ARLINGTON, Texas — Kony Ealy walks through the tunnel and onto the field at Cowboys Stadium more than two hours before kickoff for the 2014 Cotton Bowl between Missouri and Oklahoma State. Wearing a gray sweatsuit with a Missouri logo stitched to the chest, he glances around at the empty stadium and up at the massive scoreboard hovering over the field.
He’s trying not to think about it. He knows this is the last time he’ll be walking around the field as a member of the Missouri football team, but he doesn’t want to think about it. He’s focusing on beating Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl and enjoying his final game with his teammates.
Ealy makes his way off the field, hugging coaches and other players as he walks by. He disappears into the tunnel again to suit up one final time.
Two plays, two sacks
Blocking Ealy isn’t easy. In the second quarter of Missouri’s 41-31 win over Oklahoma State, Cowboys offensive tackle Daniel Koenig finds out just how tough it is. Ealy lines up over his left shoulder on first down. Trying to protect against Ealy’s devastating first step, Koenig hurries into his pass set, but Ealy immediately steps inside and shoves him aside to pave a clear path to Oklahoma State quarterback Clint Chelf.
After a penalty sets up third and long, Ealy is ready to pin his ears back. Koenig is anticipating again. This time, Ealy attacks his outside shoulder and bends around the corner. Two plays, two sacks. Michael Sam might have been Missouri’s consensus All-American, but the two sacks put Ealy just two sacks short of Aldon Smith’s school record.
'This is forever'
Ealy is soaking up every moment. Confetti is streaming down onto the field, and Ealy is giving thanks to everyone who passes by. He’s high-fiving members of Marching Mizzou when he spots senior guard Max Copeland. A smile spreads across Copeland’s face as he wraps up Ealy in a bear hug.
Both have played their final game for Missouri, but “this is forever,” Copeland assures the star defensive end.
Moments earlier, junior defensive end Markus Golden stood with sweat pouring off his face. Golden, who was an honorable mention on the All-SEC team, is faced with a question about whether he will leave for the NFL.
“I’ve been working hard all my life for this,” Golden said. “I’d be a fool to leave Mizzou without starting. I owe everybody here a season to see me start and dominate. I’m staying here.”
Missouri will need him. Missouri already has to replace 12 seniors in the starting lineup. Ealy leaving would give the Tigers 13 holes to fill. Even Golden had to consider his options after collecting 13 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in a backup role as a junior.
The celebration continues, but the focus will soon shift from the surprise success of 2013 to how the team can keep winning with so many players leaving.
'On to the next level'
Ealy walks into the post-game interview room and heads toward his seat. He kisses coach Gary Pinkel on the cheek and hugs him as he walks by. A few questions go by before Ealy faces the question he’s been avoiding for weeks. Will you be back at Missouri?
“I love my teammates,” Ealy starts. “I love my coaches. I've gone from a boy to a man here. I feel like it is time for me to go on to the next level. I love everything about Mizzou, man. It wouldn't be possible without God and my family and Mizzou and my father and my sister. So, yeah, I decided to go ahead and declare. Made myself available to go into the NFL.”
With those words, Ealy closes the book on his Missouri career. A chance at becoming Missouri’s fourth first-round draft pick in the last four years awaits. The Tigers will now have to replace their two leading sack artists. But not only will Golden be back; Shane Ray, who returned a fumble 73 yards for a touchdown in the final minute of the game to seal Missouri’s win, is just coming into his own.
“I wouldn’t say they’re passing the torch, because me and Shane, we’ve got starter’s stats,” Golden says. “Go check everybody’s stats. If you ask them guys, they’ll tell you. We’re starters, but we’re just their backups. Ain’t no passing the torch.”
A new offense
Missouri got a glimpse of its future Friday night.
With 14:09 to play in the second quarter and Missouri tied with Oklahoma State 7-7 in the 2014 Cotton Bowl, freshman quarterback Maty Mauk jogged onto the field at Cowboys Stadium to replace senior quarterback James Franklin.
Like many times earlier in the season, Pinkel and his staff planned a series for the young quarterback to start the second quarter.
In a matter of seven plays, Mauk was able to gain more yards by himself than Franklin had in the entire first quarter. He put Missouri up 14-7 with a 24-yard touchdown throw to Marcus Lucas that was part of 105 total yards Mauk accumulated on the drive.
Missouri was back on track for its first 12-win season since 2007, but the drive was more about the future than the present.
A quarterback who spent his redshirt year making headlines for off-the-field incidents and opened up spring football looking erratic and irresponsible with the ball in his hands had grown into a quarterback who was seeing the field and making confident throws and runs with conviction.
Just like last year, though, Pinkel said, Mauk will have to compete for the starting quarterback job, even if he is the odds-on favorite.
“He's going to compete,” Pinkel said. “Is he going to be starter next year? I don't know. He certainly has a good chance. It's all based on competition.”
Missouri’s offense looked a lot different with Mauk in the game, but it will look even more different in 2014. Both Lucas and L’Damian Washington are graduating and making a run at the NFL in the spring. So too is left tackle Justin Britt.
Now Missouri fans will get a look at Mauk’s connection with Dorial Green-Beckham, who blossomed in his second season. The two arrived in the same recruiting class and will be the keys to the Tigers’ offensive success in 2014. Players like freshman tight end Sean Culkin and junior wide receiver Darius White will see more action, as well.
One variable remains unsolved in this equation, though: redshirt junior running back Henry Josey, who was once again the hero for Missouri in its Cotton Bowl win. He scored three touchdowns, including the game-winner, and has hinted at a move to the NFL.
Pinkel looked disgusted when Josey was asked the question, but the running back who has been through a grueling rehab to return to top form — a player who has a son to think about — still wants to consult with his grandmother before making a final decision.
“It’s still a process,” Josey said.
You could say the same about the Missouri football program. The 2013 season was a big step forward. The Tigers went from five wins to 12. Now it’s a matter of sustaining success and proving they can regularly compete in the rugged Southeastern Conference. The players know they left some of their goals unreached, despite the incredible, bounce-back season. With the amount of turnover on the roster, the resolve of the program will be tested once again.
“I feel like we can only go up from here,” Washington said after the game. “I think the leadership will be passed down for years to come.”
Pinkel hopes for the same. He was overcome with emotion on Friday night as his seniors played their final game and the 2013 season came to a close. Things won't always break this way for Missouri. Georgia won't always have the injuries it did, and Florida won't always be a four-win team.
The schedule doesn't get any easier in 2014. Central Florida just won the Fiesta Bowl and will visit Columbia next season. Missouri also travels to play Texas A&M, Florida and South Carolina instead of playing host to those schools.
The SEC is a gauntlet, Pinkel reminds everyone. Missouri survived it in 2013, but those who don't adapt get left behind. The Tigers will need to replace 13 starters in 2014. Some spots, like quarterback and defensive end, appear to be in good hands. Others are still up in the air.
Even with the holes they're leaving in the lineup, Pinkel knows the seniors have made a lasting impact on him, and he hopes they've made one on the rest of the program.
"I'll always remember them for getting Mizzou back to its winning ways," he said.
Supervising editor is Mark Selig