OSU, USM fight to be 'lone stars' of Texas

The Cowboys and Golden Eagles each want to end the year on a winning note. The ability to take Texas by storm in the Houston Bowl is something both teams crave this holiday season.

Forgettable, they aren't.

Two years in a row – 2000 and 2001 – the Cowboys (7-5, 5-3) suffered big losses to a stacked Southern Mississippi (7-5, 5-3) team. At the Dec. 27 Houston Bowl, where the two will meet again, Oklahoma State is hoping to tackle a task that has proved to be difficult in late years– beating the Golden Eagles.

"It'll be an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with a team that we saw in the first game last year," OSU head coach Les Miles said. "I don't think we played our best football. I'm sure they're a better team than they were – we obviously are – and we're looking forward to seeing them again."

Neither of the previous losses to Southern Miss were pretty. Last season, OSU traveled to Hattiesburg and received a 17-9 thrashing. The Cowboy offense struggled, and all nine points were scored off the leg of kicker Luke Phillips. In the 28-6 loss in 2000, it was the same story. None of the offensive drives OSU put together were able to end in a touchdown.

The after-Christmas party in Houston this year will be drastically different from the past two matchups between the schools, said Southern Miss head coach Jeff Bower.

"There are a lot of changes that have taken place on both teams since 2001," Bower said. "Not only the obvious things like having new quarterbacks, but the makeup of the defenses and the integrity of the players. I think we both have aspects where we have improved and where we need improvement."

Gone from the Golden Eagles roster is former quarterback Jeff Turner, who in 2001, burned the OSU defense for 277 yards passing and a touchdown. His replacement is a duo of guns, Micky D'Angleo and Dustin Almond.

D'Angelo, the starter, has connected 231 times on 122 attempts, while Almond is 52-of-111.

One statistic that sticks out is the ratio of passing touchdowns to interceptions. Both QB's post the same number in both categories. D'Angelo has passed for seven TDs and been intercepted seven times, while Almond has three in both statistical areas.

"Our running game has developed so much, we don't necessarily have to pass as much," Bower said. "We do have a great group of receivers, but when you have a guy like (Derrick) Nix, you don't need a young quarterback to chance a pass play."

Nix, who has rushed for 3,584 yards during his career as a Golden Eagle, would need only 12 yards against Oklahoma State in the Houston Bowl to become the Southern Miss all-time leading rusher. But, due to a kidney ailment, Bower announced earlier this week Nix will not suit up for his final bowl appearance. Nix's health has taken priority over football. With 52 yards in the holiday classic, Nix would have rewritten the conference record books as well, becoming the all-time leading rusher in Conference-USA.

With Nix, Southern Miss has scored twice as many times on the ground this year as opposed to in the air. With the OSU defense able to contain Oklahoma's Quentin Griffin on Nov. 30, it may be ready to take on USM's running game with more ease - even if Nix was available.

"Quentin Griffin is one of the best running backs I have ever played against," said OSU safety Chris Massey. "I think we did a good job at slowing down his run, and for really the first time this year we were able to really dominate with the run as a defense."

In the receiving corps, the Golden Eagles boast a trio of players who have 35 or more receptions on the year. Wide receivers Chris Johnson, Marvin Young and LeRoy Handy have 45, 40 and 37 catches, respectively. Collectively, the three average 14.6 yards per catch.

OSU's receivers Rashaun Woods, John Lewis and Terrence Davis-Bryant pose as a lethal treat for the Southern Miss offense. Woods, who is entertaining thoughts of an early-entry to the NFL, is only two receptions shy of the century mark. In his 98 catches, Woods tallied 1,531 yards, breaking school records in both categories set by Hart Lee Dykes. Lewis and Bryant, who come up with big plays when Woods is in double-coverage, have compiled 872 receiving yards as a team.

"Rashaun Woods – Gee, what do you say about the guy?" Bower said. "He is a premier wide receiver, and to see how much he has improved in only a year is exciting, even if I am on the opposing side. It is hard not to appreciate a young player like that. We will have our hands full for sure."

Southern Miss isn't the only school to have a change in the quarterback position. While the Golden Eagles lost Turner to graduation, the Cowboys replaced the 2001 starter, Aso Pogi, with sophomore Josh Fields.

Fields has since gone on to post OSU single game passing yardage records, and creep up on records set by current OSU offensive coordinatior Mike Gundy.

On the defensive side of the ball, Southern Miss touts 2002 Butkus Award semifinalist Rod Davis and 2002 Thorpe Award semifinalist Etric Pruitt.

Alone, Davis recorded 116 tackles, while assisting in 41. OSU's offensive line will need to bring its best to Houston – Davis has 10 sacks for a loss of 60 yards on the year.

Turnovers, which usually determine the outcome of the game, have haunted the Golden Eagles all year. Southern Miss has fumbled the ball 30 times, losing 19 of them to their opponents.

"Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers," Bower said. "That is what you have to capitalize on if you want to win. Lucky for us, it hasn't cost us many games in the end, but it sure doesn't help the cause."

Aside from defending the likes of Woods and Bryant and curtailing the passing arm of Fields – Containing the 1-2 punch of Tatum Bell and Seymore Shaw will provide a chore for the Southern Miss defense.

All in all, Bower said he thinks both teams line up pretty well.

"You have to take into consideration the caliber of the Big 12, too," Bower said. "And a 7-5 team in that conference really scares me."

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