State of the Hogs: Top 10 keys to victory for Missouri game

By: Clay Henry
Published: Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Arkansas players lift the Battle Line Trophy after beating Missouri 28-3 on Friday, Nov. 27, 2015, at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
Photo by Benjamin Krain
Arkansas players lift the Battle Line Trophy after beating Missouri 28-3 on Friday, Nov. 27, 2015, at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.

— Missouri features one of the great journalism schools in the world. It should be credited (or blamed) for bringing us Nate Allen and Bob Holt to the media coverage team of Arkansas athletics.

“Blamed” is just a joke. They are terrific reporters, better people and to be trusted in all ways. If they write it, it’s so.

But the “strategic communications” team for Mizzou gave us the joke of the week. Better said, it was probably just a typo — a simple misspelled name. But it’s a doozy, the very thing that anti-Bret Bielema fans have been throwing out as an irritant to those who support the head coach of the Arkansas football program.

“Bert Bielema” is who Mizzou listed as the UA coach in this week’s game notes. A stack of the thick booklets was laying in the Arkansas media room on Tuesday when I walked in with co-worker Matt Jones.

Yes, Bert. It’s a reference that I’m sure the Arkansas coach hates. Players love Bret, so they hate it, too.

Matt showed it to me. I was flabbergasted. I wondered aloud if someone at Missouri was just trying to pour more fire on the weak attempt to make the Mizzou-Arkansas game a rivalry.

Even with last year’s sad quotes from Mizzou linebacker Eric Beisel, it still doesn’t seem there is hatred in the air. Beisel dared Arkansas not even to land in Columbia, Mo., for last year’s game. He called the school and state “Ar-Kansas,” as in rhyming with Kansas.

So last year, it was misspoken words. This year, it’s a misspelled word.

I wondered what Arkansas players would think. It didn’t take long to find out. I circled “Bert” on the Mizzou game notes and just handed it to UA captains Austin Allen and Frank Ragnow.

“Classy,” Allen said, with the word dripping of sarcasm. “Oh wow! I wouldn’t doubt if that was on purpose. For an SEC program to do that is just disrespectful.”

Ragnow is out for the game after ankle surgery. He’s on a scooter. He’s still got a compression wrap after surgery two weeks ago. He was ready to throw away the scooter and discard the bandages.

“Oh my gosh!” Ragnow said, loud enough to turn heads across the room. “That’s just ridiculous. I sure wish I could hit some of those guys Friday. That amps up the rivalry.”

I am sure that it’s not yet a classic rivalry. And, I’d guess that the Mizzou folks wouldn’t type “Bert” intentionally. If they want to amp the rivalry, as Ragnow put it, they may have hit paydirt.

I was interested in the way Gary Pinkel described the Arkansas-Mizzou game earlier this fall when he spoke to the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club. The former Mizzou coach was clear that it’s far from a rivalry game, for either side.

“The fact that I walked into your group to speak tells me it’s not a rivalry,” Pinkel said. “If it was, the former Missouri coach wouldn’t be invited to any group in Arkansas.”

The Tigers just don’t hate Razorbacks. It’s not like Arkansas hates Texas. It’s not like Auburn hates Alabama. And, it’s sure not like Missouri hates Kansas.

“I have never been asked to speak to a group in Kansas,” Pinkel said. “And, if I was, I sure wouldn’t go.”

Maybe it’s getting there, slowly but surely. I don’t think it’s enough yet for injured players to throw away their scooters. That’s when we know the rivalry has arrived.

Now on to the keys for an Arkansas victory, none of which include Ragnow returning to play. It would help because the Hogs are beat up along the offensive line.

But I like what Allen threw out in his opening statement Tuesday night. Yes, there was some pure football discussed, not just Bielema’s fate or the way his players are going to fight for him against the Tigers.

The senior quarterback gave me a bunch to lead my list. They are dandies. He was asked about limiting Mizzou’s high-powered offense with ball control.

“That’s one of our keys to victory this week, to be able to control the ball, control the clock, limit their opportunities at big plays and finish our drives with points,” he said. “That way, when we get momentum, we can keep the momentum.”

Ball Control

The way you do that is to convert third downs. Missouri has been more difficult to run against as the season has progressed. That coincides with the development of the defensive line.

Most think the strength of the Mizzou team is quarterback Drew Lock and a solid group of receivers and running backs. That’s true.

But the key to the surge to end the season has been the defensive line. That area has been solidified with the return of nose tackle A.J. Logan. Suspended by the NCAA for the first six games, the 6-2, 330-pounder anchors the middle of the line.

With Logan back, offensive lines have unable to double-team defensive tackle Terry Beckner, Mizzou’s best NFL prospect. Bothered by knee injuries in his first two seasons, Beckner is likely headed to the pros after his junior season. He’s terrific.

“Missouri’s defensive line has always been outstanding,” said Barry Lunney, UA tight ends coach. “They have quick ends. Our tight ends have a tough challenge. I know the inside guys are good, too.”

Limit Opportunities

That means avoid turnovers. The Razorbacks didn’t do that last year in Columbia. In fact, the two interceptions in the red zone were critical in allowing Missouri to rally for a 28-24 victory after trailing by 24-7 at halftime.

Allen knows that holding the ball and avoiding turnovers will limit the chances for the Mizzou offense led by Lock. It’s the basis of Bielema’s system, to control the ball and keep the opposition off the field, especially when there is a quick tempo spread team on the other sideline. You may see the Hogs stay in the huddle and milk the clock.

Finish Drives

Three times in the second half, the Hogs got into the red zone, but Mizzou held them without points. Allen threw two interceptions and a third time, the Hogs failed on downs.

