By JASON ELMQUIST
ARLINGTON, Texas — When Oklahoma State takes to the field at AT&T Stadium for the Cotton Bowl contest against Missouri, 13 senior starters will put on the Orange and Black for the last time.
For a pair of Pokes on the defensive side, it will mark the end of a three-year career playing side-by-side in the middle of a much improved defense.
Three years ago, Shaun Lewis and Caleb Lavey became the future of the OSU linebacking corps and with arguable Oklahoma State’s greatest defensive year in recent memory, the duo will leave the program better off than they found it.
“It’s special. To play with somebody for three years, at a high level that he’s been playing with, it’s brought my game up to the next level as well, just trying to keep up with him,” Lewis said. “You can’t help to be proud and I don’t want to go out on a bad note, because I want him to be able to tell his kids about this experience that we’ve had here.
“This is the last shot we’ll have and just want to go out and play for him and for some of the other seniors on the team.”
Lewis cracked the starting roster in the middle of his freshman season in 2010 and never relinquished the spot the remainder of his Cowboy career. His consistency and play-making ability earned him second-team All-Big 12 honors as a junior and was a preseason All-Big 12 selection.
“He’s such a great motivator and leader. He knows more about the opposing offenses than anybody else,” said Lavey, a native of Celina, Texas. “He is the definition of student of the game. From a player’s perspective, you can’t ask for a better teammate — and I’m sure from a coach’s standpoint, you can’t ask for a guy who is hungrier and wants to learn like he does.”
Despite leading the Cowboy resurgence on defense — with a team-high 87 tackles and 12.5 tackles for a loss to go along with four interceptions, 2.5 sacks and a fumble recovery — Lavey received little postseason accolades. He managed to crack the Associated Press’ All-Big 12 first team, but was merely a second-team selection in the voting by the league’s head coaches.
“He should have been a candidate for All-American,” said Lewis, who hails from Missouri City, Texas. “I think he led all linebackers in the country with those four interceptions. He’s everything you need in a linebacker.”
But to some, Lavey was actually a surprise.
Yes, he had started the two previous seasons for the Cowboy defense, but he hardly ever jumped off the page on the field. According to Lewis, it was Lavey’s new-found approach before the season that has elevated his game — and the elevated the defense.
“This offseason he worked harder than anybody out there and you could see it back when we came in for fall camp — he was a lot bigger, he was a lot faster,” Lewis said. “Every practice he went out there like it was a game, and it carried over into the games. That’s where he took his game to the next level.”
Having spent the past three years next to each other — winning a Big 12 Conference championship and part of 50 wins over the past five years — and being a key reason for the improvement on defense, getting to play one last game together will truly be a special moment for the Texas natives.
“It’s going to be sad. Shaun’s been one of my best friends here in Stillwater and I’ve been fortunate enough to be on the same defense right next to him for so long,” Lavey said. “It’s just sad. It’s going to tough, it’s going to be sad, but we’ll stay in touch after football.”
Jason Elmquist is the sports editor at the Stillwater NewsPress
No. 9 Missouri vs. No. 13 Oklahoma State
When: Friday at 7 p.m.
Where: AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Radio: KEOK, FM-102.1.
Records: Oklahoma State 10-2; Missouri 11-2.
Line: OSU by 1
Series Record: Missouri leads 28-23.
At stake: The former Big 12 and Big Eight Conference rivals from bordering states meet in a bowl for the first time. Missouri, wrapping up its second SEC season after leaving the Big 12, will try to match a school record with its 12th victory. Oklahoma State is trying to get 11 wins for the third time in four seasons, after never reaching 11 before that.
Key matchup: Missouri’s big, physical receivers against the Oklahoma State secondary. Mizzou receivers Dorial Green-Beckham (55 catches, 830 yards, 12 TDs) and L’Damian Washington (47-853-10) are both 6-foot-4, an inch shorter than Marcus Lucas (55-646-2). All-Big 12 cornerback Justin Gilbert led the league with six interceptions and is in the Cowboys secondary with safety Daytawion Lowe, a second-team All-Big 12 selection.
Players to watch
Missouri: QB James Franklin finishes a career plagued by injuries the last two seasons. Franklin, who returned to the starting lineup three games ago after being sidelined most of four games with a shoulder sprain, has thrown for 6,788 yards and 51 touchdowns, along with 1,693 yards and 21 more scores on the ground in his 41 career games.
Oklahoma State: Linebackers Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis. Lavey is the Cowboys’ leader with 87 tackles and 13 tackles for loss, along with four interceptions. Lewis had 68 tackles, eight TFLs and three INTs.
Notes: SEC teams have won nine of the last 10 Cotton Bowls, all against Big 12 teams. The lone exception was six years ago when Missouri, then in the Big 12, beat Arkansas. That capped the only 12-win season in Tigers history. ... Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel has won 101 games in his 13 seasons. That matches him with Don Faurot (1935-42, 1946-56) for the most in school history. ... Oklahoma State is in its fourth Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys won in 1945, but lost in 2004 and 2010 — both of those against Ole Miss. ... Gilbert has six career kickoff return touchdowns, one short of the NCAA record. ... Missouri has forced a turnover in 43 consecutive games, the nation’s longest active streak — by 17 games.