BY GINA MIZELL, Staff Writer, email@example.com
STILLWATER — Leading up to Oklahoma State's Cotton Bowl matchup against Missouri, Cowboy coach Mike Gundy continues to mention how similar this Tiger team is to the one OSU faced in Columbia two years ago.
And he's largely right. Same coach in Gary Pinkel. Same quarterback in James Franklin. Same running back in Henry Josey. Same general schemes on offense and defense.
But where is this Mizzou squad different? Or, rather, where are the Tigers most improved, allowing them to rise from a middle-of-the-road Big 12 team in 2011 to a contender in the SEC and nationally this season?
Here are three key areas:
Franklin clearly had ability as a sophomore in 2011, but lacked experience in a league that featured Robert Griffin III, Brandon Weeden, Ryan Tannehill, Landry Jones and Collin Klein.
This season, the dual-threat signal-caller belongs in the group of upper-echelon quarterbacks in the SEC, which features NFL prospects like Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger, Johnny Manziel and A.J. McCarron. Franklin has completed 65.6 percent of his passes for 2,255 yards, 19 touchdowns and five interceptions in 10 games, while adding 474 rushing yards and four scores.
Franklin anchors a Mizzou offense that features Josey as a fourth-year junior, along with two seniors and one redshirt junior on the offensive line.
OSU defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer drew a comparison between the Mizzou offense and the Cowboy defense.
“All their great players — the linemen, the quarterback, the running back — they were all young then, just like we had a bunch of sophomores and redshirt freshmen playing,” Spencer said. “Then everybody sticks around and they get better every year. They've had great success.
“And our guys on defense who maybe weren't great players at the time up there, they've improved exponentially, also. So I think it's kind of a great rematch between all those guys who were on the field a few years ago facing each other. It's a neat story.”
ALL-AMERICA PASS RUSHER
Defensive end Michael Sam is a powerful force off the edge for the Tigers, exploding for 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss to claim unanimous All-America status and the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award.
Mizzou didn't have a pass rusher that dominant in 2011. End Jacquies Smith was a second-team All-Big 12 selection, recording five sacks, nine tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, five quarterback hurries and four pass breakups. Linebacker Luke Lambert led the Tigers with 11.5 tackles for loss.
“He's gonna give our tackles a lot of different looks,” Cowboy offensive lineman Parker Graham said of Sam. “They're gonna have to be ready for him.”
Franklin has certainly gotten help in the passing game from Dorial Green-Beckam, the nation's No. 1 recruit in the 2012 class who has made a big impact.
Boasting a 6-6, 225-pound frame, Green-Beckham brings size and explosiveness on the outside. He leads the Tigers with 830 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns this season and will provide a big-time matchup for Cowboy All-America cornerback Justin Gilbert.
And he's not the only big Tiger target, as Macus Lucas is 6-5, 220 and L'Damian Washington is 6-4, 205.
“They're big, they're physical, and they can run, too,” Cowboy safety Daytawion Lowe said of the Tiger receivers. “It's going to be a great challenge for us on the back end.”