A little more than two weeks before his homecoming in Fayetteville, Bobby Petrino was back in the Natural State and roaming a college football sideline Thursday night.
The former Arkansas football coach began his third season as Missouri State’s head coach with a road trip to Conway, Ark., and returned home with a 27-14 win over Central Arkansas at Estes Stadium.
It evened Petrino’s record against UCA at 2-2, with all four matchups coming in a span of 705 days, and was a much better result for the former Arkansas football coach than his previous trip to Conway, when his squad came up short 27-20 in his second game at Missouri State.
As was the case at Arkansas and Louisville, Petrino has Missouri State primed for a huge Year 3 and the Bears shook off a slow start to comfortably win their season opener. After making the FCS playoffs and finishing in the top 15 each of his first two seasons, he has his Bears ranked No. 5 in the preseason — the highest preseason ranking in school history.
“On a campus fired up about football, you can feel the excitement in the air,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Ben Frederickson wrote Saturday. “It is present here.”
Petrino has weapons at his disposal, too, returning the Offensive Player of the Year in the Missouri Valley Football Conference (which is essentially the SEC of the FCS) in Jason Shelley. The former Utah and Utah State quarterback shattered the school record with 3,347 passing yards last year and is now on the preseason watch list for the Walter Payton Award (the Heisman Trophy of the FCS). He completed 18 of 30 passes for 266 yards and one touchdown, plus added a team-high 51 yards and another score on the ground against Central Arkansas.
Not only does Petrino also have a preseason All-American wide receiver in Ty Scott, who caught 66 passes for 1,110 yards and 8 touchdowns last year, but he added former Arkansas wide receiver Jordan Jones to the mix via the transfer portal, as well.
The Smackover product is a rare seventh-year senior who spent four seasons with the Razorbacks and two at Cincinnati before ending up at Missouri State for his swan song, which was made possible thanks to a combination of bad luck with injuries and eligibility relief from the pandemic.
Jones is listed as a starter on the Bears’ depth chart, as is fellow former Arkansas wide receiver Jarrod Barnes — who signed with the Razorbacks a year after Jones and is a sixth-year senior — for UCA. John David White, a former walk-on who earned playing time at Arkansas, is a backup for the in-state Bears, as is Springdale Har-Ber product Hunter Wood for the visiting Bears, so there was a strong Natural State flavor to both teams’ receiving corps.
Barnes had the most overall production of that group, catching four passes for 48 yards for UCA, but Wood actually caught a 10-yard touchdown for Missouri State. Jones had 12 yards on two receptions in his first game under Petrino, while White played and didn’t register any statistics in his first game at UCA.
Coached by Nathan Brown, a Russellville native who played quarterback at the school, UCA has numerous Arkansans on its roster and sprinkled throughout its depth chart. In fact, half of its offensive and defensive starters are from the Natural State, with another six listed as backups.
Is an Arkansan the Next Victim of the Chad Morris Curse?
Arguably the worst head coach in SEC history, Chad Morris is back in college football after a one-year stint back in the high school ranks. He is now an analyst at South Florida, likely landing the gig because of his connection to head coach Jeff Scott from their time together at Clemson.
South Florida is also where former four-star recruit and Earle native Gerry Bohanon ended up after deciding to transfer from Baylor. He actually started 12 games for the Bears, leading them to a Big 12 Championship and Sugar Bowl win while throwing for 2,205 yards, 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Bohanon added another 323 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground, but ultimately lost the starting job in spring ball.
About two months after he committed to South Florida out of the portal, the Bulls brought on Morris as an analyst. Luckily for Bohanon, the former SMU and Arkansas coach won’t be permitted to do any on-field coaching, but it might be interesting to see if the “Chad Morris curse” follows him to Tampa.
Not that you need reminding, but the Razorbacks had back-to-back 2-10 seasons under Morris’ leadership and used eight different starting quarterbacks over that stretch. When he was fired, Morris landed at Auburn, but quarterback Bo Nix regressed and Gus Malzahn was fired.
Going back to his high school roots, Morris then took over Texas powerhouse Allen High and, in his lone season there, the Eagles suffered their first ever loss inside their $60 million facility that opened in 2012, which also snapped an 84-game regular-season winning streak, and also saw their 72-game district winning streak come to an end later in the season.
It’ll be playing at the same time as the Arkansas-Cincinnati game, but South Florida and Bohanon open their season at 3 p.m. Saturday when BYU — which hosts the Razorbacks on Oct. 15 — visits Tampa. The game will be televised on ESPNU.
Trio of Arkansans Lead FBS Schools into 2022
The Natural State has produced three active FBS head coaches, with Gus Malzahn and Eliah Drinkwitz entering their second and third seasons at UCF and Missouri, respectively, and Rhett Lashlee being hired at SMU.
All three of them will open the 2022 season this week. It started Thursday when Malzahn’s UCF squad blew out FCS foe South Carolina State 56-10 and Drinkwitz’s Missouri squad easily handled Louisiana Tech 52-24. On Saturday, Lashlee’s SMU squad takes a short trip north to play North Texas at 6:30 p.m. CT on CBSSN.
