Mizzou Game Day Countdown: Week 13 vs. Arkansas
Missouri (5-6) will be looking to re-claim the Battle Line trophy and clinch bowl eligibility with a win over Arkansas (6-5) in week 13.
The Tigers will be looking to win their 10th game over Arkansas in this series while the Razorbacks will be looking to win their second straight over Mizzou in as many years.
Our game day preview will look at the five matchups to watch, four Mizzou players to keep an eye on, three keys to the game, two questions that need to be answered and a prediction of who will win.
Time: 2:30 p.m. CT
Location: Columbia, MO
TV: CBS (Tom McCarthy, Rick Neuheisel and Sherree Burruss)
Radio: Tiger Radio Network (Mike Kelly, Howard Richards, Chris Gervino)
Spread: Arkansas -3
Series history: Missouri 9-4
5 Matchups to watch
1.) KJ Jefferson vs. Mizzou defense
Razorbacks quarterback KJ Jefferson will be one of the better quarterbacks that Mizzou faces all season. He comes into this contest having completed 165 of 244 passes (67%) for 20 touchdowns and three interceptions. He's also rushed for 472 yards and six touchdowns.
Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz said Jefferson reminds him of another SEC quarterback, Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker. Both quarterbacks are similar in physical structure, neither is afraid of running the ball and both are high-volume and accurate passers.
"I think everybody under undervalues his ability to throw the football," Drinkwitz said. "He's very accurate. He reads the defense's really well. But the thing that makes him special is that he creates with his feet. I think everybody undervalues his ability to throw the football. He's very accurate. He reads the defense really well. But the thing that makes him special is that he creates with his feet."
This will be a two-part test for the Tigers' defense. The play is never over until it's over and with Jefferson's ability to throw or run the ball the defense can't let up. Whether that is secondary players having to cover wide receivers for a couple of seconds longer or if it's a member of the front seven needing to make sure they get Jefferson to the ground with textbook tackles.
Playing through the whistle and being cognizant of where Jefferson is will be huge if Mizzou has any chance of slowing down this offense.
2.) Raheim Sanders vs. Mizzou linebackers
Arkansas running back Raheim "Rocket" Sanders is just six yards shy of leading the Southeastern Conference in rushing. He currently has 1,379 yards and 10 touchdowns. Similarly to Jefferson, Mizzou defenders will need to make sure they wrap up the 6-2, 225-pound Sanders.
"The thing that has really stood out is that he's incredibly patient," Missouri defensive coordinator Blake Baker said. "He's really done a phenomenal job being patient, he keeps his shoulders square, stays low and as big as he is he does a good job hiding behind his offensive linemen."
In Arkansas' last game versus Ole Miss, Sanders recorded 24 carries for 232 yards (9.7 yards per carry) and three touchdowns.
It also helps that Sanders is also a receiving threat out of the backfield as he's Arkansas' third-leading receiver with 25 catches for 249 yards and a touchdown.
Missouri linebacker Ty'Ron Hopper started the season blazing hot with at least one tackle for loss in seven of his first nine games. He hasn't had a tackle for loss in his last two games. He had five tackles or more in the Tigers' first seven games. He's only recorded six in the last two games.
Hopper's fellow starting linebacker, Chad Bailey, has fared better in the last three games. Bailey has recorded at least one tackle for loss and at least five tackles in each of the last three contests.
Together, the pair will have to find a way to be visitors in the backfield often and help make Arkansas' offense one-dimensional by limiting Sanders.
3.) Mizzou cornerbacks vs. Arkansas wide receivers
The size matchups don't end at quarterback and running back. The Razorbacks' top two receiving options are all at least 6-3 and 200 pounds (Jadon Haselwood and Matt Landers). Facing one receiver with that size is a problem in itself, just revisit former Razorback and current Tennessee Titan wide receiver Treylon Burks' performance from a season ago when he recorded seven receptions, 129 yards and a touchdown against the Tigers in the regular-season finale.
Haselwood has assumed the position formerly held by Burks. He's good at high-pointing the ball, he's a threat vertically and like his quarterback and running back he's not an easy player to take down. The Oklahoma transfer has 52 catches for 628 yards and three touchdowns this season.
