- Brandon Chatmon, ESPN Staff Writer
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Missouri players sat and watched the Allstate Sugar Bowl with the bewildered feeling the rest of the nation was experiencing. Oklahoma was imposing its will on SEC power Alabama in the heart of SEC country, going from underdog to the talk of the nation on Thursday night.
“It was crazy, it came down to what team wanted it most,” Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham said of the Sooners' 45-31 win. “You looked at Oklahoma and they wanted to win the game, they wanted to be Sugar Bowl champs, they went out and took what was theirs.”
Thus, Missouri players woke up on Friday morning with the knowledge that the weight of an entire conference was on their shoulders. Missouri needed to grab immediate revenge with a victory over Oklahoma State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl if it wanted to defend its conference’s reputation.
The SEC took a punch from the Big 12 in the Sugar Bowl, but the Tigers punched back Friday night with a 41-31 win over Big 12 foe Oklahoma State at AT&T Stadium.
“I did feel a tad bit of pressure, because I know we represent the SEC,” senior receiver L'Damian Washington said. “I think [OSU cornerback] Justin Gilbert made a statement earlier this week that the Big 12 was better than the SEC and I think we had to go out and prove the SEC is a force to be reckoned with.”
The Tigers used a combination of a relentless pass-rushing defensive line, strong running game and timely plays to earn their school record-tying 12th victory of the season, equaling the win total of the 2007 team.
Led by Cotton Bowl offensive MVP Henry Josey, Missouri rushed for 256 yards and averaged 5.4 yards per carry against a Cowboys’ defense that allowed 132.9 rushing yards and 3.46 per carry during the regular season. OSU quarterback Clint Chelf will have nightmares featuring Tigers pass-rushing duo Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. Missouri got to Chelf for three sacks, but the Cowboys quarterback was constantly flushed out of the pocket and forced to make plays on the move thanks to the Tigers defensive line, which cemented the win when Sam forced a Chelf fumble that was returned 73 yards for a touchdown by Shane Ray to halt OSU’s hopes of a game-winning touchdown in the final minutes.
“First-team All-American makes an All-American play,” Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel said.
SEC teams rejoiced as the conference escaped back-to-back losses to Big 12 opponents.
“We believe we’re the best conference,” said Andrew Wilson, who finished with a game-high 15 tackles. “And if you want to be the best conference you have to prove it, that’s why everyone is rooting for each other in these bowl games for everyone to go out and do what they can do.”
Make no mistake, the Tigers wanted the win for themselves, but they also wanted it for their conference.
“That’s something real big, representing the SEC,” Josey said. “The SEC is such a powerful conference, that’s the conference everybody looks to, that’s where the attention is. Coming into this game, that was in the back of our mind, that is always in the back of our mind that we had to hold up the rep for the SEC.”
Now, with its job done, Missouri passes the mantle to Auburn, which has the opportunity to win the eighth consecutive BCS title for the SEC when it takes on Florida State in the BCS National Championship on Monday night.
“Right now it’s up to Auburn to bring it home,” Ealy said. “We want to keep it in the SEC, that’s the most important thing as far as this conference goes.”
3dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
5dTom VanHaaren and Erik McKinney