On the rebound

Both Missouri and Oklahoma State missed an opportunity last weekend. The Tigers had a chance to earn their first road win against a ranked team in six years, while Oklahoma State could have improved to 3-0 in Big 12 play and 6-0 overall. A week later, both teams need a win to reaffirm their status as conference contenders.

For the second straight week, Missouri sits atop the Big 12 North. After falling at Texas last week, Missouri is now tied with Nebraska at 2-1 in league play. The Cornhuskers visit Kansas State on Saturday, a game equally important to both teams.

A Missouri win and a Kansas State loss would put the Tigers in great shape, as Missouri's schedule gets significantly easier after it faces Oklahoma State. Still, senior WR Thomson Omboga said he thinks the Tigers can handle it themselves.

"(A Kansas State win would) help us a lot, but we don't want to look past Oklahoma State," Omboga said. "We want to just take this thing one game at a time and not have to depend on someone else losing or winning to determine our future."

Oklahoma State needs a win to keep pace with Oklahoma, as the two teams will meet in the Bedlam rivalry next weekend. The Cowboys then face Texas on the road, making a win against the Tigers all the more critical.

Both teams have plenty to gain -- or lose -- when they meet Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium, so don't expect anyone on either team to look past this one.

"We're looking at a very good Oklahoma State football team," coach Gary Pinkel said. "They run the ball as well as anyone in the country. Defensively, they're just doing an outstanding job; they don't give up very many big plays. This is gonna be a great challenge for us."

Slowing the Cowboy running game will be Missouri's greatest challenge. After Cedric Benson racked up 150 yards and two scores in the Longhorns' win last week, the Tigers will be challenged by Vernand Morency, who is second in the country in rushing, averaging 163.3 yards per game.

"Their running game is second to none, as good of a running game as I've ever seen in college football," Pinkel said. "They're that good. They can absolutely get after you and pound you. They are physical, physical people. They have one of the best tailbacks in the country. He's a quick guy, he can break tackles, he can make you miss. He's a very talented player."

Like most coaches, Pinkel is a diplomatic sort, routinely praising the abilities of his team's opponents as a sign of respect. Still, his description of Morency is dead on. Morency has averaged at least 100 yards in his past eight starts and is as talented of a tailback as there is in the Big 12. Stopping him will be the Tigers' focal point.

"I think two talented running backs in a row like that, it will just make us better against the run for the rest of the season," sophomore DE Brian Smith said. "I don't know how we'll do against him this week, but if we come out and play our game and take him down the first time we wrap him up, I think we'll do pretty well."

That's a tall order, given the size and experience of Oklahoma State's offensive line. Two 300-plus-pound seniors anchor the center of the line, with less experienced, but equally talented, players rounding out the unit. If you boil the Cowboys' early-season success down to one factor, it is the impact this group has made at the line of scrimmage, opening up huge holes for Morency to run through.

Much of the same could have been said about the Longhorns before the Tigers' visit to Texas. While Benson did manage 150 yards, two Missouri turnovers turned the tide and cost the Tigers the game. Facing two teams with similar offenses should help, Pinkel said.

"There are similarities in some ways, in that they want to establish the run," he said. "Every offense does some things different, (but) I think they're doing a great job."

While both teams focus on running the ball continuously, there are scheme differences that the Tigers will have to be aware of, senior LB Henry Sweat said.

"They're a little more traditional offense, with a fullback in the backfield more of the time," he said. "They turn around and hand the ball off to the running back, whereas Texas uses both their running back and quarterback to run the ball. They're gonna come after us; we just have to be ready."

Such a difference does not concern senior S Nino Williams much. Williams, an Oklahoma City native whose cousin Jon Holland starts at free safety for the Cowboys, expects similar defensive results as the team managed against the Longhorns, but a different outcome.

"If we just go in to play Missouri football, hands down, everything will take care of itself," he said.

The importance of this game goes beyond the standings. A win could propel either team to a run of confident play and the top of the standings. A loss, meanwhile, could be devastating.

"I think everybody in the league understands, when you get down to the last half of the season, all that is out there, all the opportunities and how critically important each and every game is," Pinkel said.

"We're starting out the second half of the season with one of the best teams in the league."

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