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Arkansas, Texas A&M ready to collide in SEC opener

by Tom Murphy | September 25, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.

ARLINGTON, Texas — When the University of Arkansas contracted with old Southwest Conference rival Texas A&M to renew their ties in the Southwest Classic in 2009, the future looked bright for the Razorbacks.

The football program seemed to be on the rise under Coach Bobby Petrino, and a long-term series at the sparkling new stadium for the Dallas Cowboys, owned by alumnus Jerry Jones, could only raise the Razorbacks’ profile and attract more students and football prospects to Arkansas.

At the time, Arkansas owned a sizable advantage in the series, having won 60.8% of the games with a 38-24-3 record.

For a few years, the Razorbacks surged in Arlington. Jones, a standout lineman on the Razorbacks’ 1964 national championship team whose career was part of nine consecutive Arkansas wins in the series from 1958-66, happily presented the Southwest Classic Trophy to Petrino after Arkansas wins from 2009-11.

That stretch included one of the most remarkable comebacks in school history in a 42-38 victory in 2011 behind Tyler Wilson’s school-record 510 passing yards and Jarius Wright’s then-record 281 receiving yards. The Razorbacks trailed 35-17 at halftime before rallying to increase their win rate to 62.5% against the Aggies.

Then everything changed.

Texas A&M joined the SEC in 2012, threw a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback named Johnny Manziel at the Razorbacks the next two years and went on a sizzling run of its own with a 100% win rate since bolting from the Big 12.

The No. 7 Aggies (3-0) will take a nine-game winning streak in the series into today’s SEC opener against No. 16 Arkansas (3-0).

Second-year Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman said the Razorbacks haven’t been holding up their end of the bargain.

“The rivalry hasn’t been a rivalry for the last nine years,” Pittman said, stating the message he would give to the players. “You have to win for it to become a rivalry a little bit more.

“I know in the past, obviously, we have won more than we lost in the rivalry, but recent years we haven’t done so well.”

No current Arkansas player has played in a win over the Aggies.

“You can’t go out there and play because we’ve lost however many in a row, you’re going out there to win this one,” Arkansas super senior Ty Clary said.

“This is a new year and a new team,” added senior linebacker Bumper Pool. “Obviously there’s a fire lit inside of us wanting to get this win.”

The Razorbacks are a touchdown underdog against Texas A&M, which has also won 11 consecutive games overall since a 52-24 setback at No. 2 Alabama last Oct. 3. Arkansas is 0-11 against top 10 opponents since a 31-14 win at No. 9 LSU on Nov. 14, 2015.

Arkansas safety Jalen Catalon, a redshirt sophomore, said the Hogs can’t worry about any streaks.

“Don’t worry about what we’ve done, just worry about playing our game,” Catalon said. “If we put the right focus on the right thing — that’s just winning the ballgame and nothing that happened in the past — then I think we’re going to be fine.”

Texas A&M Coach Jimbo Fisher, who is 2-0 against Arkansas, touted the capabilities of the current Razorbacks and said he didn’t have to guard against over-confidence due to the Aggies’ recent dominance.

“No, I don’t, because all you’ve got to do is watch the film,” Fisher said. “And even though we have won those games, all those have been incredible football games.

“Our guys know they’ve all been four quarter games all the way to the end of them. A couple of them up until the last play. … So I mean, our guys know this is a heck of a football team, and plus the way they’re playing right now, I don’t think we’ll have to worry about that.”

Texas A&M junior safety Leon O’Neal didn’t put up any bulletin board material when asked about the Aggies’ nine-year run.

“I think of Arkansas as obviously a growing brand right now in football,” O’Neal said. “They’re doing a lot of good things, bringing that physical football back.

“Every year’s a new year so I think looking at it as in the past that we beat them, we beat them, we beat them, that’s not the mentality you want to have. The mentality is we have a job to do and they’re in the way.”

You could forgive the current Aggies for feeling like they can’t lose to the Hogs, however, based on Texas A&M’s ability to rally in all sorts of circumstances.

Arkansas has led in seven of the nine games during the streak, including a pair of two-touchdown leads in 2014 (28-14) and 2017 (21-7).

Pittman was offensive line coach on the 2014 team. With a 28-14 lead and the ball in that game, Jonathan Williams ran 57 yards to the Texas A&M 1 on the first play of the fourth quarter. However, the long run was brought back on a personal foul against Dan Skipper for a tripping penalty away from the play.

“If we don’t get the penalty it’s a three-score game at that point, and it’s late,” Pittman recalled. “If we would have scored from the one, I think J-Dub ran it down to the one, it would have made it very difficult.

“Then they came back. They beat us. There’s nothing to be said about it other than they beat us. But yeah, that was a tough one to swallow that day. … That’s one of the nine in a row, you know, that they’ve kept that trophy on the Razorbacks.”

Two plays after Arkansas punted to the Aggies’ 12 following the penalty, Kenny Hill hit Edward Pope for an 86-yard touchdown pass to start the Texas A&M comeback.

Arkansas still had a chance to seemingly put the game away with 2:29 remaining but John Henson’s 44-yard field goal try missed wide left, leaving the door open. Two plays later, the Aggies burst through it on Josh Reynolds 59-yard touchdown catch to tie the game at 28-28.

Arkansas led 21-13 with less than three minutes remaining in the 2015 game before the Aggies launched another one of their inevitable comebacks.

Arkansas is 12-4 in overtime games that don’t feature Texas A&M, including 10-3 versus other SEC opponents. The Razorbacks have not even scored in any of their three overtime losses to the Aggies.

Pittman is the fourth Arkansas coach to try to stop the slide, following John L. Smith, Bret Bielema and Chad Morris.

The 2009 contract with Texas A&M led to a huge side benefit 12 years later. Because the game caused a postponement of the back half of a two-game series with Texas, that game was put off for a dozen years.

The Razorbacks capitalized on the delayed return date, dominating the No. 15 Longhorns 40-21 at Reynolds Razorback Stadium two weeks ago.

Pittman’s crew rode the momentum of that upset to a spot in the national polls and right into this matchup, the third former Southwest Conference opponent for Arkansas in the first four weeks.

“It’s going to be hard to go get the trophy now, I’m telling you,” Pittman said. “They’re ranked sixth or seventh, depending on which poll, for a reason. But we’ll do our best to get prepared and go down there and see what happens.”

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