The 2022 season comes down to this week for the Missouri Tigers.
Facing off against the Arkansas Razorbacks, the Tigers will host the annual Battle Line Rivalry yet again, this time with a bowl berth on the line.
At 5-6, Mizzou needs one more win to secure that bowl bid. Arkansas, however, picked up its sixth victory of the season in last week’s 42-27 victory over then-No. 14 Ole Miss, giving them an opportunity to salvage the season with a .500 conference record while also ending the Tigers’ season.
As they prepare for Friday afternoon’s high-stakes rivalry game, several Mizzou players as well as defensive coordinator Blake Baker discussed what the game means to them and provided an update on where the team is at.
Battle Line Trophy, not bowl eligibility, the top priority
For those wondering how Mizzou is looking at Friday’s game, the consensus is simple.
- “Easily the biggest game of our season,” defensive back Martez Manuel said. “That’s kind of the message going around through the locker room and through the building, honestly. We know (that) this game holds weight.”
- “We know what happens if we get that trophy,” quarterback Brady Cook said. “So, let’s just focus on the trophy. That’s what’s most important.”
- “We got to make sure we get the trophy, which means a win in order to get to a bowl game,” wide receiver Tauskie Dove said.
- “We trying to get this Battle Line trophy,” linebacker Chad Bailey said.
Last season, the Razorbacks defeated the Tigers 34-17 in the annual game, giving Arkansas its first victory over Mizzou since 2015. Now, in perhaps the biggest regular season game in recent memory, the Tigers will look to take it back once again in Columbia. Arkansas has yet to win at Faurot Field, having lost all four Battle Line Rivalry games at the home of the Tigers.
The hope is to keep it that way for Mizzou.
“We know that we got it at home and we got it to our advantage, so we want to take advantage of that,” Manuel said.
The first step toward that goal will be to limit an explosive Arkansas offense, which will take the field against a confident Mizzou defense.
KJ Jefferson, Raheim Sanders highlight impressive Arkansas offense
“It’s like having two running backs on the field.”
That’s how Bailey described the fearsome duo of Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson and running back Raheim Sanders. The latter ranks second in the SEC with 1,379 rushing yards, while the former has 472 rushing yards and six touchdowns. Together, they’ve formed the No. 8 rushing offense in the nation.
“Both those guys are big dudes,” Baker said. “I think they ... wear you down as the game goes on.”
The duo has helped Arkansas establish an offense that ranks in the top-two of the SEC in rushing, but Jefferson has also excelled in the passing game. Heading into Friday’s game, Arkansas will showcase the No. 7 passing offense in the SEC as well.
“We got our hands full.” Baker said. “It’s a very, very talented offense. It’s put up a lot of points.”
At 31 points per game, the Razorbacks only rank ninth in the SEC, but that’s no reason to underestimate its offensive capabilities. Last week, against Ole Miss, Arkansas scored 42 points and totaled 503 yards of offense.
Despite the Razorbacks’ recent success, the Tigers are ready to showcase their improved defense, which is a key reason behind their success this year. Mizzou only allowed 14 points against New Mexico State this past weekend, and the belief is that they’ll need to be even better to beat Arkansas.
“I mean there’s two truly gifted players (Jefferson and Sanders),” Manuel said. “But we also got a truly gifted defense. We call ourselves the best defense in the country (and) this is the perfect week to show it.”
Execution is a point of emphasis once again
The main discussions of this week’s conversations centered around the Arkansas offense, but its defense poses quite a threat as well. Despite allowing over 700 yards of total offense last week to Ole Miss, the Razorbacks’ defense only allowed 27 points.
That performance showcased Arkansas’ ability to bend but not break, which is something they’ll look to continue against the Cook-led Mizzou offense.
It’s no secret that the Tigers have struggled to put points on the board, but Cook has shown vast improvement over these past two weeks. Those points of progress will be important to build upon as the sophomore prepares for his biggest game yet.
“I think situation football is going to be big,” Cook said.
Two main weaknesses that Mizzou has shown this season are inefficiencies on third downs as well as in the red zone. Those two areas are ones that Cook mentioned will be vital on Friday, especially because every point matters. Dove shared a similar mindset as well.
“Honestly I feel like it’s really about execution in the details,” Dove said. “Putting points on the board (and) capitalizing on each opportunity (are important), obviously, because this is a big game for us.”
Arkansas features an athletic defense, led by its linebacker core that is one of the nation’s strongest. It’s one area of its defense that has caught the attention of the Tigers.
“On defense they’re very talented (and) physical,” Dove said. “I know their linebackers...their defense is pretty athletic, competitive and physical.”
“(They’re) really talented at linebacker,” Cook said. “They’ll bring a few different pressures, but I think as long as we prepare for them, watch the tape... we should be able to handle them.”
- Tauskie Dove has not made a decision on whether to return or not next season, saying “(I’m) not 100%. I’m not sure yet. I’d love to come back to Mizzou, but I have to think some more on it.”
- Dove said wide receiver Barrett Banister has not practiced yet this week, hinting at the possibility of him missing Friday’s game. If out, Banister’s presence will be missed. Dove referred to the veteran as “Albert Einstein” for his ability to answer questions on the field, while Cook mentioned his leadership and chemistry with Banister.
- The transfer portal became on topic of conversation Monday when Eli Drinkwitz mentioned it in his weekly press conference. Blake Baker was then asked on his thoughts, giving this response, “I think that’s the new age of college football... I think each case is individual of itself.”
- When asked if he believes other coaches have been talking to current Mizzou players, Baker responded, “Without a doubt...I know for sure there’s been guys on our team that’s been contacted by other coaches or other places.”
- Chad Bailey on his decision to return next season: “I don’t think I did what I wanted to do this year. I missed a couple games and I think I owe it to myself, and Mizzou, to come back and have a better season next year.”
- “We’re going to find a way to get Luther (Burden III) the ball every game,” Cook on the utilization of true freshman receiver Luther Burden III.
- Dove said the rivalry between Arkansas and Mizzou has grown, especially this season with everything going on. Cook offered a similar sentiment, calling this the biggest rivalry game of the year, ahead of Kentucky.
- “They show you flashes, and they also show you why they’re not ready to play 60 snaps in a game,” Baker said when asked what he saw from the younger guys in the victory over New Mexico State.
- Tyrone Hopper will be out Friday with a shoulder injury. Ty’Ron Hopper, however, did practice, according to Baker, but no update on any other injuries were given.