Cotton Bowl wins for Missouri in the last seven seasons. The Tigers currently hold a strange distinction: they are the at this moment the last SEC team to win the Cotton Bowl and the last Big 12 team to win the Cotton Bowl (in 2007). But an even odder tidbit is this: Mizzou's passing game, perhaps the most noteworthy aspect for both of those teams, stunk in each Cotton Bowl.
In the 2008 Cotton Bowl, a 38-7 win over Arkansas, quarterback Chase Daniel completed just 12 of 29 passes for 136 yards, an interception, and a sack. But Tony Temple rushed for a Cotton Bowl record 281 yards, and the Mizzou defense not only held Arkansas to 4.3 yards per play but also scored a touchdown of its own (a 26-yard pick-six by William Moore).
(Plus, Daniel stripped the return man on his interception, and Mizzou recovered the fumble, which was fun.)
In the 2014 Cotton Bowl, things were a bit closer, and the Mizzou passing game was even worse. Starter James Franklin completed just 15 of 40 passes for 174 yards, an interception, and two sacks. He also fumbled two deliveries in the running game while the Tigers' offensive line was getting pushed around. Oklahoma State's defensive backfield did its best Michigan State impression, toeing as close to the line of physicality as possible and daring referees to call pass interference*.
And with the flags staying in the refs' pockets for the most part, Mizzou receivers didn't respond well at all. OSU defensed 10 passes, and Mizzou suffered at least three or four other drops. Dorial Green-Beckham, for instance, had a few lovely catches but still caught just four of 13 balls for 53 yards.
* OSU was called for pass interference twice -- once on Mizzou's second possession, and once on a Tyler Patmon interception with 9:09 left in the game. The Cowboys were incensed about the Patmon call, not only because Patmon indeed picked the ball off and ran it back for a score, but also because, while there was definitely contact, there was less contact on that play than what the refs had allowed the rest of the night. Call that one, and there are about eight others you should have called. It reeked of college basketball's awful change-the-definition-of-a-foul-in-the-final-minutes tendency.
So how did Missouri win, 41-31, then? For starters, the running back trio of Henry Josey, Marcus Murphy, and Russell Hansbrough rushed 28 times for 147 yards (5.3 per carry) and three scores and caught three passes for 24 yards. (Josey led the way with 92 yards and all three scores.) Plus, OSU's Clint Chelf fared only marginally better, completing 33 of 57 passes for 381 yards and two scores, but with two interceptions and three sacks (one of them of the sack-and-strip variety).
OSU gained 86 more yards than Missouri, but Mizzou fared slightly better in its eight scoring opportunities (four touchdowns, two field goals, two punts) than the Cowboys (four touchdowns, one field goal, a missed field goal, a punt, and a turnover). And while each team suffered three turnovers, OSU's were slightly more costly.
Sacks by Missouri defensive ends -- one by a unanimous All-American, and two by a likely first-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.
There was an odd flow to the Cotton Bowl, with defenses dominating for large portions of the game and offenses still managing to combine for 1,010 yards. (Granted, a lot of the yardage stemmed from the fact that the teams combined for a ridiculous 187 snaps and 34 possessions. That's like two Stanford games.) But Mizzou's Kony Ealy, who declared for the draft after the game, ended a potential scoring drive in the second quarter with two sacks in three plays. And with the game in the balance, Michael Sam sacked and stripped Chelf from behind, and another Mizzou end, Shane Ray, scooped the ball up and, with Ealy helping to pave the way, returned it 73 yards for the game-clinching score.
This was the 2013 Mizzou season in a nutshell. The Tigers logged 41 sacks this fall, and 32 came from the superfecta of ends -- Sam, Ealy, Ray and Markus Golden. The rest of the defense was mostly sturdy, Auburn game aside, but when the Tigers were making a play, it was either via huge sack or an E.J. Gaines interception (the senior recorded his fifth of the year early in the game). OSU's line is excellent in pass protection, with some of the lowest sack rates in the country. And really, a five percent sack rate (Mizzou's on Chelf) is only good, not great. But all three came in important moments … and the third came in the most important moment of the game.
