Mizzou football is going bowling.
The Battle Line Rivalry between the Missouri Tigers and Arkansas Razorbacks lived up to the hype. After losing last year’s matchup 34-17 in Fayetteville, the trophy comes back to Columbia where it belongs (Mizzou has not lost to Arkansas at home). This year’s iteration produced 56 total points and 786 combined yards in a thrilling 29-27 victory for the Tigers.
“I’m really proud of our team,” Mizzou head coach Eliah Drinkwitz said. “(It was) really a complete team game, no turnovers, had to have it and we got it done.”
Missouri regained control of the Battle Line trophy behind the success of quarterback Brady Cook, who rushed for a career-high 138 yards, totaled 242 yards through the air and added two touchdowns. Defensively, the Tigers held the Razorbacks without a touchdown in the second half and applied constant pressure.
Arkansas began the high-scoring affair in an unorthodox way, going backwards in yards and punting after Mizzou defensive end Isaiah McGuire, who entered the game with 5.5 sacks on the season and a separated shoulder, brought Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson to the ground for one of his game-high two sacks.
“When your adrenaline is rushing, I don’t think you feel too much of anything,” McGuire said. “This team has worked so hard, faced so much adversity throughout the season and it’s like a blessing for us.”
On the ensuing possession, the Tigers found their recipe for success— Let Brady Cook.
“(Cook is) developing confidence in who he is,” Drinkwitz said. “He played the game the way it’s designed to play, and he’s comfortable and has that confidence.”
The sophomore quarterback continued his recent string of improved play, rushing for 32 yards on the opening drive to set up a 40-yard field goal from Harrison “Thiccer Kicker” Mevis.
KJ Jefferson and the Arkansas offense responded right away, driving 75 yards in just nine plays to take an early lead. Utilizing the rush and play-action game, Jefferson connected with wide receiver Matt Landers, who finished with 79 yards on four receptions, for a 37-yard competition before the junior quarterback rushed into the end zone for a three-yard touchdown.
Looking to build off of the first-drive momentum, Cook looked to a pair of receivers who have not heard their names called in a while— Dominic Lovett and Mookie Cooper. The duo had combined for just five receptions for 57 yards in the previous three games, all from Lovett, but accounted for 69 yards on Mizzou’s first touchdown drive.
“We saw what the Missouri offense could be, whether it be air-raid (or) running the ball. Everybody executed on every point.”
Cody Schrader, who tallied 87 yards via the rush, capped the drive with his eighth rushing touchdown of the season.
The Tigers’ defense stepped up again on the ensuing drive as linebacker Ty’Ron Hopper dropped Sanders for a two-yard loss. Mizzou’s constant pressure generated seven sacks and seven total tackles for loss, including, two from Hopper.
Cook immediately built upon the defensive stand, finding Lovett for a 55-yard, over-the-shoulder grab to catapult the Tigers’ offense into Arkansas territory. The five-play, 77-yard drive commenced with a nine-yard touchdown run by Cook who went into the end zone untouched.
“I was pretty happy to get moving a little bit in the first half with my legs,” Cook said.
Jefferson responded with a drive that showcased his talent as he overcame a pair of sacks and two third downs to work himself into Mizzou territory. Then, facing a 3rd & 8, Jefferson launched a pass for the end zone. As Mizzou defensive back Kris Abrams-Draine and Landers wrestled for the ball, the latter came away with a 27-yard touchdown catch on third down to the deficit to 17-14.
A trio of rushes, for 11, 17 and 37 yards respectively, gave Cook a career-high in rushing yardage midway through the second quarter. His quick feet and thinking helped the Tigers force themselves into field goal range, and Mevis drilled a 27-yard kick.
However, despite Mizzou’s continued success, Jefferson worked down the field again. He converted two third downs, both on double-digit yardage plays, before finding Sanders for an eight-yard touchdown catch.
The half concluded with a stalled Tigers drive and a kneel-down from Arkansas, as Mizzou out-gained the Razorbacks 292-230 in the half and averaged 9.7 yards per play.
Yet, despite scoring on its first four possessions, Mizzou entered halftime trailing 21-20.
After deferring to start the game, the Tigers earned the first possession of the second half, and they made it count. Cook converted a key 3rd & 10 with a 22-yard competition to Lovett and then turned to the standout receiver once again on a 4th & 2 for an 14-yard connection later in the possession.
“It’s huge,” Cook said when asked about the conversion. “We practiced that play all week, we got the exact look we wanted ... and executed.”
To complete the 10-play, 75-yard drive, Cook found Luther Burden III along the sideline, and the receiver worked his magic en route to
the end zone for his ninth touchdown of the season.
Moments later, the defense finally left its mark.
Martez Manuel, in his final home game, sacked Jefferson for a six-yard loss and added a Cristiano Ronaldo celebration. McGuire nearly replicated the feat moments later, falling just short of a sack, but the pressure forced Jefferson into an uncharacteristic throw to Mizzou defensive back Daylan Carnell for his third interception of the season.
“Daylan Carnell (is) a big-time player,” Drinkwitz said. “Big time players make big-time plays in big-time games, and we needed it.”
A holding penalty wiped out a Cody Schrader touchdown on the ensuing drive, forcing Mizzou to leave points off the board and settle for a 29-yard field goal. Arkansas answered with its own field goal, a 46-yarder from Cam Little to cut the lead to five points.
The third quarter ended with a Mizzou punt, and the Razorbacks utilized a pair of rushes from Jefferson and Sanders to work into field goal range at the start of the fourth quarter. Little connected on his second attempt of the game, knocking down a 20-yard attempt and cutting the deficit to two points—29-27 Missouri.
Each team traded scoreless possessions throughout the fourth quarter, emphasizing the defensive impact and trend that Barry Odom and Blake Baker instilled on their respective units.
“We just had to settle down as a defense,” McGuire said. “We have to give that little extra effort each and every play, and it showed today.”
Penalties wiped out Mizzou’s first drive of the fourth quarter, but the defense responded with an emphatic stand. Defensive tackle Kristian Williams dropped Jefferson for an eight-yard sack on second down, and the Tigers forced a punt that was deflected.
Even with the prime field position, however, Mizzou failed to capitalize as Mevis missed a 55-yard field goal attempt to keep Arkansas within two points, essentially meaning a field goal would give them the victory.
However, that opportunity never surfaced, as the Razorbacks generated just 19 yards of total offense on their final two possessions. When the offense needed it the most, the Tigers’ defense stepped up, stopping a lateral-play at the final whistle to secure the victory.
“I will say the momentum for our program is really good,” Drinkwitz said.
“I feel like it’s going to be a turning point,” Lovett added. “We play great all-around.”
Mizzou will find out its next opponent when the bowl games are announced on Dec. 4, giving the Tigers an opportunity to celebrate another Battle Line rivalry victory, but more importantly, a third consecutive bowl berth under Drinkwitz.