The fourth quarter of the Cotton Bowl provided a thrilling finale to Missouri’s thrilling season.
With a field goal early in the quarter, No. 13 Oklahoma State (10-3) had erased the Tigers’ 17-7 halftime lead. No. 8 Missouri (12-2) answered with a touchdown, which Oklahoma State promptly matched. Andrew Baggett followed with a clutch 46-yard field goal to put Missouri back on top, but then the Cowboys took a 31-27 lead, their first of the game, just 85 seconds later.
What had been a game largely controlled by the defenses for three quarters became a shootout. Missouri raced down the field, and Henry Josey broke free for a 16-yard touchdown run to put the Tigers back on top with 3:08 left in the game. Missouri needed one more big play from its defense. Did they ever get it.
As Oklahoma State drove into field goal range, senior Michael Sam, an all-American defensive end, knocked the ball away from Cowboy quarterback Clint Chelf. Shane Ray ran it back 73 yards for a touchdown with 55 seconds left to seal the 41-31 win for the Tigers.
The Tiger sideline erupted, as did fans in attendance and those watching on TV across the chilly Show-Me State.
Another senior, quarterback James Franklin, struggled to get the offense going for much of his last game as a Tiger. But coach Gary Pinkel stuck with him, exuding the loyalty bordering on stubbornness that he has shown throughout his 13 seasons at Missouri. It’s largely worked for Pinkel, who became Missouri football’s winningest coach with the Cotton Bowl win, and it worked in that eventful fourth quarter as Franklin got in a rhythm and directed three scoring drives down the stretch.
The backup quarterback, Maty Mauk, was impressive in his cameos, getting to lead one drive in each half, tossing a touchdown pass on his first-half drive. It was a glimpse of the future and a 2014 season that could hold a lot of promise for the Tigers.
Missouri loses Sam and Kony Ealy, who declared for the NFL draft, along the defensive line, and will have other key players to replace. But the SEC East has a lot of teams rebuilding or replacing huge contributors, and Missouri’s two West opponents, Arkansas and post-Johnny Manziel Texas A&M, look manageable.
But first, a word for this freshly minted 2013 season. The Tigers showed they could compete in the SEC, and in hindsight that seems obvious they could do so. After all, Missouri faced some great programs through the decades in the Big Eight and Big 12. This program has a lot going for it. I don’t know if Pinkel will ever get that brass ring of a conference title, but he has done a lot of good things with Missouri, now highlighted by two 12-2 season and Cotton Bowl wins, 2013 joining 2007 in the memories of Tiger fans.
Above all, it was a fun season, a needed dose of big games, memorable plays and joy after the struggle of 2012. There’s plenty to savor about Missouri’s just-completed season, and plenty to get excited about for 2014.