STILLWATER, Okla. — During the past year, Oklahoma State's football program has become more nationally prominent than at any time since the late 1980s, when Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders were in the Cowboys' backfield.
No. 16 Oklahoma State (4-1, 1-0 Big 12) has become a fixture in the rankings — making a foray into the top 10 last year and starting at No. 9 this year — appearing on the covers of national magazines and played in a handful of marquee games.
The added attention started after the Cowboys upset then — No. 3 Missouri 28-23 last Oct. 11 in Columbia.
Missouri (4-1, 0-1) is making the return trip to Stillwater for a game Saturday.
Last year against Oklahoma State, "we got knocked down, and we didn't get up the right way," Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. "We just got knocked down this past week, and it's our job to respond. As captains, we've got to make sure the team is over that, and hopefully we can pick it up a little better than we did last year."
Oklahoma State entered last year's game at 5-0 but, as coach Mike Gundy noted, without a marquee win to validate the program's rise. Then the Cowboys intercepted Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel three times in the second half and slowed down the Tigers' vaunted spread offense.
Oklahoma State safety Victor Johnson recalled how the Cowboys "came out with a good attitude and a little bit of swagger" last season and added that "we're looking forward to doing it this year."
The game also served as a turning point for Missouri, but not in a positive way, Weatherspoon said, as the Tigers' national title hopes took a hit from which they never recovered.
This year, the Tigers will face Oklahoma State nine days after their first loss of the season, in which Missouri led Nebraska 12-0 entering the fourth quarter before surrendering 27 unanswered points to the Cornhuskers.
Coach Gary Pinkel said the Tigers don't need to dwell on the meltdown.
"It was a tough loss because we've been doing a pretty good job here over the last several years of winning games in the fourth quarter and keeping leads, but there's lessons to learn there," he said.
Missouri's stars from last season — Daniel, receiver Jeremy Maclin and tight end Chase Coffman — might be gone, but Gundy said the Cowboys have a healthy respect for the Tigers' offense led by sophomore Blaine Gabbert, who's passed for 1,295 yards and 11 touchdowns and thrown only two interceptions in 174 pass attempts.
Gabbert is expected to start despite spraining his right ankle against Nebraska.
"Their system hasn't changed much," Gundy said. "Their quarterback is making plays. Obviously he's much bigger size-wise than Chase Daniel was. They've got two receivers and those guys are making plays for them. They spread the ball out."
Gundy also called Weatherspoon, who ranks fifth in the conference in tackles with an average of 8.6 per game, "one of the best we've seen in years."
Oklahoma State's offense, lauded before the season began, has struggled to find consistency with some of its key cogs missing. Starting tailback Kendall Hunter has missed the last three games with an ankle injury and although he practiced this week, Gundy has said he remains "day to day."
Keith Toston, Hunter's replacement, rushed for 130 yards last Saturday as the Cowboys won 36-31 at Texas A&M.
Star wide receiver Dez Bryant remains ineligible as the NCAA considers Oklahoma State's request to reinstate him after Bryant acknowledged lying to the NCAA about his relationship with former NFL player Deion Sanders. In Bryant's absence, a handful of lesser-known receivers — Hubert Anyiam, Dameron Fooks, Tracy Moore and Justin Blackmon among them — made key catches against Texas A&M.
"We've got a number of guys that can step up and make some plays," Gundy said. "They've made some catches at crucial times. They are a long way from arriving. They've got a long way ahead of them and a lot of work to do."