CATEGORY: FOC College Football

AUTHOR: PARRIS

BULLDOGS HANG ON AGAINST CENTRAL FLORIDA

By Parrish Alford

Daily Journal

STARKVILLE After a morning of rain and dangerous weather, a rainbow set itself up over Scott Field Saturday, and tailback James Johnson carried Mississippi State to the pot of gold.

In the process, the Bulldogs survived a dangerous quarterback.

Johnson ran for 146 yards and four touchdowns on 26 carries -- all career high numbers as the Bulldogs turned back Daunte Culpepper and Central Florida 35-28 before a homecoming crowd of 28,621.

It was another case of close but not close enough for the Golden Knights in their second season of Division I-A competition. Central Florida is 0-4 against the SEC in 1997. Three of those losses have come by a combined 10 points.

Culpepper had his customary gaudy numbers, passing for 359 yards and two touchdowns with 29-of-52 accuracy. His completions and attempts were career highs, and he also rushed for 61 yards on 18 attempts.

But Culpepper was bothered by MSU pressure in the second half and threw two of his three interceptions on UCF's last two possessions. And Culpepper, who entered the game with five interceptions, was sacked four times.

"He got more pressure today than he has in a long time," MSU coach Jackie Sherrill said.

As they have in their four previous wins all at home the Bulldogs offense stepped up in the second half. State got 210 of its 318 yards and 21 of its 35 points after halftime. After the Golden Knights took a 28-21 lead with 8 minutes, 53 seconds to play, the Bulldogs scored the game's final 14 points.

Central Florida's (3-5) last chance ended in a Culpepper interception. With Greg Favors applying pressure, Eric Brown stepped in front of the pass, and the Bulldogs ran out the clock.

"We kept playing, playing and playing and finally made the plays," Sherrill said. "Offensively we called the right plays at the right time for what Central Florida was doing."

The Bulldogs (5-2) also shortened the playing field with strong special teams play. Four of State's touchdown drives began at its own 36, its own 43, the UCF 44 and the UCF 16.

Robert Isaac returned the opening kick 84 yards to the UCF 16, and two plays later Johnson scored from 9 yards out on a toss sweep.

Isaac finished with 176 yards on four kick returns and 18 yards on one punt return.

"We knew Daunte was going to get his points, and we knew we were going to have to score," Johnson said. "We just ran right at them. We got stronger, and they got weaker."

The Bulldogs were their strongest after Johnson scored his last touchdown, a 6-yarder with 5:13 left in the game. Brian Hazelwood's kick put MSU up 35-28.

Johnson's third touchdown was a 1-yard run with 6:38 left in the game which capped a six-play, 57-yard drive to tie the game at 28 after Culpepper had passed 17 yards to Charles Lee to give UCF a touchdown lead.

Johnson's go-ahead burst was set up by a 38-yard completion from Matt Wyatt to Kevin Prentiss.

Johnson had all but one of MSU's rushing yards, as the Bulldogs found the cracks as UCF placed eight and nine men along the line of scrimmage.

"It makes it tough," MSU center Eric Allen said. "We stayed with our blocks; that was the key. Now we're 5-2 going into the most difficult part of our schedule. This win was huge."

State struck quickly in the opening quarter with Johnson's first touchdown after Isaac's 84-yard return.

Then Culpepper went to work.

He guided the Golden Knights on an eight-play, 57-yard drive capped with a 2-yard run by Mike Grant. The PAT made it 7-7 with 8:21 left in the first quarter.

After an MSU touchdown was negated by a motion penalty, UCF took the lead, driving 75 yards in 12 plays and eating 6:09 of the clock.

Culpepper passed 13 yards to Siaha Burley for the points with Brown defending.

State tied the game at 14 with 4:04 left in the first half on a 3-yard touchdown run by Johnson after a Kendall Roberson interception. Johnson moved 3 yards untouched into the end zone as State had three tight ends in the game. Reggie Kelly, the third, lined up in the backfield.

"J.J. was running well, and we kept going with the power," Sherrill said. "They had 84 snaps. When you play 84 snaps you score a lot of points and win a lot of games.

"But our football team has won five games by playing 60 minutes and making big plays."

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