Malzahn — who was previously the head coach at Auburn for eight years — is coming off a 9-4 campaign in which the Knights finished tied for third in the AAC with a 5-3 mark. The Fort Smith native was actually a walk-on at Arkansas from 1984-85 before finishing his playing career at Henderson State. Following a legendary career as a high school coach in the Natural State, Malzahn was the offensive coordinator for the Razorbacks in 2006 and also had a one-year stint as the head coach at Arkansas State in 2012.
Lashlee actually played for Malzahn at Shiloh Christian in Springdale before walking on with the Razorbacks. He then worked under Malzahn at Springdale High, Arkansas, Arkansas State and Auburn before branching off on his own as an offensive coordinator. He was at Miami (Fla.) the last two years before getting hired at SMU, where he had previously served as an OC.
Drinkwitz grew up in Alma before going to college at Arkansas Tech. He was the offensive coordinator at Springdale High before making the jump to college coaching under Malzahn. Much like Lashlee, Drinkwitz eventually branched out on his own with stops as an OC at Boise State and North Carolina State before getting his first head coaching gig at Appalachian State in 2019. A great first season there vaulted him into the SEC at Missouri, where he’s 11-12 through two seasons and managed stir up a considerable number of Arkansas football fans with his “cheap shot” comment last summer.
Two of those games will also feature former Razorbacks. North Texas — SMU’s opponent — features a starter on both sides of the ball who had stints at Arkansas in quarterback Austin Aune and defensive tackle Enoch Jackson Jr., while Louisiana Tech — Missouri’s opponent — has safety Myles Mason, who did not play in the Bulldogs’ loss to the Tigers on Thursday.
Former Arkansas DBs Take Center Stage
The only FBS college football game scheduled for Sunday is the Allstate Louisiana Kickoff between LSU and Florida State at the Superdome in New Orleans. The game starts at 6:30 p.m. CT and is televised on ABC.
What makes this game of interest to Arkansas football fans, aside from the fact the Razorbacks play LSU later this season, is the fact that it’ll feature three of Arkansas’ five primary starters in the secondary from its putrid 2019 defense. Perhaps even more intriguing will be how many of them start.
The headliners of the group are Greg Brooks Jr. and Joe Foucha, a pair of New Orleans natives who transferred back home this offseason to play at LSU.
While Brooks — who was a three-year starter at Arkansas — is widely projected to be the Tigers’ starting nickel, things don’t appear as certain for Foucha, who started 34 games in four years with the Razorbacks and was a team captain last year.
Although he was expected to be a starter, Foucha has apparently been beaten out by redshirt sophomore Major Burns, a former top-200 recruit who began his career at Georgia.
Both of the LSU transfers started all 12 games on the 2019 Arkansas defense that allowed the most points and yards per game in school history. Former Razorback Jarques McClellion, who opted out of the 2020 season when he was beaten out and eventually entered the portal, started all but one game that year at cornerback.
Now entering his second season at Florida State, McClellion has converted to safety and is a backup for the Seminoles. He didn’t start in their season-opening 47-7 win over Duquesne last week, but did notch one solo tackle.
Encore for Barry Lunney Jr.
If last Saturday’s opener was a test, Barry Lunney Jr. passed with flying colors, as his Illinois offense racked up 477 yards in a 38-6 win over Wyoming. It was his first game as a Power Five offensive coordinator.
Illinois starting quarterback Tommy DeVito had only 194 passing yards, but completed 27 of 37 attempts and had two touchdown passes with no interceptions. Star running back Chase Brown ran for 151 yards and two touchdowns and caught another.
Even former Arkansas running back Chase Hayden, now in his sixth year of college, got in on the action with 28 yards on seven carries and two receptions for 12 yards. That is already more than twice as many total yards as he had all of last season.
Lunney, who reunited with former Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema this offseason after serving as the OC under former Arkansas assistant Jeff Traylor the last two years, will get his first Big Ten test this week when the Illini travel to Indiana. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. CT Friday and the game will be televised on FS1.
Vito Calvaruso’s New Role at Wisconsin
One of the more notable departures this past offseason was kicker Vito Calvaruso. A former walk-on, he earned a scholarship last season when he was arguably the best kickoff specialist in the country.
Not only did Calvaruso have an impressive 85.1 percent touchback rate, but Pro Football Focus graded him as the No. 1 kickoff specialist during the regular season, likely thanks to his excellent hang time on top of the distance.
Wanting to go somewhere he could also kick field goals, which wasn’t going to happen at Arkansas because of Cam Little, Calvaruso entered the portal before the bowl game and landed a scholarship from Wisconsin.
It seems like the move has paid off. Although he’s been nursing a leg injury, Calvaruso was recently named the Badgers’ starting placekicker. Interestingly, he’ll only be in charge of field goals and PATs, as Wisconsin tabbed someone else for kickoff duties.
His first career field goal and/or extra point could come in Saturday’s game against Illinois State – the program that has produced John Ridgeway and Nathan Bax. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. CT and the game will be televised on FS1.
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