And the momentum started and gained steam through that 2002 season, culminating with a 33-23 win over Southern Miss in the bowl game inside Reliant Stadium.
“I'm real proud,” star receiver Rashaun Woods said at the time. “I can actually say I'm happy with the season. Of course, we could have won more. But you've got to crawl before you walk.
“This is a good season for us and something we can really build on.”
The Cowboys have been in a bowl game all but one year since, producing the best stretch of football in program history.
Such future success wasn't so apparent early in 2002, when OSU lost four of its first six games, including a 44-9 pounding by Kansas State in Manhattan. Ironically, that blowout loss eventually became known as the turning point in Les Miles' second season.
Back home the following week, the Cowboys beat Nebraska for the first time since the Kennedy administration. They closed the regular season with wins in five of their final six games, including a rousing Bedlam conquest that raised their stock with several bowl committees.
“The fact that they finished strong, that got our attention,” Houston Bowl president and CEO Jerry Ippoliti said. “I think OSU is one of hottest teams in the country right now. And beating the conference champion (OU), I think they really showcased a lot of talent on the football team.”
Woods, Josh Fields and Tatum Bell highlighted the offense. Kevin Williams and Darrent Williams were the defensive standouts. Four of the five played in the NFL and Fields made it to the big leagues in Major League Baseball.
The fan base jumped in, too, with an estimated 35,000 OSU fans coloring a crowd of 44,687 distinctly orange.
In the game, the Cowboys trailed 23-20 entering the final quarter, when Bell went off, running for a 22-yard touchdown and scampering 88 yards to get OSU off its own 2, leading to Luke Phillips' fourth field goal, extending the margin to 10.
Fields passed for 310 yards and two touchdowns. Woods latched onto nine of Fields' 21 completions for 164 yards and a score. Bell finished with 160 rushing yards and a touchdown.
Kevin Williams wrecked the Golden Eagles game plan, finishing with seven tackles — four for losses, including three sacks.
The Cowboys finished 8-5, representing OSU's first winning season in five years and just the second since 1988.
“It puts the program in a position where the young guys know where the bar is,” Miles said after the game. “And in fact, for them to raise it, they're going to have to go some.
“But our goals will be much more ambitious next season.”
All these years later, as the Cowboys prepare for a return to Houston and Reliant Stadium to face Mississippi State, the goals and ambitions have been ratcheted up.
Only this time, this is where it starts.
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