FAYETTEVILLE — Black Fridays in Columbia, Missouri, were somber days for the University of Arkansas football program.
The Razorbacks are down 4-0 in Missouri since the Tigers joined the SEC, and they’ve smashed leads of varying degrees at Faurot Field in three of those games in the early days of Battle Line Rivalry.
The current Razorbacks (6-5, 3-4 SEC) aim to reverse that trend in Friday’s regular season finals at 2:30 p.m. after earning bowl eligibility with authority on Saturday night.
Arkansas beat No. 14 Ole Miss 42-27 in a game that gave the Razorbacks a 36-point lead in the fourth quarter. With another major roster reshuffle expected next week, coach Sam Pittman was asked at his weekly press conference if his team can achieve the energy levels expected from the Tigers (5-6, 2-5) who are one Earn smashing victory against the state of New Mexico and seek bowl eligibility.
“I think so,” Pittman said. “I mean we have a lot to play. There are many differences between 7-5 and 6-6 bowls.
“Of course we can go 4-4 in the conference like last year and finish in the top half of the conference like we did a year ago.”
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There’s also the Battle Line Trophy thing, the only piece of hardware left in their trophy case from the Razorbacks’ rivalry games after they fell 23-21 to Texas A&M and 13-10 to LSU were to hand over these trophies.
“I think just because it’s our rival game, it’s a big deal, and we haven’t beaten them there since we joined the SEC,” Pittman said. “I think there are a lot of things. We didn’t hit them back to back. I think there’s a lot of things we have to play for and our kids understand that. We talked about that last night.”
Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz, who received a raise and a two-year contract extension three weeks ago, wants to qualify for the bowl in a rivalry game to confirm the gesture by the university administration. Yet Drinkwitz downplays the bowl eligibility factor on Friday.
“Yes, the only thing we focus on is a rivalry game,” he said. “And it’s trophy week. And that’s it. None of the other things matter. 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 definite advantage, suggested Alma native Drinkwitz.
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“We need home field advantage and that was our student division for us,” Drinkwitz said. “Let’s make sure our student section rocks, let’s get loud at terzdowns. We give our team a huge advantage with the environment we play in.”
Drinkwitz said Pittman had done “outstanding” work in his three seasons at the helm.
“They have a really good football team and their coordinators have been very consistent,” Drinkwitz said, referring 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 kept the same three coordinators for three seasons. You can tell they play fast in their plans.”
The Razorbacks brought back offensive-team captains KJ Jefferson (shoulder) and Dalton Wagner (back) from injuries to overwhelm Ole Miss, but they must make plans to forgo a second defense captain as they prepare for Missouri.
Pittman said linebacker Bumper Pool has played injured all year and a combination of hip and back problems could rule him out against the Tigers. Arkansas had lost defensive captain Jalen Catalon to a shoulder injury for the season back in Week 1.
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“Bumper is still Bumper and trying to keep going,” Pittman said. “I don’t know if he’ll be able to do that or not. He’s beaten up. Not healthy. … I don’t know if he can play or not.”
Jefferson already has one big game under his belt at Faurot Field, despite a painful loss in his spot start for Feleipe Franks two years ago.
Jefferson rushed for 274 yards and 3 touchdowns and rushed for 32 yards and another goal in his only start of 2020 in Missouri. Yard-scoring pass to draw the Razorbacks to a point. His 2-point conversion pass, caught by Woods after hitting a Missouri defender, gave Arkansas a 48-47 lead with 43 seconds left.
The Tigers went for 60 yards in seven games and won it after time with Harrison Mevis’ 32-yard field goal.
Arkansas had a 40-26 lead by 13:15 after Trelon Smith’s 16-yard touchdown run before the Tigers recovered from behind.
Missouri also rallied to win in 2014, the first game between the teams as year-end year-end rivals, and in 2016 when Odom, then the Missouri coach, bet on a fake punt of his own 7 to set the momentum in a 28 to use -24 win.