Liberty Bowl Preview: Okwuegbunam out, MU secondary ready for Oklahoma State challenge

Missouri will be up against an Oklahoma State passing attack that averages 307 yards per game.
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy speaks with members of the media at the Embassy Suites in Memphis, Tenn. on Sunday, Dec. 30 2018.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – When Missouri faces off against Oklahoma State on Monday, it will be faced with a team that has endured more ups and downs than the Tigers have this season.

The Cowboys pulled off upsets over No. 15 Texas and No. 16 West Virginia. They also took No. 4 Oklahoma down to the wire in a one-point loss, but managed only a 6-6 record after blowout losses to conference bottom-feeders Texas Tech and Kansas State.

Asked about his New Year’s Resolutions, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy even quipped during a press conference Sunday: “There were times I went straight to the whiskey.”

After a rocky conference slate with top-20 opponents and a member of the College Football Playoff, Gundy said Missouri may be the most complete team Oklahoma State has played all year when the two face off in the Liberty Bowl on Monday.

“They’re good all over the board,” Gundy said. “When you have a quarterback who might be the first player taken in the draft at the position, you’re a really good team.”

Oklahoma State prepares for another star quarterback

Oklahoma State’s conference schedule put them up against top-tier quarterbacks in Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray and West Virginia quarterback Will Grier, who will be alongside Missouri quarterback Drew Lock at the top of the quarterback class for the 2018 NFL Draft. Gundy said Lock is more similar to Grier as a pocket passer who can occasionally run.

Oklahoma State knocked off Grier and the Mountaineers, but the quarterback still torched the Cowboy secondary with 364 yards and Murray threw for 349 yards when Oklahoma fought off Oklahoma State in Norman.

“You have to plan for each one differently, but he’s a really good player and probably going to play this game for another 10-12 years,” Gundy said.

Lock comes into the game with nine touchdowns in his last four games and only two interceptions. never thought of sitting out of Missouri’s bowl game.

“Someone asked him early on in bowl preparation if he was going to play or not,” Missouri Coach Barry Odom said. “I wish I could’ve captured the picture of the way he looked, the body language he gave off during that moment. This game means a heck of a lot to Drew and he wants to play really well for his team.”

Okwuegbunam ruled out

Lock will be without one of his favorite targets Monday after tight end Albert Okwuegbunam was ruled out by Odom.

The redshirt sophomore has missed Missouri’s last three games with a foot injury and will likely decide whether to return to Missouri next season or enter the 2018 NFL Draft after the bowl game. He is currently viewed as an early round pick and projected as a first or second round pick by walterfootball.com.

Odom said Daniel Parker Jr., Samson Bailey and Kendall Blanton will fill in at tight end.

Missouri secondary tasked with tough matchup

Missouri’s defense brings back memories for Gundy of the 2014 MU team that beat Gundy’s Cowboys in the Cotton Bowl. The Oklahoma State coach recalls disruptive players on the inside of that defense. Watching film, Gundy said he sees similarities between Odom’s defense and Pinkel’s from 2014.

“There’s a lot of similarities athletically,” Gundy said. “[Pinkel] always had really good inside guys that played hard and I think are still playing in the [NFL] today. They had pass rushers on the edge. They were very well coached and I see that with coach Odom and his team.”

The Missouri defense, mainly the secondary, will be under fire against an Oklahoma State passing game that averages 307 yards per game behind quarterback Taylor Cornelius and a trio of Cowboy receivers with more than 500 yards each so far this season.

“Every year, I feel like Oklahoma State has had one or two or three guys that are so explosive,” Odom said. “We’ve got to defend every inch of the field – the vertical passing game, but also the quarterback run game. They stretch it in a lot of ways that cause concern.”

The matchup will test a usually inconsistent secondary that finished strong behind cornerbacks DeMarkus Acy and Christian Holmes. The secondary improved after Holmes entered the starting lineup in week nine and the duo had a combined four interceptions in Missouri’s last six games.

“Their corners are long, lanky and can run a little bit,” Gundy said. “If they press and keep the safety in the middle of the field, and us being able to attack them and those corners covering our wide outs, it’ll be an interesting match up for us.”

Either Holmes or Acy will be matched up against sophomore speedster Tylan Wallace on the outside. Wallace led Oklahoma State with 1408 yards and 11 touchdowns in the regular season and is following in the footsteps of a recent crop of pro receivers from Oklahoma State that includes James Washington and Dez Bryant.

Wallace and Oklahoma State will have to keep up with Missouri in what looks to be a Big 12-style shootout between former conference rivals. The Cowboys have given up at least 30 points in each of their last seven games and are going up against a Missouri offense that averaged 39.7 points a game in its last four.

“We play in a league where teams score a lot of points like Missouri,” Gundy said. “They can jump right into the Big 12 and feel right at home, so we need to play well on offense and score points.”

Edited by Adam Cole | acole@themaneater.com

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