DALLAS — Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Henson has been preparing for this his entire life.
When doodling in his notebook as a child, Henson was drawing up football plays. While playing at Oklahoma State, Henson was also working on a degree in secondary education. And every year since he graduated, Henson has advanced his coaching career while studying under some talented coaches, such as Mike Gundy and Todd Monken at Oklahoma State and Les Miles at LSU. It was only a matter of time before he started moving up.
Before the 2013 season, Henson knew he was ready. David Yost left Missouri's offensive coordinator job vacant after a dismal 2012 season, and coach Gary Pinkel looked within first to find the answer to his offensive struggles. After four seasons as offensive line coach for the Tigers, Henson wanted a promotion.
"There was probably a popular push from him to go hire someone outside," Henson said.
Pinkel didn't, though. He asked Henson if he was ready, and the man with childhood notebooks filled with football plays finally got his chance to see his X's and O's in action on the field.
Missouri center Evan Boehm called his dad right away when he learned about Henson's promotion.
"Henson was a part of that LSU team that won a national championship," Boehm said. "I called my dad and said, 'He knows what it takes.' He knows what it takes to be in that top spot."
Henson knew what went wrong right away. Missouri quarterback James Franklin lofted a ball trough the air, and the only player within reach was Indiana safety Greg Heban. L'Damian Washington turned to look for the ball and threw his hands up in confusion. Heban had hauled it in.
A few drives later, Henson was kicking himself again. This time, Franklin threw the ball into double coverage. Again, Heban came crashing over to intercept the pass and end a Tiger drive with no points.
Two interceptions, both of which could have been pinned on the quarterback, but Henson thought of it as a learning experience.
"He would like to have a couple of those balls back in the first half, but the other thing is I can call some better plays for him too," Henson said. "We called those thinking we were getting different coverage."
Missouri rebounded to score 45 points in the game on 623 yards of total offense. The mistakes didn't fluster the first-year play-caller. They made him stronger. They increased the trust between coordinator and quarterback, too.
Henson stood in a crowded interview room at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga. Missouri had just pulled off a stunning upset of No. 7 Georgia. His offense might have only had 375 total yards, but Henson made the decisive call in the 41-26 win.
Up just two in the fourth quarter after 16 unanswered points from Georgia, Missouri faced a crucial drive. It got off to a rough start when Franklin went down with an injury. In came freshman Maty Mauk with the roar of Sanford Stadium all around him. On second down near midfield, Henson took the pressure off the freshman and put it all on himself. He called a double-pass. Mauk threw the ball to Bud Sasser, who caught it and lofted a pass of his own toward the goal line.
"I thought I was going to look like an idiot," Henson said.
He didn't. Washington came down with the pass and a touchdown, giving Missouri enough of a cushion to come away with a win. Henson thought the Tigers had to be aggressive to win the game. His instinct was correct.
"It's a great call, because it worked," Pinkel said.
From an offensive standpoint, the 2012 season was a disaster for Missouri. The offensive line was banged up. Franklin was out of the lineup with various injuries, and the team struggled to win five games with the 98th-ranked offense in the country at just 356.4 yards per game.
This year, Henson has had the benefit of a healthy lineup for most of the season, but his first season as the offensive coordinator has produced a drastic turnaround. The Tigers are averaging 492.9 yards per game on offense and have consistently put points on the board.
Even in a 17-point loss to Auburn in the Southeastern Conference Championship game, Missouri piled up 534 yards of total offense. It was the seventh straight game and 11th overall that Missouri had more than 400 yards on offense.
The Tigers have gotten better rushing and passing, and Henson has been able to find a balance of both. He's also had to balance his duties as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. Boehm has noticed a change in his position coach.
"He’s done a great job keeping the offensive coordinator spot away from the offensive line and keeping those two jobs separate," Boehm said. "But at the same time, he brings it into it a little bit."
Henson started the season calling out coverages and routes to the offensive linemen, who had little to no understanding of those concepts. Boehm said the team started off by joking with him about made-up coverage schemes, but Henson's knowledge has started to rub off.
"It's kind of cool to see that and see how smart he is," Boehm said.
Henson has earned national respect for the job he's done turning around Missouri's offense. Missouri's offensive numbers have been impressive in the SEC, considered the best defensive league in the country.
Friday in the Cotton Bowl, Missouri might have one of its toughest tests of the season against Henson's former team. All week, both teams have answered questions about the differences between the two leagues.
"Everyone's more physical in the SEC," Washington said. "Not saying there's no physical teams in the Big 12, but it's more finesse football."
Don't tell that to Oklahoma State. The Cowboys are No. 12 in the country, allowing only 20 points per game. Their defensive line is atypical to the Big 12 in its size and physical style of play, Henson said. Their three linebackers have combined for nearly 200 tackles, 24.5 of which are for loss. To top if off, Oklahoma State's secondary is big and aggressive, led by potential first-round NFL draft pick Justin Gilbert.
Missouri and Oklahoma State present each other with as tough a challenge as either team has seen all year long.
"The good thing: You get called up and they say you’re in the Cotton Bowl," Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said. "The bad thing: You’re in the Cotton Bowl against Missouri."
Supervising editor is Wade Livingston