many places and I've been in many conferences, but this is the first time the officials have taken the game away from a team," Sherrill said. "If you look at all the penalties, it's ridiculous. There were some things that weren't called that should have been called. I tell our team that you have to be good enough to beat the officials, but tonight the officials took the game away."

MSU was whistled for 10 penalties for 127 yards, and BYU was penalized nine times for 70 yards.

Throughout the contest, Bulldog fans were loud — screaming and ringing cowbells. "The cowbells became invisible by the fourth quarter," Doman said. "But I sure noticed them during the first part of the game. This is a tough place to play."

On the Bulldogs' first play from scrimmage, Cougar linebacker Isaac Kelley picked of quarterback Kevin Fant's pass. Six plays later, Doman threw a pass into the end zone that was tipped by cornerback Richard Ball and fell into the hands of Mahe for a touchdown.

Mississippi State then scored 21 unanswered points on three straight possessions. Down 14 points at 21-7, it was the largest deficit the Cougars had faced all season.

BYU's stagnant offense roared to life late in the second quarter to tie the score. The two teams traded scores the rest of the way. The Cougars squandered two opportunities to take control of the game due to turnovers deep in Mississippi State territory.

Defensively, BYU surrendered 346 yards to Fant while running back Dicenzo Miller gained 112 yards on 12 attempts.

In the end, both the defense and the offense came through, like they have all season long.

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com