Cowboy defense steps up, prevents Missouri comeback

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- A bowl matchup between an SEC team and a Big 12 team came down to one yard that was needed to gain, and it was the defense of the Big 12 squad that came out victorious.

Yes, you read that right.

After a roller-coaster of a game that nearly mimicked the Oklahoma State football team's wild ride of a season, it was the Cowboys' defense that came in clutch and propelled OSU to a 38-33 AutoZone Liberty Bowl victory against Missouri (8-5) and, ultimately, a winning record to finish the season.

"Our guys were really wired up to play physical football," OSU coach Mike Gundy said. "We knew that we had to play physical."

Senior quarterback Taylor Cornelius took home the AutoZone Liberty Bowl MVP trophy after tying a Liberty Bowl record with four touchdown passes. But at the end of the game, though the Cowboys (7-6) held onto a five-point lead, OSU's destiny resided in the palms of a defensive group that has been inconsistent and injury-plagued all season.

Monday's game at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium was no different.

The OSU defense was down multiple secondary players after losing cornerbacks Rodarius Williams and Kemah Siverand to targeting penalties, which result in automatic ejection.

"Both those (ejections) were because (Missouri) thought we were in man coverage, but we were in zone coverage and the corner was waiting," OSU defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said. "So I actually set the poor kids up to run smack into, you know, they were sitting there. It was the perfect call for both those plays. Those become hard. If you're a guy sitting in the flat and a guy's running right at you, what are you gonna do? It's the right call. We've just gotta teach them to finish that better."

The secondary became even thinner after safety Malcolm Rodriguez, who has blossomed into a hard-hitting defender this season, left the game with a knee injury.

OSU coach Mike Gundy noted that if another member of the Cowboy secondary had to leave the game, he wasn't sure who would've gone in for him.

The Cowboys seemed to possess control of the game with a 35-19 lead on the Tigers going into the final quarter. But the Tigers rallied back, scoring 14 points to OSU's three in the fourth quarter and putting themselves within striking distance late.

Missouri's final drive started with 5:57 to go, and the Cowboys led 38-33.

The Tigers drove down the field and set themselves up in the red zone with about a minute left in the game. As the Tigers crept toward the end zone, the Cowboy defense began to shrink the field because it had less ground to cover. The Tigers eventually found themselves in a 4th-and-1 situation from the OSU 9-yard line.

Missouri quarterback Drew Lock snapped the ball and immediately ran to his right toward the OSU sideline. Cowboy safety Kolby Peel recognized the play as a quarterback keeper and chased down Lock, a future NFL prospect. Peel corralled Lock's ankles and dragged him to the ground just before he could reach the first-down marker.

"That's the matchup we want," Knowles said. "We want a safety on a quarterback in that situation rather than the (defensive) end. You'd rather have a skill guy against a quarterback. It just becomes a foot race.

"We fought to the end. I've been preaching to them all year that we've got to win on defense. We have to step up and win a game on defense."

The Cowboys didn't play a perfect game Monday, and they showcased a far from perfect season as a whole.

But the final game of their 2018 season, which ultimately concluded in an upset victory against an opponent from what is considered to be the most dominant conference in college football, summed up the season well for this group of Cowboys.

"I'll just say this: I asked them to take the challenge of playing the SEC and to be more physical than them, and they did it," Gundy said. "This is the way we used to play. Today, we played the same way we used to play in 2007-08 when we were trying to establish Oklahoma State football. We were physical, we competed and this is how we need to get back to playing. All the guys took the challenge, and we were physical across the board. I appreciate their willingness and effort to compete against a really good team that is in a physical league."