Arkansas hopes to get its first win of SEC era at Missouri Friday

Razorback defensive coordinator Barry Odom makes defensive calls from the sideline against Ole Miss Saturday night at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville. Photo by Craven Whitlow.

By Otis Kirk

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas will try to do something it hasn’t done since Missouri joined the SEC and that is win in Columbia.

Arkansas (6-5, 3-4) and Missouri (5-6, 2-5) meet in the Battle Line Rivalry Friday at 2:30 p.m. with bowl implications on the line for both teams. Arkansas has secured its bowl eligibility but 7-5 will get them to a better bowl than 6-6. Missouri has to beat Arkansas to qualify for a bowl game. Sam Pittman knows his squad will face a motivated Missouri squad.

“Missouri, our rival, very excited to go to Columbia,” Pittman said. “We haven’t beaten them there ever since we’ve been in the SEC. So, obviously there are challenges there. They’re playing extremely well. Very good defensive football team. They’ve going to make you throw the football. They’re going to out-number you in the box and make you throw the football. Their front four, really their entire defense, they’ve got really good corners that are able to play man. One high safety. Very aggressive, very physical. They’ve done a really good job defensively have changed tremendously this year. They’re playing great.

“Offensively, they’re known for a big, physical offensive line. They love to run the stretch play. They run it well. Their quarterback now is running the ball a lot more than he did early in the year and running it well. I really like their wide receiver group. Very, very talented. They can catch one-on-one passes. They’re a little bit like us. They’ve lost some very close games to put them where they are record wise very similar to ours. I know they’re going to be fired up to get bowl eligibility, and again like I said, we haven’t won up there. So, a lot of things for us to play for too to continue to rise so our bowl eligibility opens up more bowls for us. But, the bottom line is, Missouri is a rivalry game and we need to go play well against a very good football team.”

Arkansas was fired up and played by far its best half of the season against Ole Miss last Saturday. The Hogs led No. 14 Ole Miss 35-6 at intermission last week. They eventually built that lead to 42-6. The Razorbacks needed that win to get bowl eligible. Can they maintain that same focus energy against a Missouri team?

“I think so,” Pittman said. “I mean, we’ve got a lot to play for. There’s a lot of differences in 7-5 and 6-6 bowl wise. 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. We talked about it last night.”

After sitting out the LSU game with an injury, quarterback KJ Jefferson returned against Ole Miss and had a big night. Jefferson completed 17 of 22 passes for 168 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed eight times for 47 yards. Pittman talked about how Jefferson felt the next day.

“KJ was the best I’ve seen of him on a Sunday in a long time,” Pittman said. “I think the game helped him. I think he has a lot better in him than even what he played. Actually, that’s what he said. Dalton (Wagner), we were smart with him in practice, but he did practice and practiced a majority of it. So, I think those two are going to be ready to go. I know KJ for sure, and Dalton we’ll see.”

Wagner is the starting right tackle and also missed the LSU game. He did return for Ole Miss. Pittman talked about the health otherwise on the team following the 42-27 win.

“We came out of the game fairly healthy,” Pittman said. “JD’s got a little ankle, (DE Jordan) Domineck. But other than that, I think we came out really healthy from this game. Bumper (Pool) is still Bumper and trying to hang on. I don’t know that he’ll be able to or not. He’s beat up. Not healthy. We’re bowl eligible. I don’t know if he’ll be able to play or not. That would be the one.”

Former Fayetteville standout wide receiver Barrett Bannister has had a very good career at Missouri. He has caught 37 passes for 408 yards this season.

“Mr. Third Down,” Pittman said. “I love him. Man, I think he’s a really good player. He’s a great option runner, he can catch a fade ball. But the reason he’s Mr. Third Down (is) ’cause he can catch the football and he can get open.’ And I think he’s had a heck of a career up there, and I’m really happy for him.”

The return to Columbia also means Arkansas’ defensive coordinator Barry Odom is returning where he was head coach for four years. Odom was 25-25 in four years as head coach at Missouri. Pittman talked about what this game will mean for Odom.

“Oh, 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. So you might ask him. Well, I guess you can’t, can you. That’s why you’re asking me. I would think that he would be excited to do what he wants to for him and his family and our team, he wants to perform well. Also, with the love for the kids that he recruited.”

Missouri has the No. 31 defense in the nation which is a vast improvement over last season. Pittman talked about what he has seen that has allowed them to improve so much.

“They’re stopping the run,” Pittman said. “I mean, you can’t run the ball on them. It’s basically a two-high versus a one-high thought process. If there’s two high, that means that you’re taking somebody out of the box. If it’s one high, you’ve got numbers. You declare the numbers. If there’s two high, the numbers are even. You’ve got enough blockers for their defenders. They’re a one-high team. They’re going to outnumber you and have one more.

“Now, you say ‘Well, we’ve got KJ.’ Well, the one more is assigned to KJ, as well. That’s what’s happening. They’re going ‘you’re not going to run the football on us; you’re going to have to throw it.’ I think they’re very, very confident in their secondary, and they should be. They’ve played very good ball. But they’re going to stop the run. To me, that’s what they do, and they force you to throw the football.”

The game will be televised on CBS. 

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