Missouri football coach Eli Drinkwitz has a convoluted personal history with the state of Arkansas. He’s a native Arkansan who played and coached in the state until being whisked off into the college coaching carousel. In late 2019, he was even thought to be a candidate for the head coaching position at the state’s flagship university until he signed a deal with Missouri.
Perhaps that is one of the reasons Arkansans took it so hard when in 2021 Drinkwitz made a bit of a cheap shot with this comment: “I kind of like the rivalry we’ve got with Arkansas. I don’t remember the last time they beat us, so I kind of like that one. The Battle Line Rivalry, it’s pretty good for us. I think we’ll just keep that one right now. That’s a good one.”
The fact that Arkansas had lost five straight times to a Mizzou program that had less money and support grated on Arkansas football fans’ nerves and Drinkwitz poured salt in the wound with that remark. Since then, the Razorbacks have ended the streak. Arkansas blasted Missouri 34-17 in 2021 on its way to a 9-4 season. Last year, the Tigers started a new streak by beating Arkansas in a heartbreaker 29-27. But this year, at SEC media days in July, Drinkwitz was far more gracious about the game.
“You gotta take it easy on Arkansas next year though, you keep wearing us out,” former Arkansas quarterback Matt Jones said in an interview with Drinkwitz on ESPN Arkansas’ “Halftime” show during the event.
“Nah, that ain’t true,” Drinkwitz replied. “It was a one-point (game) or something like that, [we won] on the last drive of the game [last year]. You know that’s been a fun rivalry. Me being from Alma and how much it means to a lot of my family to go to that game, it just adds a little extra flair. That’s a lot of fun.”
Then, just this week, Drinkwitz talked about how happy he was that Hunter Yuracheck had decided to keep Sam Pittman as head coach of the program. ”I think that was a smart decision,” Drinkwitz said Monday, “I think he’s a heck of a football coach.”
It seems Drinkwitz has all but reversed what had been a snarky, passive-aggressive stance toward the Razorbacks a couple years ago. It may be that Drinkwitz is just more comfortable now in his role as an SEC coach. His team, ranked No. 9 in the latest CFP Poll, has certainly come together this year.
Arkansas vs Missouri Breakdown
The Tigers are 9-2 overall and 5-2 in SEC play heading into Friday’s game against the Razorbacks with a chance to finish their first 11-win season since 2014.
The Hogs, on the other hand, have had a season to forget. Now with a record of 4-7 overall, including a 1-6 mark, all Arkansas can do is try to finish the season on a high note and maybe put some hope back into the program’s future, especially after Sam Pittman was guaranteed another year from Hunter Yurachek.
The Razorbacks have played three ranked teams this season (Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss) and have lost only by a combined 13 points despite all those games being on the road. Such strong showings suggest Arkansas has a puncher’s chance at beating Mizzou if it can play one of its best games of the year.
Arkansas vs Missouri: Key Players
Missouri uses a three-pronged attack on offense. Brady Cook, Missouri’s quarterback, is at the center of it all, having thrown for 3,000 yards with 18 touchdowns and six interceptions. He’s also rushed for 239 yards on the ground. I’m certain, though, the Razorbacks won’t underestimate his run game after Cook torched them for 138 yards on the ground just last year.
Missouri relies heavily on its run game this year and second-year Division II transfer Cody Schrader has been the best running back in the SEC. Schrader has almost 1,300 yards with 12 touchdowns. Sam Pittman dubbed him a “beast” in his latest press conference: “Fast, reads holes unbelievably well, and can run over you.” Schrader has carried the ball more than anyone in the SEC, so look for the Tigers to use him often.
Missouri’s passing game is a dynamic threat because of one receiver. Luther Burden, a former five-star recruit out of the St. Louis area, has 77 catches for 1,142 yards and eight touchdowns and will be a major focus of the Arkansas secondary throughout the game.
Missouri’s defense is led by defensive end Darius Robinson, who leads the team with 7.5 sacks, as well as Kris Abrams-Draine (12 pass breakups and four interceptions).
Even with the Razorbacks struggling, Arkansas’ KJ Jefferson has still thrown for 2,100 yards with 19 touchdowns and 8 interceptions and will try to finish this season strong. Some think it may be his last hurrah as a Hog, but Matt Jones, the former Arkansas football quarterback, sees it differently.
“I think what you saw Saturday is KJ’s going to be our quarterback next year too,” said Jones, co-host of the daily radio show, Halftime. Jones went on to say that if the Razorbacks thought Jefferson was leaving, they likely would not have played him halfway into the fourth quarter against FIU. Instead, Jones thinks Pittman would have given more time to whomever would be their quarterback next year.
Isaiah Augustave, a four star-recruit out of Naples, Fla., had 101 rushing yards last Saturday in his first extended play of the season. Expect a rotation with him, Dominique Johnson and AJ Green on Friday because Rocket Sanders and Rashod Dubinion are out with injuries. Johnson and Augustave both fared well against FIU, but expect Missouri to be a much tougher stretch. The Tigers are 39th nationally in rushing defense.
Arkansas’ strength this season has been its defense. Look for Landon Jackson and Trajan Jeffcoat to make an impact on Friday and exploit Missouri’s inconsistent quarterback protection. The Tigers allow a sack on 5.5 percent of all dropbacks. Jackson leads the Razorbacks with 6.5 sacks and Jeffcoat, a former All-SEC player for Missouri, is second with four.
Arkansas football fans might find this hard to believe, but Missouri is far worse at something than the Razorbacks this year. The Tigers average seven penalties a game this year. That is worse than 115 other teams in the FBS, including Arkansas. A large crowd for Friday’s game sure could help the Razorbacks against one of the most penalized teams in the country.
Conversely, the Razorbacks have had big issues running the ball this year. Making matters worse, they try to run it 56 percent of the time. Arkansas has had success when they can set up the play-action game, but Arkansas is just 75th in the nation in rushing yards per game (143.6 yards) and even worse, ranking 100th, when it comes to yards per carry (3.6).
On the opposite side of the ball, Mizzou allows 4.3 yards per carry. If the Razorbacks can have their way on the ground, it would go a long way toward a win.
Did Eli Drinkwitz Beat Matt Jones?
In his interview with Matt Jones on Halftime in July, Drinkwitz shared a fun story:
Eliah Drinkwitz: Matt do you remember in 2000? Alma Airedales played you at Van Buren. I tackled you, Matt.
Matt Jones: Whatever.
Drinkwitz: I’m going to have to get…the game film. We won that game too, by the way.
Jones: No, we never got beat by Alma.
Drinkwitz: That ain’t right. Pull it up.
Jones: Was it a Sophomore game or something?
Drinkwitz: No, Brother! It wasn’t a sophomore game. It was before you transferred to stinking Northside to play for them. You were the star of the transfer portal.
Jones: Yeah, but I didn’t get paid like the NIL’s getting paid.
Drinkwitz: Nah, that’s probably right.
A Final Reckoning
The history of the Battle Line Rivalry game is a short one, but for Arkansas football fans it has felt too lopsided given how often Missouri wins. Arkansas has often entered the contest as the favorite, but it can’t seem to beat a program the fan base consistently expects them to. This year the expectations are far different, with Missouri being a 7.5-point favorite.
So, in the past, Missouri football has played the part of spoiler. We’ll see if Arkansas can return the favor and reverse course on recent trends to give this corporate-backed, supposed rivalry game the kind of spark and balancing of the ledger it desperately needs.
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