Tom Murphy is a sports reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. He was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Hogs, Tigers have plenty to play for
Illustration by Gary Thomas
COLUMBIA, Mo. — The Arkansas Razorbacks made a big deal about trophy games in 2021.
More specifically, Coach Sam Pittman put a huge emphasis on taking trophies last year, largely because the University of Arkansas won, in order, the Southwest Classic, Golden Boot, Battle Line and Outback Bowl trophies while storming to a 9-4 season.
There’s a picture of Pittman dressed in a suit and sitting on a throne, surrounded by those trophies and Larry the bowling ball on the inside back cover of the UA media guide.
This season has spun a different story on the trophy front. An injury-marred and bad luck run through the middle of the schedule has cost the Razorbacks the first two of those trophies by a total of five points in losses to Texas A&M and LSU.
Larry the bowling ball made his appearance last week as the Razorbacks (6-5, 3-4 SEC) beat Ole Miss 42-27 to gain bowl eligibility. Yet all that’s left to defend in the regular season is the Battle Line Trophy, an eight-year-old creation of entrepreneur and former Razorback David Bazzel, given to the winner in the fledgling rivalry between the Razorbacks and Missouri.
“They’re important, we just don’t have them,” Pittman said of the Hogs’ trophy haul. “We have this one. They’re really important to our football team. I had been bringing the trophy into the team meeting, and I didn’t this one. I put a picture of it from when we won it last year.”
The relatively new border foes will kick if off today at 2:30 p.m. at Faurot Field with more than just a big trophy at stake.
The Razorbacks are trying to salvage that one in-season piece of hardware still available, possibly move up the bowl pecking order, and win in Missouri for the first time in 78 years.
“It’s extremely important,” Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson said of the game. “I mean we’re taking it very seriously, just being able to try to keep this trophy at home, just knowing it’s the last one here.”
Arkansas had strong motivation to gain its bowl eligibility last week and thrashed Ole Miss by jumping ahead 42-6 early in the third quarter. The Tigers could have similar fuel this week.
“I feel like they’re going to come out like their hair’s on fire,” Jefferson said. “They’re going to come out and hit us with everything they’ve got.”
Linebacker Drew Sanders, named one of five finalists for the Butkus Award this week, said the Razorbacks will be focused.
“It’s always a big deal to win a rivalry game, especially a trophy game,” Sanders said. “To finish the regular season on a win would be big for everybody as well. Just because of how big this rivalry is and how much it means to our team, it would be a great deal to beat these guys.”
The Tigers (5-6, 2-5) need a win to secure bowl eligibility, but third-year Coach Eli Drinkwitz said that’s not the team’s focus.
“This week is all about rivalry week, Arkansas, the battle line trophy,” said Drinkwitz, an Alma native and Arkansas Tech graduate. “And whatever happens after that happens. We’re just focused on trying to win that trophy.”
Sophomore quarterback Brady Cook knows attaining one goal will lead to the other for the Tigers.
“Obviously, we know what happens if we get that trophy,” Cook said. “So let’s just focus on the trophy. That’s what’s most important: Establishing this rivalry and making sure we stay ahead of that.”
Arkansas tight end Trey Knox talks as if the intensity of the rivalry is already well on its way.
“We know they’re going to talk a lot of smack and try to get at us after the whistle with some hits and stuff so we just want to be composed,” Knox said. “Just play our brand of football and not let anyone else dictate what we’re going to do.”
Missouri, despite being in just its 11th season in the SEC, has dominated the series against Arkansas. The Tigers lead the all-time series 9-4, and they hold a 6-2 edge since joining the SEC.
Arkansas broke a five-game losing streak in the series with a 34-17 win in Fayetteville last year, but the Razorbacks have never won in Columbia, Mo.
“There’s a lot of differences in 7-5 and 6-6, bowl wise,” Pittman said. “Obviously, we can get to 4-4 in conference like we were last year and finish in the top half of the conference like we did a year ago.
“I think simply because it’s our rival game it’s a big deal, and we haven’t beaten them there since we’ve joined the SEC. I think there’s a lot of things. We haven’t beaten them back-to-back. I think there’s a lot of things that we have to play for, and our kids understand that.”
There are tie-ins between the programs, the strongest of them being Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom. A former Missouri linebacker, Odom served as the Tigers’ head coach from 2016-19 before he was let go with a 25-25 record following a 24-14 win over the Razorbacks in Little Rock in the 2019 season finale.
He is now Pittman’s right-hand man as the first hire for his staff.
Arkansas might have had a win in Columbia already if not for Odom’s gutsy gamble in 2016. Trailing 24-14, Odom called for a fake punt from his own 7-yard line in the third quarter.
The Tigers converted on Anthony Sherrils’ 14-yard run, scored a touchdown two plays later on Drew Lock’s 67-yard pass to Johnathan Johnson, and were on their way to a 28-24 win.
Odom went 4-0 against the Razorbacks and Pittman thinks he’s compelled to beat his alma mater.
“I guess if you put yourself in his shoes and somebody lets you go and you felt like you did a good job, which he did, he probably might have a little chip on his shoulder,” Pittman said. “I imagine he would. And then you go to the other side of it, and they’ve still got kids on the team that he recruited, so you know obviously there’s a strong love for those kids that he coached and recruited.”
Current Tiger Tauskie Dove was asked if it would feel strange facing Odom.
“No, not really,” Dove said. “Unless you’re like one of those people that are kind of weird about it. But at the end of the day, it’s just football. It’s nothing personal. Everybody knows football is business. Each team is trying to win.”
Odom has one of the strongest motivations on the field. In his initial return to the stadium after being fired, Arkansas took a 48-47 lead on Jefferson’s 14-yard touchdown pass to Mike Woods, followed by a 2-point conversion pass from the same tandem with 43 seconds remaining.
However, the Razorback defense allowed Missouri quarterback Connor Bazelak to move the Tigers 60 yards in seven plays in the final 43 seconds to win 50-48 on Harrison Mevis’ 32-yard field goal as time expired.
Arkansas has held double-figure leads in three of its four games in Columbia since the Tigers joined the conference. The Razorbacks were up 14-3 in 2014, 24-7 in 2016, and 40-26 in 2020.
Pittman was around for the first and last of those.
“I remember the ’14 game because Brandon Allen was … he was hurt now going into the game,” said Pittman, who was the UA offensive line coach then. “Matter of fact, going into the game, we didn’t know if he would play.
“He just toughed it out you know. So he was hurt. I remember that. I think we were up at the half, maybe 14 or something like that. And they came back and they actually won the [East division] that year if I’m not mistaken.
“When we went up there last time we had a lead on them as well. Then they came back and we went for 2 and took the lead and obviously they had a nice drive there at the end. Rivalry games, it should be close games. I think we’re two pretty evenly matched teams.
“It seems like the results have been the same up there. But I think our kids will be ready. I’m sure Missouri will be because of bowl eligibility.”
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