FAYETTEVILLE — Black Fridays in Columbia, Mo., have been gloomy days for the University of Arkansas football program.
The Razorbacks are 0-4 at Missouri since the Tigers joined the SEC, and they have blown leads of various proportions at Faurot Field in three of those games in the still early days of the Battle Line Rivalry.
The current Razorbacks (6-5, 3-4 SEC) are aiming to reverse that trend in Friday’s 2:30 p.m. regular season finale after earning bowl eligibility with authority on Saturday night.
Arkansas pounded No. 14 Ole Miss 42-27 in a game the Razorbacks held a 36-point lead in the fourth quarter. With another big roster shake-up anticipated next week, Coach Sam Pittman was asked at his weekly press conference if his team can match the energy level expected from the Tigers (5-6, 2-5), who are coming off a blowout win against New Mexico State on senior night and seeking bowl eligibility themselves.
“I think so,” Pittman said. “I mean, we’ve got a lot to play for. There’s a lot of differences in 7-5 and 6-6 bowl wise.
“Obviously, we can get to 4-4 in conference like we were last year and finish in the top half of the conference like we did a year ago.”
There’s also the matter of the Battle Line trophy, the only piece of hardware remaining in their trophy case from the Razorbacks’ rivalry games after they fell 23-21 to Texas A&M and 13-10 to LSU to relinquish those trophies.
“I think simply because it’s our rival game it’s a big deal, and we haven’t beaten them there since we’ve joined the SEC,” Pittman said.
“I think there’s a lot of things. We haven’t beaten them back-to-back. I think there’s a lot of things that we have to play for, and our kids understand that. We talked about it last night.”
Missouri Coach Eli Drinkwitz, awarded a raise and a two-year contract extension three weeks ago, would like to gain bowl eligibility in a rivalry game to validate that gesture from the university administration. Yet Drinkwitz is downplaying the bowl eligibility factor on Friday.
“Yeah, the only thing we’re focused on is it’s a rivalry game,” he said. “And it’s trophy week. And that’s it. None of the other stuff matters. The most important thing is that they have a trophy and we want it, you know, and the only way to get it is to play our best game.”
Playing at home is a clear edge, the Alma native Drinkwitz suggested.
“We need the home field advantage, and our student section has been that for us,” Drinkwitz said. “Let’s make sure that our student section is rocking, that we’re loud on third downs. We give our team a huge advantage with the environment that we play in.”
Drinkwitz said Pittman has done an “excellent” job in his three seasons at the helm.
“They’ve got a really good football team and they’ve had a lot of consistency in their coordinators,” Drinkwitz said, in reference to defensive coordinator Barry Odom, the former Missouri head coach (2016-19), whom he replaced, offensive coordinator Kendal Briles and special teams coordinator Scott Fountain. “He obviously has maintained the same three coordinators for three seasons. You can tell that they play fast within their schemes.”
The Razorbacks, got back offensive team captains KJ Jefferson (shoulder) and Dalton Wagner (back) from injuries to help overwhelm Ole Miss, but they have to make plans to be without a second defensive captain in preparing for Missouri.
Pittman said linebacker Bumper Pool has been playing injured all year and a combination of hip and back problems could keep him out against the Tigers. Arkansas had already lost defensive captain Jalen Catalon for the season with a shoulder injury in Week 1.
“Bumper is still Bumper and trying to hang on,” Pittman said. “I don’t know that he’ll be able to or not. He’s beat up. Not healthy. … I don’t know if he’ll be able to play or not.”
Jefferson already has one big game under his belt at Faurot Field, though it came in a painful loss in his spot start for Feleipe Franks two years ago.
Jefferson passed for 274 yards and 3 touchdowns and ran for 32 yards and another score at Missouri in his only start of 2020. The redshirt freshman calmly engineered a 13-play, 75 yard march in the closing minutes, connecting with Mike Woods on a 14-yard scoring pass to pull the Razorbacks within a point. His two-point conversion pass, caught by Woods after it caromed off a Missouri defender, gave Arkansas a 48-47 lead with 43 seconds left.
The Tigers went 60 yards in seven plays and won it on Harrison Mevis’ 32-yard field goal as time expired.
Arkansas had held a 40-26 lead with 13:15 remaining after Trelon Smith’s 16-yard touchdown run before the Tigers rallied from behind.
Missouri also staged rallies to win in 2014, the first game between the teams as permanent year-end rivals, and in 2016, when Odom, then the Missouri coach, gambled on a fake punt from his own 7-yard line to seize the momentum in a 28-24 win.