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Know Your Foe: Five questions (and a bonus!) with Columbia Daily Tribune beat writer David Morrison

Gina Mizell Modified: January 3, 2014 at 4:25 pm •  Published: January 3, 2014
Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam is one of the most dangerous pass rushers in the country. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam is one of the most dangerous pass rushers in the country. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Our “Know Your Foe” segment is back on the OSU blog for the Cotton Bowl, where I check in with a beat writer who covers OSU’s upcoming opponent.

David Morrison covers Missouri for the Columbia Daily Tribune. You can read his work here or follow him on Twitter at @DavidCMorrison.

Additionally, Morrison asked me some questions about the Cowboys this week. You can check that out here.

For the bowl game, I even asked him six questions! Let’s get to it…

1. After a disappointing SEC debut in 2012, what’s been the biggest key for Missouri’s dramatic turnaround this season? James Franklin’s health? Henry Josey’s return? That pass rush? Gary Pinkel? Something else?

The biggest thing has been healthy. Gary Pinkel lightened his team’s practice load in the preseason and — either out of coincidence or consequence — Missouri has stayed pretty fresh all year. That’s especially true across the offensive line, where the Tigers have only missed one start due to injury this season. That’s in stark contrast to last year, when Missouri was missing out on five of its top 10 linemen early on and had to mix and match with a bunch of spare parts for the majority of the year. A healthy line has given James Franklin time to utilize his big, talented receiving corps and Henry Josey and the other backs the space to do some damage. And yeah, the pass rush doesn’t hurt either.

2. James Franklin is about to finish his career that has been filled with ups and downs. Where has he most progressed since the last time OSU faced him in Columbia in 2011?

He just seems so much more comfortable in the offense this season. He’s gotten really good at being patient with his progressions, accurate with his throws and knowing where he needs to put the ball to make it advantageous for his receivers. He’s not as prolific a runner as he was in 2011, but he’s still surprisingly effective and chooses his spots well as far as when he wants to scramble. Offensive coordinator Josh Henson also put more of a designed run game push on Franklin’s plate after he came back from the shoulder injury, and Franklin’s size and strength makes it so that he’s basically always falling forward in short-yardage situations. The crucible of the 2012 season also just seems to have made him tougher physically and mentally. A bunch of that probably goes with the success Missouri’s been having this season, but he seems a lot better equipped to deal with setbacks this season than he was previously.

3. What’s been the biggest “spin” Josh Henson has put on Missouri’s offense since being promoted to coordinator? And what’s the bigger key in the Cotton Bowl: Establishing Josey against the a strong OSU front seven, or getting Dorial Green-Beckham and those other big receivers in favorable matchups against a Cowboy secondary that has picked off a ton of passes this season?

Henson’s changes have not been revolutionary, but they have been very effective. In the run game, he cut down on the gaps between the offensive linemen and installed more plays that hit the line and turned upfield quicker, rather than trying to stretch defenses to the sideline and waiting for creases to develop. He’s also extensively used the tight end as a blocking back attached to the line, something that would have seemed anathema at Missouri when Chase Coffman, Martin Rucker and Michael Egnew set the bar for receiving tight ends. And he’s not bashful about taking shots downfield in the pass game. Part of what’s made Henson’s offense so effective this season is he lets the two aspects flow into each other very organically, to the point where it’s difficult to know where he’ll be coming from in any given game. Against Florida, he came out gunning, then gashed the Gators on the ground once the pass game opened up those creases. Against Tennessee, he established the run first, then started testing the Volunteers deep. In a game on this stage and with such personal resonance for Henson, I’d suspect he comes out aggressive, trying to stake out big gains through the air against an Oklahoma State secondary that has given up some yards this season before falling back to the run and seeing what can be had there. But I’m not a coach…

4. After strong performances against the run all season, the amount of rushing yards Mizzou gave up in the SEC title game has gotten a ton of attention. Was that an anomaly, or a legitimate concern as the Tigers prepare to face another mobile quarterback in Clint Chelf?

I’d say 55 percent anomaly, 45 percent legitimate concern. Nobody has been able to stop Auburn’s run game over the past three months, but nobody had near the trouble with it that Missouri did. When teams have been able to gash the Tigers this year, it’s been largely by using Missouri’s aggressiveness against it. Against South Carolina, that manifested itself in halfback screen after halfback screen, when the Gamecocks let the defensive line upfield and then threw it over them to find wide-open spaces. Against Auburn, that showed itself in the deception Auburn uses in its schemes keeping Missouri out of position basically the whole game. That should be a concern going into Oklahoma State as well, as the Cowboys rely on some of the same concepts in their run game. They have a quarterback that can execute the zone-read with efficiency, a line that is comfortable with complex blocking assignments and a lead blocking back in Kye Staley that Oklahoma State uses a lot like the blocking backs Missouri had trouble with against Texas A&M and Auburn. Nobody is Auburn. Auburn is its own entity, with all its baits, switches and voodoo magic. But Oklahoma State can present some of the same problems.

5. We’ve heard plenty about all the stars coming into this game. Who’s a potential X-Factor player who could have a major impact?

Wide receiver Marcus Lucas. Dorial Green-Beckham and L’Damian Washington get most of the pub, as they should. But Lucas, at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, is a very uncommon matchup problem from the slot, bigger than anyone he’ll face and faster than most any linebacker…and a good number of nickel backs…that try to check him in pass coverage. He can mine the underneath zones and be a valuable possession receiver, or he can sneak out over top and be a big-play threat. He’s important in perimeter blocking for the run and screen games as well. If Oklahoma State focuses too much on Green-Beckham and Washington, it could have a big problem on its hands in the slot.

6. How do you ultimately see this game shaking out?

Missouri 37, Oklahoma State 34: At this point in the season, and with teams so evenly matched, this is kind of a crap shoot. Both are coming off losses that could have had them playing for more, so there’s the motivation factor. Both have shown the ability to bounce back admirably from setbacks this season, so they’re comparable in the resiliency arena as well. Missouri has a little more potential on offense than Oklahoma State, and the defense seems primed for a bounceback of sorts after the Auburn mess. That may just be enough.