COLUMBIA — Kony Ealy lined up to the right of a wall of offensive linemen, his fingers twitching as he stared past offensive tackle Justin Britt and toward the blue tackling dummy that awaited him on the other side.
The Missouri defensive lineman didn't hesitate when assistant coach Bruce Walker blew his whistle. He powered through Britt and ran toward the dummy, sprinting in a counterclockwise motion until he reached his target. High-density muscle met high-density foam. After not hitting anything since a 17-point loss to Auburn in the Southeastern Conference championship game, Ealy and the other Tiger defenders were eager to move on and get back to work.
"Our main focus is Oklahoma State," Ealy said about Missouri's Cotton Bowl opponent. "We’ve got to get a game plan to beat them because they’re a great ball club."
Like it or not, the Tigers will continue to be asked about their performance in Atlanta until the Cotton Bowl. That's because Missouri's defense, which had only given up 113 rushing yards per game and ranked second in the SEC against the run before the loss, gave up a whopping 544 yards on the ground to Auburn. That left a bitter taste in Missouri's mouth.
"We lost our poise and got frustrated," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said "That usually doesn’t happen to us."
Reporters aren't the only ones talking, though.
Oklahoma State running back Desmond Roland spoke this weekend about the Cotton Bowl matchup. He said he is excited about the potential to gash Missouri's defense.
"I was watching the game and (Missouri) couldn't stop one run," Desmond told reporters in Stillwater. "Auburn was running simple plays. That made me feel real good."
Ealy and the Tigers are hoping to prove Roland wrong.
"Every team we’ve faced has somebody that has been talking trash," Ealy said. "We’re not going to talk trash back. We’re going to go out there and give them 60 minutes. Now, it’s up to him to back it up."
To stop the Cowboys, who rank seventh in passing yards and 21st in rushing yards nationally, Missouri will have to have their entire line engaged in the trenches. Consensus All-American defensive lineman Michael Sam doesn't think this will be a problem.
"Our defensive line is the best in the country," Sam said.
The Cotton Bowl features a number of other interesting matchups, including Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham going up against consensus All-American cornerback Justin Gilbert. Gilbert had six interceptions this season, two of which he returned for touchdowns.
"I’m just going to look at what I need to do on each route and what I need to do to beat him," Green-Beckham said.
While a lot of attention has been paid to how Missouri's front eight defenders will recover against the run, the Tigers also boast their own All-American in the secondary. Senior E.J. Gaines, a third team CBS Sports All-American, said there was something to take from the Auburn defeat.
"It's a learning experience for us," Gaines said.
The Cotton Bowl will be the last game the cornerback plays for Missouri. For Gaines, it marks the perfect opportunity to prove the defensive performance in Atlanta was a fluke.
"You never know when your last game can be," Gaines said. "We have a chance to knock off a real good team and end the season right."