FAYETTEVILLE — Motivation and incentive sometimes revolve around perspective.
Missouri’s third-year Coach Eli Drinkwitz knows his Tigers must beat Arkansas on Friday at Faurot Field to secure definite bowl eligibility.
But instead of framing the game as a “must win” scenario to make the postseason, Drinkwitz is taking a different mental tack with the Tigers (5-6, 2-5 SEC).
Drinkwitz said he wants his team to attack the 2:30 p.m. game to come away with a big trophy during rivalry week. Arkansas (6-5, 3-4) claimed the Battle Line Trophy a year ago with a 34-17 win at Reynolds Razorback Stadium that didn’t feel as close as the final score.
“The most important thing is that they have a trophy and we want it,” Drinkwitz said at his weekly press conference on Monday.
“The only way to get it is to play our best game and to prepare the way that we know how to prepare to play with unbelievable effort, and that’s the focus. And that’s why we did senior week last week.”
Indeed, the Tigers celebrated their 21 seniors with a 45-14 rout of New Mexico State last Saturday in a cold weather night game that began with a temperature of 26 degrees at kickoff.
The forecast for Arkansas at Missouri is calling for a much more pleasant setting, with a high temperature of 51 degrees, partial sunshine and an 18% chance of rain.
Drinkwitz, an Alma native and Arkansas Tech graduate, wants his club honed in on playing with passion.
“This week is all about rivalry week, Arkansas, the Battle Line Trophy,” Drinkwitz said. “Whatever happens after that happens. We’re just focused on trying to win that trophy.”
Drinkwitz and the Tigers have this going for them: They’ve never failed to win the trophy in games played on their home field.
The Razorbacks held leads of 11-plus points in three of the games played in even-numbered years since the two programs were matched as permanent Thanksgiving weekend rivals, and they couldn’t hold any of them, including a 40-26 edge in the fourth quarter two years ago.
The 2018 game, with veteran Missouri quarterback Drew Lock matched up against first-year Coach Chad Morris and an uninspired Arkansas unit on a wet-weather day was no contest. The Tigers won 38-0 with a 408-187 edge in total offense.
“We haven’t beaten them there ever since we’ve been in the SEC, so obviously there are challenges there,” third-year Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman said.
This year’s Tigers have gone through peaks and valleys with one of the younger rosters in the SEC.
Missouri played well enough to throttle South Carolina 23-10 with a dominating run game on the same field the Gamecocks shocked No. 5 Tennessee 63-38 last week. The Tigers have also given No. 1 Georgia their toughest game of the season, a 26-22 decision in Columbia, Mo., in which Missouri led 22-12 in the fourth quarter.
“They’re a little bit like us,” Pittman said. “They’ve lost some very close games to put them where they are record wise, very similar to ours. I know they’re going to be fired up to get bowl eligibility, and again like I said, we haven’t won up there.”
Georgia out-gained the Tigers 312-192 in total offense, an indication the Missouri defense under first-year coordinator Blake Baker has largely performed well.
The Tigers rank 31st in the country in total defense, allowing 338.2 yards per game, and 36th against the run at 128.5 yards per game.
That sets up a clash of stout units, as Arkansas is 19th in total offense (465.5) and eighth in rushing (233.5) coming off a season-best 335 rushing yards against Ole Miss.
Missouri sophomore quarterback Brady Cook is ninth in the SEC with 2,267 passing yards, but he has a 12-7 touchdown-to-interception rate and his passer efficiency rating of 135.71 is 11th in the league.
The Tigers’ run game has been a little more consistent at 152.5 yards per game, with 5-9, 214-pound senior Cody Schrader emerging as the top runner with 605 yards and 5 touchdowns. Schrader ran for a Division II best 2,074 yards at Truman State in 2021.
Five-star freshman receiver Luther Burden III has 36 receptions for 299 yards and 4 touchdowns and 390 yards from scrimmage with 7 touchdowns. Slot receiver Dominic Lovett, a 5-10 sophomore, leads the Tigers with 50 catches for 716 yards, with Fayetteville native Barrett Banister (36-403) just behind him. Banister’s status is iffy after suffering an injury last week.
The Tigers’ offensive line features four players at 313 pounds or more, including 6-8, 331-pound right guard Mitchell Walters.
“Offensively, they’re known for a big, physical offensive line,” Pittman said. “They love to run the stretch play. They run it well. Their quarterback now is running the ball a lot more than he did early in the year and running it well. I really like their wide receiver group. Very, very talented.”
Much like Arkansas, the Tigers added key pieces defensively through the transfer portal, such as linebacker Ty’Ron Hopper (Florida), defensive back Joseph Charleston (Clemson), defensive lineman DJ Coleman (Jacksonville State) and others to go along with a core group of veterans like defensive backs Jaylon Carlies, Martez Manuel, Kris Abrams-Draine and Ennis Rakestraw Jr., and defensive lineman Isaiah McGuire.
Pittman said the Tigers stuff the box and rely on man coverage in the secondary.
“They’re going to out-number you in the box and make you throw the football,” he said. “Their front four, really their entire defense, they’ve got really good corners that are able to play man.
“One high safety. Very aggressive, very physical. They’ve done a really good job defensively and have changed tremendously this year.”