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Missouri's defense key as it faces Oklahoma State in Liberty Bowl

Missouri's defense key as it faces Oklahoma State in Liberty Bowl

December 31st, 2018 by Colin O'Brien in Mizzou Sports

Missouri quarterback Drew Lock celebrates with fans after his team defeated Tennessee 50-17 in last month's game in Knoxville, Tenn.

Photo by Associated Press /News Tribune.

COLUMBIA, Mo. — If you're a fan of close games, the 2018 bowl season has not been a fun one.

Just 10 of the 27 bowl games played — Las Vegas, Camellia, Bahamas, Birmingham, Dollar General, Cheez-It, Texas, Alamo, Camping World, Arizona and Orange — have been decided by 14 points or less.

Missouri and Oklahoma State should be another in today's Liberty Bowl, which kicks off at 2:45 p.m. in Memphis, Tenn. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.

If nothing else, it is almost impossible for it to be the kind of offensive stinker TCU and California played in the Cheez-It Bowl. These are two top-20 offenses in both scoring and in total offense, with the Cowboys ranking 14th and 10th, respectively, and the Tigers at 19th and 16th.

But Missouri (8-4) is more than a touchdown favorite in Vegas, and a major part of that is because of its defense. The Tigers allowed 24.4 points per game, an average of eight fewer than Oklahoma State, and allowed more than 40 points just once, in Week 4 to Georgia, while holding six opponents to less than 20 points.

The Cowboys gave up 41 or more points four times, and despite holding Missouri State and South Alabama to less than 20 points and a good Boise State offense to 21 in their first three games, they gave up an average of 37.5 in their next nine games.

That defense, plus a few
midseason transfers, is why Oklahoma State's regular season ended with a 6-6 record and a taste of disappointment. A team that beat ranked opponents in Boise State, Texas and West Virginia, and came within a point of knocking off rival Oklahoma on the road, also lost to Iowa State, Baylor, TCU and put just up 12 points in a dismal defeat at Kansas State.

Redshirt senior quarterback Taylor Cornelius and his starting wideouts Tylan Wallace, Tyron Johnson and Dillon Stoner threaten defenses from anywhere on the field. Cornelius is inconsistent and inaccurate at times, but the Cowboys under coach Mike Gundy are a pass-heavy offense and Cornelius is also experienced.

Cornelius' numbers are similar to those of Drew Lock. Cornelius threw the ball 441 times and completed 59 percent of his passes for 3,642 yards, 28 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, while Lock threw 399 times with a 63.2 completion percentage for 3,125 yards, 25 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Things are close in pass defense, too, with Missouri 104th nationally, allowing 256 passing yards per game and 20 touchdowns against eight interceptions. The Cowboys are 107th, averaging 258 yards per game allowed through the air and 24 passing touchdowns against five picks.

The two teams are also very similar on the ground: Justice Hill, Chuba Howard and Cornelius each had more than 100 rushes this season for Oklahoma State, and the team racked up 2,305 yards and 29 scoring touchdowns on a 4.77 yards per carry average. Hill is out for today's game, 70 yards shy of the 1,000-yard mark this season, with a rib injury.

Hill did not play against West Virginia, in which the team rushed for 266 yards on 43 carries, or against TCU, when the team rushed for 99 yards on 32 carries. It's difficult to pinpoint how much his absence will hamper Oklahoma State's run game, but he was the team's leading rusher. Howard is a redshirt freshman and his backup, LD Brown, is a redshirt sophomore with 25 carries for 160 yards this season.

With Hill out, the Tigers will likely have the most success in differentiating themselves with run defense in what is otherwise a very even matchup.

Oklahoma State shut down Boise State on the ground, giving up just 34 yards, and slowed the Longhorns down significantly in giving up just 119 yards in that win, but allowed more than 200 yards on the ground five times. Missouri, by contrast, held Purdue, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas all under 100 yards, and allowed 200 or more to just Memphis and Vanderbilt.

The Cowboys' offense and Cornelius' arm naturally puts it into more and longer third-and-long situations. Howard has shown he can be the feature back, and he had 22 carries against Oklahoma and 26 against West Virginia.

If the Tigers can get Oklahoma State out of rhythm by slowing Howard and containing Cornelius, and if the offense can break the 400-yard mark for the 10th time this season, this might end up being one of the majority of bowl games that ends in something that closely resembles a blowout rather than a close game.