They probably could have won the game with a couple of field goals, but Allen forced the ball when he was pressured deep in Mizzou territory for the first interception. They needed touchdowns after that, but a field goal in the first red zone try might have changed all of that.

Missouri isn’t great in the red zone. The Tigers have given up points in 37 of 41 red zone drives by the opposition. The Mizzou defense has given up touchdowns on 63 percent.

Arkansas scores touchdowns on 74 percent of its red zone drives. So maybe this is a good matchup this week.

Energy

That’s maybe the biggest key of the day. Missouri became bowl eligible last week. That was a big focus in its late season drive, mostly against lesser foes. Remember, Missouri is in the SEC East. The Missouri victories came over Missouri State, Idaho, UConn, Florida, Tennessee and Vanderbilt.

The Hogs can’t go bowling, but they do want to finish with a flourish with Bielema’s contract likely to be bought out after the season. Players know the situation. Plus, there seems to be a love for the senior class that includes Kevin Richardson, David Williams, Jake Raulerson, Paul Ramirez, Bijhon Jackson, Dwayne Eugene, Josh Liddell, Henre’ Toliver, Robert Decker, De’Andre Coley, Karl Roesler, Jared Cornelius, Josh Harris, Jackson Hannah, Connor McPherson, Allen and Ragnow.

There may be some juniors (none who are starters) who may be graduating, too, and playing their final game.

“We want to get a W,” Toliver said. “We want it for the seniors and we want it for Coach B. With all the negativity, we will fight for Coach B in this game.”

Allen said, “Coach Bielema means everything to me. We’ve been through so much. I’m not sure what my exact feelings will be when I walk out there (to meet Bielema on the senior introductions), but I’ll get emotional for sure.”

Allen said there is always effort to win.

“You want that every Saturday,” he said. “But this is the last one. I’ve been a part of UA life when my dad came to coach here when I was 3 years old. All of my dreams have come true here. I want to finish it the right way. I know there is going to be a lot of energy.”

Outside Threat

Missouri likes to pass. Lock is terrific. He’ll take shots down the field to his wide receivers. “Strategic Communications” at Missouri calls the receiver combination of J’Mon Moore, Emanuel Hall and Johnathon Johnson “the three amigos.” All have at least four catches of more than 50 yards this season.

That means that both Arkansas corners will be tested on almost every play. Freshman Kamren Curl and Toliver have both given up big pass plays in the last couple of weeks. They’ll have their hands full Friday.

Missouri has 11 one-play touchdown drives, although that might not fit the description of drive.

Running Game

If the Hogs are to be successful, they have to move the ball on the ground better than the last few weeks. Running backs Devwah Whaley, David Williams and T.J. Hammonds need big days.

Hammonds has struggled the past two weeks after big games against Ole Miss and Coastal Carolina. He was stopped in his tracks by LSU and Mississippi State.

They Hogs will need some help on wide receiver sweeps, from the likes of Jordan Jones and Hammonds.

Missouri’s top runner is Ish Witter. He’s gained 822 yards with four touchdowns. It’s mostly quick-hitting stuff out of the spread attack. Little Rock product Damarea Crockett is third in rushing with 481.

Walking Wounded

Arkansas is beat up in a lot of places. Some of the injuries have not been announced, but there are bumps and bruises that come from playing nine straight games since the open date in September.

The key will be who is available in the offensive line. Out are Ty Clary and Ragnow. Hobbled are Hjalte Froholdt and Zach Rogers.

Among those expected to step up in the offensive line is Dylan Hays and Raulerson. Hays has shuttled back and forth between nose tackle and center this fall. He played guard when Froholdt couldn’t go last week.

“Those guys are battling their butt off,” Allen said. “I think what Dylan has done this year is remarkable. My hat is off to how hard he works. He played pretty well last week.”

Froholdt and Rogers are both expected to play, but how long they can hold up is a guess.

Rolling the Dice

There’s nothing to lose. Technically, neither team has anything to play for in regards to bowls. Missouri is going. Arkansas is not.

So will there be some trickery, some rolls of the dice?

Bielema showed that last week at the end of the Mississippi State game. He went for it on fourth-and-2 at the UA 44 in the final minutes. He was trying to win the game and avoid a possible overtime. It backfired.

What will be the mindset of Bielema and his counterpart at Missouri, former defensive coordinator Barry Odom? Will they take more risks?

Emotion

What will they be for fans? Bielema is well liked, although it’s clear that many fans have grown weary of the lack of conference wins. Five 20-point losses this season set a school record.

But I’m guessing that fans will be pulling for Bielema in what is surely his last game as Arkansas’ coach. It’s hunting season, the day after Thanksgiving and students are gone from campus for the most part, so the crowd will be thin. But I’m guessing that most will be pulling for Bielema.

The Trophy

Last but not least, there is a fancy trophy ready, standing more than 4 feet tall and weighing more than 180 pounds.

It’s a high-tech trophy, too. There is the ability to change out an insert that serves as the boundary between the two states to make it cardinal or gold. It’s just the ninth meeting between the two teams, but only the third where the trophy is involved.

Shelter Insurance is the presenting sponsor of the trophy. The headquarters of the insurance company is Columbia, Mo., and it has several locations throughout Arkansas.

The series record for the two trophy games is 1-1. Arkansas won the first game after the establishment of the rivalry trophy, 28-3, in 2015, the only time the Tigers have come to Fayetteville.

To the credit of Mizzou’s “strategic communication” staff, they listed the Arkansas coach as Bret in their releases in the first two games of the “rivalry.” They have switched gears and become more strategic.

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