There are some old coaching adages that sometimes are on target. I'll give you a few that seem relevant this week as Missouri visits Arkansas in what is billed as the start of a rivalry game.
The first old adage concerns rivalries. I was told years ago that they take time. They don't just happen overnight. It was the high school coach at Russellville who told me that. His thoughts were in regard to the Conway-Russellville series.
A rivalry, he said, occurs when teams play over a long period of years and the two sides take turns beating each other. There is respect on both sides and a great desire to beat the other. He said hate sometimes comes into play. The veteran coach then pointed to the lopsided series record with Conway winning 17 straight games. He said, “It's a rivalry for us because we hate getting beat every year, but they probably don't even know we exist because they beat us like a yard dog.”
You don't forget those kind of comments. I tried to think what the Arkansas-Texas rivalry would be if there were never any Arkansas victories. It wouldn't be much of a rivalry. And, you have to play enough for there to be hate.
Missouri and Arkansas will play for just the second time as SEC members on Friday. It will be just the seventh meeting between the schools. Mizzou holds a 4-2 advantage, including last year when the Hogs lost a lead in the fourth quarter of a 21-14 loss at Columbia.
I asked Brandon Allen on Wednesday if it feels like a rivalry game and if he had seen in what is billed as the Battle Line Rivalry? He had not seen pictures of the trophy, but he said there was one part of the “rivalry” he already understands.
“There is a feeling that it's a grudge match,” the quarterback said. “It's because they beat us last year and we want to get back at them this year. But, that's always the case when you play a team that you lost to the year before.”
The takeaway here is that there is a chance for this thing to grow into a rivalry game. Arkansas needs a win to make the Tigers feel some hate. That does the trick every time. Maybe dancing away with a trophy can do that, but it didn't seem to have an effect on LSU this year after the Hogs did that last year in Fayetteville.
On to the next adage, does the underdog get an advantage when bad weather hits? I've pondered this all year as week after week the Hogs have been faced with a forecast of bad weather. Almost never did the forecast come true and the Hogs played in storms or rains.
The rains held off at Knoxville, Oxford and a couple of times in Fayetteville. Yes, there were sometimes damp or soft conditions with the field, but they were not conditions that effected the game in any real way.
I did see Arkansas players slip on soft grass in Knoxville early in the game, perhaps helping Tennessee to a 14-0 lead. But both teams figured out the surface fairly quickly and there were no issues in the last three quarters.
I thought rain was going to be a definite factor at Oxford. But the line of rain held off and it was a perfect night for offenses to reign supreme. I thought Ole Miss, the clear favorite, would be slowed by the conditions. But I did not figure in that Arkansas has as much of a juggernaut on offense as the Rebels.
And there is one more coaching adage that comes into play on wet fields. Yes, it's said that on a muddy field, the team with the best running game has the advantage. But just with wet conditions, a passing game has the edge. The receiver knows where he is going and isn't as likely to slip (although I saw Arkansas receivers slip at Knoxville coming out of routes) as the defensive backs when a quick reaction to a cut makes for dicey footing.
So if this is the case, the Hogs should have the advantage on Saturday. Yes, the Hogs play on field turf and the footing is generally good. But with heavy rains – the kind in the forecast – it's hard for any field to drain quickly. There may be some slipping and the Hogs throw it much better than the Tigers.
Now for the last old adage. I've always heard from defensive coordinators that you blitz a young quarterback and you defend the back end against one with experience and skills. That sounds like Arkansas should be blitzing Missouri freshman Drew Lock. He's got just four career touchdown passes. Brandon Allen, a four-year starter, is the UA career record holder with 63 touchdown passes, 29 this season.
Allen will make his 33rd consecutive start and last in Reynolds Razorback Stadium. It's where we will start this week's keys to victory, my top 10 list.
1, Senior Day – It's a short list in Bret Bielema's third season as head coach. Obviously, it starts with Allen. He's the only senior captain playing this season and the obvious leader of the team. He seemed excited about the Missouri game on Tuesday night when he met with the media and thinks the team will be hyped for the game despite losing a heartbreaker last week. The other seniors being recognized are Austin Beck, Cordale Boyd, Marcus Danenhauer, Rohan Gaines, Drew Gorton, DeMarcus Hodge, Reeve Koehler, Mitch Loewen, Davyon McKinney, Chris Saunders, Mitch Smothers, Nicholas Thomas-Smith, Scotty Thurman, Sebastian Tretola, Alex Voelzke and Jonathan Williams. There are important notes in that list. Koehler and Boyd, reserve linemen, are not seniors in eligibility, but have graduated and will not return to the squad next year, giving Bielema more scholarships to offer this winter. Once thought to be at 18, it now appears the scholarships available has grown to 24.
2, Bowl Eligibility – Arkansas punched its ticket to postseason with four straight victories coming off a bye week, the clinching game at LSU. But Mizzou, 5-6, is still trying to gain bowl eligibility. How that plays into the emotion of the game is not clear. It could be that the Tigers are more excited to win for their coach than to become bowl eligible. Gary Pinkel is retiring after 15 years at Mizzou. He's led the Tigers to two SEC East titles and three division titles in the Big Eight. Pinkel has five 10-win seasons at Missouri and there had only been one in the previous 110 seasons. With 191 career wins, he's 19th on the all-time list of FBS coaches. Any way you look at it, the Tigers have a lot to play for Friday.
