An instant classic at Faurot: Battle Line Rivalry heats up thanks to injection of two new coaches.
With the addition of Drinkwitz and Pittman to the sidelines, the Battle Line Rivalry finally feels like a showdown worthy of its title.
Dec. 05, 2020
Dubbed the “Battle Line Rivalry,” the annual showdown between Arkansas and Missouri has all the potential to be an intriguing rivalry game.
The two schools sit roughly 310 miles away from one another, bordered by the Ozarks. There’s an oversized trophy on the line. The matchup even has a marketable title.
But, in many ways, the rivalry feels forced.
With just 12 all-time matchups, there’s little history between the two programs. And with Missouri beating Arkansas four consecutive seasons prior to Saturday morning, it lacked parity, too.
On Saturday, both teams treated fans and neutrals alike to an instant-classic as Missouri quarterback Connor Bazelak orchestrated a game-winning drive in the final minute to beat Arkansas 50-48.
“Everybody had to come together,” senior receiver Keke Chism said. “[We needed] offense, defense and special teams to get the job done, and I knew that once we put [kicker Harrison Mevis] in position, I knew he was going to make the kick.”
Both programs brought in fresh head coaches over the offseason. Arkansas took a chance on Georgia’s unheralded offensive line coach, Sam Pittman. Missouri hired a Group of Five coach in Eli Drinkwitz, who led Appalachian State to a 13-1 record in his first season as head coach.
Drinkwitz got the last laugh on Saturday, and if that game is any indication, the two coaching hires injected some much-needed life into this series that could last for years to come.
“[Arkansas] was looking for the right candidate and they did a great job hiring Sam Pittman,” Drinkwitz said on Tuesday. “He’s done an outstanding job; He’s the perfect fit for what that program needs at the time they needed it. He has done a great job of providing pride in that program.”
Missouri finished with just two SEC wins last season. They’ve more than doubled that total in Drinkwitz’ first year. The Alma, Ark., native now has impressive wins against LSU, Arkansas and Kentucky on his resume.
Off the field, Drinkwitz has generated plenty of positive momentum on the recruiting trail. Just yesterday, Missouri landed a four-star safety in Isaac Thompson from St. Louis.
“Mizzou nation is getting excited about what we’re doing,” Drinkwitz said. “Recruits are taking notice and we aren’t done yet.”
After over three listless seasons without an SEC win, Pittman has led Arkansas to four victories in his first season at the helm. In many ways, he’s the perfect fit for a Razorbacks program that came into 2020 searching for anything to build on.
With both coaches exceeding expectations, some believed this matchup would decide the SEC coach of the year. On Saturday, both coaches showed why they deserved to be in that conversation in a well-coached game that came down to the final minute.
“Coach ‘Drink’ should be SEC coach of the year,” Bazelak said. “With what he’s done with this program, it’s really unbelievable. He’s a great guy, great coach and puts us in the best position to win.”
There was a little bit of “anything you can do I can do better” between the two first-year head coaches as Pittman and Drinkwitz dug deep into their playbooks. Both teams ran creative offenses with plenty of mixed playcalls that included reverses, flea-flickers and tosses.
In the first half, Pittman’s aggressive play calling changed the game. The Arkansas coach went for it –– and converted –– on fourth down three times. He schemed plenty of deep shots at the proper times to test the Missouri defense. On the first half’s final drive, his decision to fake a 41-yard field goal caught the Tigers off guard and resulted in a touchdown two plays later.
However, it was Drinkwitz’s adjustments in the second half that won Missouri the game.
He had to deal with the second-half absence of linebacker Nick Bolton, who the referees ejected for targeting midway through the second quarter. At halftime, Drinkwitz needed to fire up a team with no momentum, reeling from a tough end to the first half.
“We talked about changing up some of our route concepts, figuring out when they were in zone or man and tried to attack the single receiver,” Drinkwitz said. “Defensively I challenged them to get set. We weren’t getting our calls and getting set, but we were able to do that a few times in the fourth quarter, just enough to get us the win.”
In a game with 1,219 total offensive yards, Missouri made more key plays in crucial moments. 27 fourth-quarter points helped the Tigers execute their largest fourth-quarter comeback in program history.
“We were confident, even when we were down 14 in the fourth quarter,” Chism said. “We still had confidence that there was time on the clock and that we were going to come back and get the win.”
During that fourth quarter, loud chants of M-I-Z echoed around Faurot Field as the Tigers put together its improbable comeback. The frequent buzz of the crowd and the stakes on the line made Saturday's game actually feel like it meant something to both teams.
With Drinkwitz and Pittman on the sidelines, maybe, just maybe, the Arkansas-Missouri game can become more than a forced rivalry.
At least it felt that way when the Tigers stormed the field in jubilation after Mevis’ game-winning 32-yard field goal.
All while former Missouri coach Barry Odom watched on from the Faurot Field press box.
Edited by Anna Cowden | firstname.lastname@example.org