HOUSTON -- With a 33-23 win secured in the Houston Bowl on Dec. 27, Vernon Grant and Daniel McLemore showed off their dance moves on the Oklahoma State sideline with less than a minute left to play.
The Cowboy defensive backs were celebrating their victory over Southern Miss, as well as a breakthrough season for OSU football.
The Cowboys, who finished 2002 with an 8-5 record, were 2-4 halfway through the season. They went on to win six out of their last seven games, sent OSU to a bowl game for the first time in five years and garnered the Cowboys' first bowl win since 1988.
"I think it means a lot for this team," said OSU senior defensive tackle and 2002 Houston Bowl Defensive Player of the Game Kevin Williams. "Because when we was 2-4, everybody was thinking, ‘Oh, this team had big hopes, and what happened to those hopes?' They was starting to count us out, and I think it means a lot to show everybody that just because we was 2-4 on the season, we didn't give up and we fought back."
Williams had six solo tackles, plus three sacks for a loss of 15 yards in the game.
The first half for the Cowboys was all about the passing game, as Rashaun Woods, 2002 Houston Bowl MVP and Offensive Player of the Game, had six receptions for 140 yards and a touchdown. Quarterback Josh Fields was 15-of-25 at halftime with 233 yards through the air and two touchdown passes. However, the USM defense kept up with the Cowboys, and OSU led by only a touchdown -- 20-13.
USM backup quarterback Dustin Almond started for the Golden Eagles and was 8-of-14 for 116 yards and a 13-yard scramble for a touchdown at the half.
"I thought he (Almond) played gutsy football," said Cowboy head coach Les Miles. "He is a physical guy, made big plays, scrambled out of there and did a lot of things that allowed his team to compete and win. He was a really a concern. We put a lot of pressure on him, and dad-gonnit if he didn't scramble out of there and get the first down.
"I thought he played well -- he gave them every opportunity they needed to win."
The Cowboys had to step up their running game in the second half, as Woods usually had double and triple coverage.
"They made up their minds they were not gonna' let me do to them what I did in the first half," Woods said. "Fortunately, that opened up the running game a lot."
Seymore Shaw started the game for the Cowboys at tailback ahead of projected starter Tatum Bell because Bell had missed an appointment earlier in the week for treatment on his hamstring. Bell, however, dominated the fourth quarter for the Cowboys, bringing them back from a 23-20 third quarter deficit.
"They loaded up the box on us," Bell said. "We knew that coming into the game. Eventually the run started opening up and we ran it right at them. That defense jumps around so much you just got to go with your basic stuff."
Bell broke away for a 22-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter after Fields got a critical first down on fourth-and-1. Bell later broke out again for 88 yards -- a career long -- after starting out on OSU's own 2-yard line.
"It felt good just to break a long one," Bell said.
The run also put Bell over the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the season. He had 13 carries for 160 yards and a touchdown in the game.
"It feels good," Bell said of achieving a 1,000-yard season. "As the game was going along, I was like, ‘I'm not gonna' get my 1,000,' but after I broke that long one I was like, ‘I got it.'
"And it felt pretty good."
Fields ended the day 21-of-40 with an interception and 310 yards passing. It was the second-best passing day by a Cowboy in a bowl game, five yards short of Mike Gundy's 315 yards in the 1988 Holiday Bowl.
Woods had 24 more receiving yards in the second half to give him 164 yards on nine receptions. Miles said the Fields-Woods-Bell combination is definitely something special.
"They are easily the hottest ticket in Stillwater," Miles said of the trio.
Special teams was also a critical component for both teams, as USM kicker Curt Jones scored nine points on three field goals and OSU's Luke Phillips scored on four field goals. Phillips' long was a 52-yarder.
"Luke -- he's really been a key force and the ability to score all season long," Miles said. "And today we just ended up calling his number a number of times."
Phillips said he was surprised by the amount of field goals he attempted since he's used to kicking PATs.
"With our offense going the way it's going I was expecting to hit a lot more PATs today," said Phillips, 2002 Houston Bowl Special Teams Player of the Game. "When they pinned us down on the two and we we're up seven and Tatum broke that long run -- that's when, in my heart, I knew the game was over. If I could just hit this last field goal and put this to a two possession game we would be all right."
And that's exactly what Phillips did for the Cowboys when he hit a 24-yarder with 5:15 left to play. Neither team scored again, and the Cowboys beat USM for the first time in three years.
"Today's game was just fighting through adversity, just continuing to play hard and don't give up on your coaching staff or teammates and just rally to the ball," said Cowboy right end Greg Richmond.
The bar is set high -- the seniors set the bar for us underclassmen to keep this thing going, and that's what we're going to do.
"We can't let them down from what they done set for us this year."