STILLWATER — Mike Yurcich's quick assessment of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam?
“I don't know if we've seen anybody that's better than him, honestly,” the Oklahoma State offensive coordinator said of the Tigers' unanimous All-American.
So cue up one of the more underrated-yet-intriguing matchups of the Cotton Bowl — a battle at the line of scrimmage between Sam and his pass-rushing friends who put the opposing quarterback on the turf 38 times and a retooled OSU offensive line that led the Big 12 with 11 sacks allowed.
“(Sam) gives us a bunch challenges,” said Cowboy right guard Parker Graham, who has also played both right and left tackle during his career. “He's got a ton of sacks. After watching game film, he's got a bunch of different moves that he throws, so our tackles are gonna have to be ready to go against one of the elite guys in the nation.”
Sam's breakout senior season is one of the more surprising stories in college football.
The former two-star recruit out of Hitchcock, Texas, came into 2013 with 9.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss in his career. He did not start when OSU and Mizzou last met in 2011 in Columbia, though he did record four tackles.
But this season, Sam has become a terror off the edge, using his athleticism and high effort level to quickly explode past the offensive line and up the field. The results: 10.5 sacks, 18 tackles for loss, nine quarterback hurries, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery to earn SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors in a league that is full of playmakers on that side of the football.
“As long as you have a good motor and you can play football and you love the game, I think you can be one of the top people in the nation,” Sam recently told reporters in Columbia, lifting a self-imposed media ban that took up the majority of the regular season.
Cowboy right tackles Brandon Garrett and Chris Grisbhy will primarily be responsible for trying to slow down Sam. But the Cowboys are also quick to note that Sam isn't the Tigers' only dangerous defensive lineman.
On the other side is fellow end Kony Ely, a first-team All-SEC pick by The Associated Press and a guy Graham said is “no joke” after tallying 7.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, five pass breakups and a team-best 14 quarterback hurries.
And in the middle are tackle Matt Hoch and nose guard Harold Brantley, whom Cowboy coach Mike Gundy describes as “heavy, big, thick guys that push up the field” and allow those ends to make plays on the outside.
“It's not like you can just sit there and key on one guy,” Yurcich said. “They have a couple guys that give them depth, so they're fresh. They all get up field with athleticism, explosion.
“They have heavy hands and quick feet. They're a good bunch. Their front is very, very talented.”
The good news for the Cowboys? Their offensive line is more equipped now than it would have been in, say, late September to handle such a defensive front.
A line that went through multiple shuffles in the early season became a key component of OSU's resurgent offense when it finally stabilized — and succeeded — in late October with the combo of Daniel Koenig at left tackle, Brandon Webb at left guard, Jake Jenkins at center, Graham at right guard and Garrett/Grisbhy at right tackle. A mobile quarterback like Clint Chelf — who will be asked to move well inside the pocket and still deliver the ball accurately against Mizzou — has also helped the Cowboys avoid those sacks.
The truth is, though, that the Cowboys have been stout at protecting the quarterback all season long, with those 11 sacks allowed ranking 10th nationally.
Perhaps the best gauge of that came against Texas, where a Longhorn squad that tied for fifth in the nation with 37 sacks — and features the formidable defensive end duo of Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Jackson Jeffcoat and Cedric Reed — did not record a sack or quarterback hurry.
Graham calls Sam a more powerful version of Jeffcoat. He also believes his line is ready for the challenge of facing the best.
“For us, it's gonna be a good matchup,” Graham said. “We're gonna be excited to see what happens.”