ARLINGTON, Texas — The Oklahoma State offense floundered through three quarters.
Then it kept up for the majority of a wild final period.
Then it made a costly late error.
No. 8 Missouri beat the 13th-ranked Cowboys 41-31 in Friday night's Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium. The final score looks like the shootout many expected. And the Cowboy offense did eventually find its rhythm.
But it took nearly three-fourths of the game for the Cowboys to get there. Then it couldn't finish.
“We just couldn't get in a rhythm,” said quarterback Clint Chelf, who finished 33-of-57 for 381 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions to go with 48 rushing yards and a score. “It seems like we would get a good gain, then we would stall.”
Trailing 34-31 with 3:08 to play, OSU used a 10-play drive — highlighted by a 23-yard pass over the middle to Marcell Ateman on fourth-and-7 and a 23-yard run by Chelf — to get into field goal range at the Missouri 23.
But on third-and-7 with about a minute to play, Missouri All-American defensive end Michael Sam — who had been contained for the bulk of the night — pressured and stripped Chelf, which teammate Shane Ray scooped and took for a 73-yard touchdown to seal the game.
“We were gonna take a shot at the end zone,” Chelf said. “Felt some pressure. I was trying to get rid of it, try to throw it away. I got hit from behind. Bad ball security.”
That was the final score in a 48-point flurry over the game's final 18 minutes, which included a 21-yard touchdown pass from Chelf to Jhajuan Seales over the middle, a 23-yard run by Chelf that included a dive for the pylon, a Desmond Roland two-yard score and a 25-yard field goal from Ben Grogan.
“We made some adjustments at halftime, and that helped us as the game went on,” coach Mike Gundy said. “But Missouri has been good up front and defended our running game until we made those adjustments.
“And we missed some throws early in the game … when you play a team as good as they are, you're not gonna have much room for error.”
The Cowboys punted eight times Friday and committed three turnovers. They went 9-of-22 on third downs and struggled to convert up the middle on third-and-short.
And OSU first needed the defense to spark that offense.
A fumble recovery by James Castleman at the Missouri 33 led to the Seales touchdown catch that cut the Tigers' lead to 17-14. Then Shaun Lewis blew up an option pitch that Ryan Simmons recovered at the Missouri 11, which turned into Grogan's field goal that tied the score at 17 early in the fourth.
It's a disappointing end for an offense that made strides during the second half of the season under first-year coordinator Mike Yurcich. The Cowboys made key personnel switches at quarterback, running back and along the offensive line and added several wrinkles to put themselves in Big 12 title contention following a seven-game winning streak.
OSU also struggled in Bedlam — save for a late fourth-quarter drive that could have been the game-winner before Blake Bell's heroics.
Now, the Cowboys are set to undergo several changes heading into 2014.
They will go through a preseason quarterback derby for the third consecutive season, with part-time starter J.W. Walsh set to battle incoming freshman Mason Rudolph, junior Daxx Garman and redshirt freshman Richard Lagow and Jake Hubenak. OSU will also need to replace Tracy Moore and Charlie Moore at receiver, as well as two interior offensive linemen in All-Big 12 perfomer Parker Graham and Brandon Webb. Josh Stewart has also floated the idea of declaring early for the NFL Draft.
Friday night, the 2013 edition of the offense first couldn't find consistency. Then it held its own in a shootout. Then it made the crucial mistake.