Wins for Clemson since the Tigers' last trip to the Orange Bowl.
In 2011, Clemson became a punchline of sorts for being the victim of Dana Holgorsen's greatest offensive achievement. The Tigers lost in the Orange Bowl, 70-33, to Holgorsen's West Virginia Mountaineers, who gained 589 yards. It seemed like 900.
Since then, however, West Virginia is just 11-14. The Mountaineers failed to live up to ensuing preseason hype in 2012, then ground to a halt in 2013 after losing all of their stars. Clemson, meanwhile, just kept tinkering away. Head coach Dabo Swinney brought in aggressive former Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables to retool the defense, and Clemson kept signing star recruits on that side of the ball. Two years (and two 11-2 seasons) later, the defense made the difference for Clemson.
That's a strange thing to say about a 40-35 Orange Bowl win over Ohio State, but it's the truth. Clemson outgained Ohio State by 149 yards, 576-427, and sacked Buckeye quarterback Braxton Miller five times in 29 pass attempts. They also defensed six of eight Ohio State incompletions (two picks, four break-ups). For all intents and purposes, Ohio State's offense was good enough to force Clemson to make big plays to stop the Buckeyes; Clemson obliged.
The game unfolded in three acts.
Act I: The Buckeyes scored on their opening possession, thanks in part to Clemson penalties, then punted four times in a row, going three-and-out three times. Following the fourth punt, Clemson drove 77 yards for a touchdown and a 20-9 lead.
Act II: Ohio State caught fire, scoring three quick, easy touchdowns on four possessions. Five plays, 85 yards, touchdown, 20-15. Five plays, 79 yards, touchdown, 22-20 Ohio State. Nine plays, 87 yards (25 from Clemson penalties), touchdown, 29-20. The Buckeyes went on a 20-0 run in about a 16-minute span in the middle of the game.
Act III: Suddenly down nine points, Clemson went three-and-out but was given second life when Philly Brown muffed a punt. The Tigers scored two plays later to make it 29-27, and Act III, an Ohio State turnover fest, began. Braxton Miller threw an interception and Clemson scored four plays later to take the lead. The Buckeyes engineered one last scoring drive (10 plays, 75 yards), but Clemson responded with a touchdown of its own. On the next possession, Miller was obliterated by Bashaud Breeland and fumbled. Given one last chance after an interception, Miller threw an interception. Including the muffed punt, Ohio State turned the ball over four of the last five times it touched the ball, and three were directly because of great plays by Clemson's defense.
In all, the defense really did make the difference. Clemson suffered plenty of breakdowns but made 10 tackles for loss to Ohio State's two (star end Vic Beasley had four, and only one was a sack) and defensed six passes to Ohio State's four. You can't usually hem in explosive offenses like Ohio State's; you have to counter with plays of your own. Clemson did so.
Receiving yards for Clemson's Sammy Watkins. It's not official yet, but Watkins will almost certainly declare for the NFL draft now that his junior season is over. What a way to go out.
In the end, Watkins has accomplished more in three years than almost any receiver would in four: 241 receptions, 3,397 yards, 27 touchdowns. He also scored touchdowns rushing, passing and returning kicks in his career.
Friday night, he painted his masterpiece. Knowing Ohio State, like everybody else, would draw up its game plan with Watkins in mind, Clemson used him in every way imaginable: quick strikes to the sideline, touch passes to him in motion, deep routes. He lined up everywhere and, in the end, according to the play-by-play, caught all 16 passes thrown to him at 14.2 yards per catch.
Watkins was the primary muse behind quarterback Tajh Boyd's final stat line -- 31-for-40, 378 yards, five touchdowns, two picks, two sacks (8.8 yards per pass attempt) -- but he had help. Martavis Bryant caught two athletic red zone touchdowns, Jordan Leggett caught a 43-yarder, Roderick McDowell caught four passes for 32 yards, etc. And while Boyd almost never had to throw downfield (the yards after catch were pretty incredible), he also helped his own cause with 18 non-sack carries for 137 yards, including a 48-yard burst on the game's first possession.