3, Defensive Intensity – It should probably be number one on this list, but I can't skip the obvious intangible areas that could provide the juice for the two teams. Somehow, the Hogs have to find some intensity on defense. They were on their heels all of last week, giving up 631 yards of total offense, never finding a way to slow quarterback Dak Prescott. They go from a great senior quarterback to a raw freshman this week in Mizzou's Drew Lock. That might help, but the Hogs must play with greater effort. Secondary coach Clay Jennings said part of his mission this week was to restore some confidence. But some technique work was needed, too. He said individual periods were expanded in two practices. Simply put, he said the goal was to fix some things, much in the same way a plumber's job is to repair the pipes, not buy a new house. Missouri's defensive intensity is amazing. The Hogs will try to find a way to somehow match that level with their own defense with an emphasis on fanatical effort.
4, Turnovers – The forecast is for rain, rain, rain. It looks like 100 percent chance for Friday. Ball handling becomes tricky. Both teams do well in this area. In an amazing oddity, the Hogs lost last week despite winning the turnover margin, 3-0, and scoring 50 points. I'm guessing that's never happened in the history of football. The Hogs have gotten pretty good at eliminating mistakes, especially penalties. But Missouri is just as good at the same thing. Their running backs rarely fumble. Russell Hansbrough doesn't lose the football, period. MU running backs have lost only four fumbles in the last two years. It was an Alex Collins fumble that ended the UA hopes last year in Columbia. On a wet day, who protects the football?
5, Offensive Line Play – There are good players on both teams in the offensive line. Russellville product Matt Hall will be making his 17th start at right guard. He's got a great player at his side in senior center Evan Boehm. Boehm broke the Missouri record last week with his 51st start. The Hogs are good up front, too. Tretola leads a solid Arkansas line that has slowly eliminated penalties to become one of the league's best in pass protection. The Hogs have allowed just 11 sacks. They have sacked the opposition just 15 times. Conversely, Mizzou has played in sack fests all season. They have given up 27, while sacking the opposition 27 times.
6, Scoring at Will – It's just a play on words, the terminology used for the weakside linebackers by coaches. Will or willy is the name used most often. Just watching the two will linebackers might tell the story of the game. Mizzou's Kentrell Brothers, the man who took the ball from Collins last year, has topped what Martrell Spaight did for Arkansas last season. Brothers, a senior, leads the nation with 140 tackles in 11 games. Spaight had 126 to lead the SEC while playing 13 games. Brothers rages from sideline to sideline, taking advantage of the double teams required to slow down the Mizzou defensive ends. Arkansas counters with true freshman Dre Greenlaw. He's made 88 tackles, seven behind Brooks Ellis for the team lead. Greenlaw is relentless in pursuit, but he's sometimes had his head on a swivel trying to figure out his keys as offensive coordinators have dazed him with fakes and counters. Greenlaw finally exited the game in the second half last week as the Hogs turned to safety Kevin Richardson at linebacker against the complications in the spread. Will Greenlaw be back in the picture this week and how will Missouri attack the youngster?
7, Stopping the Run – It would seem that UA defensive coordinator Robb Smith would want to stop the pass after Dak Prescott threw for 508 last week. But it's the run with Hansbrough that worries the Hogs the most. Hansbrough burned Brigham Young for 117 yards on 26 carries two weeks ago. It was the run that gashed the Hogs in the game winning drive last season. The Hogs had been great at stopping the run for most of the season until Hansbrough and his mates got rolling in the fourth quarter. “We have to focus on Hansbrough,” Smith said, who then noted the Mississippi State running game was just good enough to keep the Hogs honest last week and keep them from rushing Prescott with numbers. If the Hogs can keep Hansbrough in check, the young Missouri quarterback may see more blitzes than he can handle. The one thing Missouri's spread is good at this year, is to check to a run to slip past a blitzing linebacker. If the Hogs can contain this early, it might be a long day for Lock.
8, Tight End Games – Missouri is good at all three linebacker slots, but if there is a soft spot, it might be on the strongside with Donavin Newsom. He'll be on a tight end most of the day. The Hogs are potent at tight end with Hunter Henry, perhaps the nation's best, and Jeremy Sprinkle. Missouri's ends are good at containment, but Allen will test them with bootlegs and movement, all designed to put his tight ends in mismatches against the strong linebacker and strong safety. State blitzed safeties most of the night last week and the UA tight ends went wild. Missouri blitzes 50 percent of the time. It might be a big day for the tight ends.
9, Surprise Advantage – Missouri has featured impressive play at wide receiver under Pinkel, but not so much this season. This is where the Hogs might have a surprise advantage. It's been an almost even matchup the last three weeks with the fine wideout groups of Ole Miss, LSU and State. But this week, the Tigers are no match for Drew Morgan, Jared Cornelius and Dominique Reed. Missouri's group of J'Mon Moore, Nate Brown and Wesley Leftwich has just eight touchdowns. The UA starting three has 19, led by Morgan's 10. This is advantage Arkansas in a bigger way than anyone imagined at the start of the season.
10, Brandon Allen – This is saving the best for last. It's been great fun watching Allen emerge as one of the nation's best quarterbacks in the last five weeks. The key is getting all of the pieces of the offense going well around him. He has options and knows how to use them. Dan Enos has done a masterful job with Allen in the short time he's been in town. Enos refined his footwork, taught him some new tricks about escaping pressure in the pocket and how to reset his feet before the release. It's been wonderful to watch. The weather conditions might reduce some of the things that can be done in the passing game, but what should serve Allen well in his finale is his overall toughness. He's seen it all. He's endured criticism, lack of playmakers around him and a constant change of coordinators in his five seasons. His teammates love him. They know his journey better than anyone. They knew when his truck was egged and burned. They have watched while Allen has blocked out the distractions to lead them on and off the field. I won't forget the ride they gave Allen in the victory celebration after the Ole Miss victory. Emotions will be raw when the Hogs take the field Saturday. The Allen story may take a back seat to the Pinkel story on the national stage, but it's still a huge story in the history of Arkansas football. One of the school's great quarterbacks will be playing the last game in his hometown.