HOUSTON -- If they didn't believe the hype going into the Dec. 27 Houston Bowl -- they do now. Southern Miss' highly touted defensive corps lived up to the hype that preceded it, shutting down the Oklahoma State offensive run early in the game.
But, the Cowboys kept grinding away at the chain. If at first you don't succeed -- just pick yourself up and try again.
And that determination helped lead the Cowboys to their first postseason victory since the 1988 Holiday Bowl, as they beat the Golden Eagles at Reliant Stadium, 33-23.
"We had to be patient as an offense waiting on the run to come," said OSU quarterback Josh Fields. "Early in the game we didn't run very well, but late in the game we just kept on pounding, kept on running it to them -- we didn't go at it all pass -- we had a pretty good mixture of run/pass and eventually holes started opening and he hit them."
Fields amassed 101 yards passing in the first quarter alone, due to USM's effective rush defense. By the close of the first quarter, the Cowboys had run for only three yards on the ground. And it took them seven carries to get only that much.
At halftime, OSU wide receiver Rashaun Woods had already surpassed his game average of 130 yards per game, and three other OSU receivers had double-digit receiving yards.
"It was tough at first," Woods said. "I thought, ‘Man these guys are a lot better than I thought.' They were real quick at plugging those holes so our backs couldn't bust through."
As the running game was struggling in the first half, Cowboy kicker Luke Phillips stepped up to aid his teammates in scoring categories. In the first quarter, Phillips booted a 46-yarder to put OSU up 10-0. Then, after USM tied the game at 10, Phillips put the orange troops ahead by three, tying his career-long with 52-yard blast.
"(Phillips) really got us back in that game," OSU coach Les Miles said. "That is the thing with this team -- when one aspect of the offense is down, another comes up and says, ‘Hey -- I'll lead.'"
Miles would have liked for the Cowboy offensive troops to come out of the gates after halftime, but instead, they had to punt on their first possession of the second half.
"(At halftime) I told them they need to put it in gear," Miles said. "Unfortunately, that didn't happen right at first, but it came in due time."
During the fourth quarter, USM defenders had to change their game plan in order to stop the Fields-to-Woods air attack. Fields connected with his favorite target six times before halftime, once for a touchdown.
Miles said the early one-on-one coverage USM used on Woods to begin the game was fortunate for the Cowboys, enabling Fields to go to the air when the running backs were limited by the Eagle defense. Late in the game, however, USM double and triple-covered Woods, finally opening up holes for backs Tatum Bell and Seymore Shaw.
"We called some runs -- this defense is a pretty good defense, it was difficult to predict," Miles said. "We really figured running the ball late in the game may be to our advantage."
And, the team that began the game with only 29 yards rushing in an entire half, prevailed in the fourth quarter when it counted.
"If you see how the team responded in the fourth quarter, I would think that was the difference," Miles said. "Big plays, opportunities to win, offensively and defensively -- I think they wore down in the fourth quarter against us. I think that was a by-product of character."
The spark of the fourth quarter was Bell, who rushed up the middle for a 22-yard touchdown, and then plowed through the USM line for an 88-yard gain which set up another Phillips field goal.
The combination of the offensive line blocking for Bell, and Bell's gazelle-like speed, were able to put the Cowboys up by two scores, something the Golden Eagles were never able to recover from.
"I think (USM) really wanted to come out and stop the run, which they did a good job of," Woods said. "One thing that I was very proud of our team is that we kept with it. Kept trying the run, it didn't work, it didn't work -- first quarter, second quarter, third quarter -- then in the fourth quarter we finally wore them down and we started to bust big runs."
Fields, finishing the day 21-of-40 with 310 yards, attributed the Cowboy success to the team as a whole, not just the offense's ability to adapt to USM's rush defense.
"While we weren't scoring much, and while I was struggling to get things going -- the defense really stepped up," Fields said. "It was just such a team effort.
"We really did everything as a team that we could to end this season the way it should be ended -- and we did."