(Taken from the January issue of the O-State Sports Report)">
(Taken from the January issue of the O-State Sports Report)">

Cotton Bowl Review

DALLAS, Texas – Former Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi used to tell his team, "We didn't lose the game, we just ran out of time." Oklahoma State head coach Les Miles had a similar message to his Oklahoma State Cowboys moments after they had trudged up the Cotton Bowl ramp having run out of time down 31-28 to Ole Miss in the 2004 SBC Cotton Bowl Classic. <BR><BR> (Taken from the January issue of the O-State Sports Report)

"The only disappointment is the scoreboard," said Miles. "There are some things all of us would like to do over that would change the outcome, but I am proud of the fight and the effort. When challenged, this team fought back."

They did do that, moments earlier on the Oklahoma State bench there was no thought to next year and the future. It was all about the present.

Quarterback Josh Fields, who will have an offseason decision to make in late May, was confidently talking with offensive coordinator Mike Gundy on the ring down phone from the press box. Rashaun Woods had just been mobbed by teammates as he came off the field from catching the 16-yard touchdown pass that made it 31-27 before Luke Phillips' extra point made it 31-28 Ole Miss.

The entire bench area was electric. Jesse Pruitt, a member of the Cotton Bowl Board of Directors who had served as the Cowboys host all week, was yelling the word, "unbelievable" over and over.

The first thought was that Pruitt was talking about the game, a shootout that the Cotton Bowl had wanted when they matched the two teams. But Pruitt clarified that he was talking about Woods and his ability to make big plays.

Everybody on the squad was up and screaming, including five new Cowboys suited up only in game jerseys and warmup pants. New freshman quarterback Robert Reid and defensive back Stephen James didn't see a close game all season as they helped Galena Park North Shore to a Texas 5A high school state championship. But Reid, James, Galveston Ball linebacker Roderick Johnson and wide receiver Phillip Jones and defensive end Maurice Cummings, both midterm enrollees from last year's recruiting class, were very much caught up in the excitement of the Cowboy comeback.

A few minutes later the Cowboy contingent was trudging up the historic Cotton Bowl ramp, most with heads down on their way to hear Miles' parting words for the season. The catch on the fade route for the touchdown was Woods' last catch as a Cowboy. It was his 11th reception of the day and covered the final 16 of his 223 yards receiving – both good enough to set Cotton Bowl records. He finished his OSU career with 293 catches, third most in NCAA history. His total of 4,414 yards receiving is good for third all-time in Division I-A.

For Luke Phillips it was his final extra point as he finished with 103 points on the season, an OSU record. His career mark of 263 is seventh best at OSU. Josh Fields may have thrown his final touchdown pass. If Fields were to leave for pro baseball in May after the amateur baseball draft, he'd do it with 55 career touchdown passes, the most in Cowboy history and one better than his quarterback coach Mike Gundy.

Back in the locker room, Miles paid homage to those players and others in the senior class. "You seniors, we thank you," said Miles in fired up fashion. "You are invited, expected, every time you are in town, to come by and say hello. You are always a valuable part of this program. You have taken this program to a new level, to back-to-back bowl games, a New Year's Day bowl game. You have raised the bar and said to the rest of this squad, take it higher. Juniors, what are you going to do? It is your turn to lead."

It is not surprising that Miles incorporated the future in his postgame speech. The future is never far away in college football, and there was no way Miles was going to end his last address of the 2003 season, even if it came in 2004, without challenging his team to accomplish more in the future.

"That is the challenge, and it is something we look forward to," said Miles later when reminded of his words to the squad. "We look forward to spring, and I'll tell you right now, I can't wait to get in some young guys' homes and talk them into being Cowboys."

The torch has officially been passed. Gone are All-Big 12 performers like Woods, tailback Tatum Bell, kicker Luke Phillips and defensive end Greg Richmond. Also, starters like safety Elbert Craig, defensive ends Antonio and Khreem Smith, wide receiver Gabe Lindsay, offensive tackle Matt Hardison, and veteran fullback Tim Burrough. There is even the possibility of losing Fields to pro baseball and cornerback Darrent Williams early to the NFL. Williams is going to consider it although it appears that he'll be back.

Familiar faces like Vernand Morency, Billy Bajema, Charlie Johnson, Sam Mayes, Clay Coe, Paul Duren, Robert Jones and others will need to assume leadership roles. Redshirts now must become players, and even some of those newcomers will have to stand up and perform in order for this team to follow along with Boone Pickens Stadium in taking it to the "next level."

Rashaun Woods simply points to his younger brother, D'Juan, to step up and literally follow in his footsteps.

"He did a lot better than I did when I was a freshman, so if that is any indication as to how good he is going to be then that's pretty good," said Woods of his younger brother.

The future could hold descriptions of Woods-to-Woods for a touchdown as standout quarterback Donovan Woods, who led Oklahoma City Millwood to three consecutive Oklahoma state championships, could wind up taking snaps and soon. Woods, transfer Al Pena, new freshman and nationally recognized high school recruit Robert Reid, along with current backup Jamie Beeghley could be vying in the spring for the starting job if Fields is drafted and decides to go play pro baseball.

Fields had said earlier in the week that he will wait and play his college baseball season at OSU, see what the draft holds and then make a decision based on what happens. Miles has to be ready and knows it is a possibility, despite Fields' record-setting performance in the Cotton Bowl.

"I think the scenario of his return for his senior season, or the prospect of him going to play pro baseball, will be based on what happens in the baseball draft," Miles said. "The performance he had in the game (Cotton Bowl) won't be a determining factor."

Each of the four quarterback candidates, which doesn't include darkhorse candidates like redshirt freshman Mike Friess and walk-on backup Matt Warren, would be eager to take over. Reid, the newest addition, could have been speaking for the others who hope to be ahead of him in line. "Not many people get a chance like this," Reid told The Daily Oklahoman's Mike Baldwin after the game. "I feel really good about my decision. This gives me some experience. I was telling coach Miles, ‘This just makes me hungry.' I start school next week and am looking forward to playing with these guys."

They are all looking forward to playing too. You would think at the end of a season that most players would avoid discussion of next season, badly wanting to get a break from the grind of the season. Physically that is probably the case, but a couple of the expected leaders among the junior class are more than happy to think and talk about raising that bar.

"The one thing that this team is always going to have is that these guys are hungry," said junior offensive guard Sam Mayes. "It's never too early to talk about next year. We went to the Cotton Bowl this year and next year we're either coming back or going to a BCS bowl and winning it." "This team really lifted my spirit up," said junior safety Jon Holland. "I just need to go out and improve and get better, play my game, and help this team win and have success. I will never be an individual player."

This team is in good hands. It is made up of ever increasing talented players as the Oklahoma State coaching staff has upgraded its recruiting efforts each season that they've been in Stillwater. This class looks like it is starting in that same mode. It is also made up of hard-working players who have their minds and hearts in the right place. A good example is a former high school tailback, used to carrying the ball a bunch, that becomes a fullback specializing in knocking defenders flat on their backs.

Sophomore fullback Shawn Willis was asked about continuing his role as a blocker. Next season it will not be for Tatum Bell but instead for Vernand Morency, Seymore Shaw and others. Willis simply and confidently said, "I will be here for a while."

The hope is that Willis is talking not just about himself, but for the OSU football program. The torch is passed and Oklahoma State fans will expect it to stay brightly lit.

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