Landers is Arkansas' leading receiver with 40 receptions for 701 yards and six touchdowns and is seventh in the SEC in receiving yards just two spots above Hazelwood. Landers has three touchdowns in the last two games.
Mizzou has one of the SEC's better cornerback duos in Kris Abrams-Draine and Ennis Rakestraw and both of them will have their hands full with these matchups. For as good as both of them are, both of them weigh less than 200 pounds and Rakestraw just eclipses 6-feet while Abrams-Draine stands at 5-10.
Their advantage lies is with their speed and active hands.
Abrams-Draine has 38 tackles and leads the SEC in pass deflections with 13. Rakestraw isn't too far behind a pass deflection with 11 which is good for third in the SEC. He also has 31 tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Simply, this will be a battle of physicality versus finesse and quickness.
4.) Mizzou vs. Arkansas and bowl eligibility
All week Missouri has said it isn't worried about bowl eligibility and that it's just focused on winning this week and re-claiming the Battle Line trophy. That may be the case, but it's hard to believe that no one is thinking about the win-and-get-in situation.
At times this season, there's been players trying too hard to make a play and then they get burned for it. Remember Nathaniel Peat's fumble at Auburn? It was because he was trying to extend the ball across the goalline instead of doing what he was taught to do which is to tuck the ball. Remember a week later versus Georgia? Baker said after the game the defense got tired and some players tried to make a big play instead of focusing on their responsibility.
If someone gets overzealous and starts thinking about the stakes of the game too much it will be a 5-7 season for the Tigers.
5.) Brady Cook vs. Drew Sanders and Bumper Pool
Missouri quarterback Brady Cook has played well in his last two games and hasn't thrown an interception since week eight versus Vanderbilt. He lost a fumble at Kentucky, but since then he has played mistake-free football. He better keep that up this week when he lines up across from linebackers Drew Sanders and Bumper Pool.
Sanders is one of the best pass rushers Missouri has seen all season, if not the best. The Butkus award finalist leads the SEC with nine sacks to go along with 96 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, three pass deflections, a fumble recovery and an interception. His bend around the edge will be a problem for whoever is blocking him and if Cook's head isn't on a swivel it will need to be.
Pool is dealing with some nagging injuries, so his status for this game is in the air, but when he's on the field he's great at anticipating what the quarterback will do and can snuff out the run. It will be something to watch considering Cook has led the Tigers in rushing the last two weeks with a combined 23 rushes for 177 yards. This season, Pool has 92 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, three pass deflections and two sacks.
4 Players to watch
1.) The offensive line
A position group that has seen six lineup changes this season due to injury and poor play had one of its best outings, if not its best outing, in week 12. The group didn't allow a sack, had just one penalty and was credited with only allowing two tackles for loss, and one of those tackles for loss was more on the running back than it was on the offensive line.
This line has already shown it's capable of playing clean and physical football in this league because it did against South Carolina. If the group can build off of last week and look at what it did in week nine against the Gamecocks and replicate it, the offense has the potential to reach its ceiling.
Also, Arkansas leads the SEC in sacks with 37 headlined by Sanders and defensive lineman Jordan Domineck, who is fourth in the SEC with seven. So, Friday won't be a cakewalk for Mizzou's offensive line.
2.) STAR position players
Martez Manuel and Daylan Carnell will be tasked with guarding tight end Trey Knox. Knox, a wide receiver who was converted to tight end, is also 6-5 and 215 pounds, so he's another big body at Arkansas' disposal. The Razorbacks have the 49th-ranked scoring offense at 31 points per game and rank 86th in red zone offense at 81%.
Knox is the goal-line threat that the Tigers will have to be prepared for. He enters this game with 22 receptions for 267 yards and five touchdowns.
Carnell had an interception returned for a touchdown last week and Manuel enters the game with 45 tackles, eight tackles for loss and a couple of pass deflections. One of the responsibilities of the STAR is to be that hybrid linebacker/safety that can guard tight ends. The cornerbacks will have their hands full with the wide receivers and the front seven's attention will largely be on Jefferson and Sanders, so this can't be a matchup that goes unnoticed or this could be a two-touchdown kind of day for Knox.
3.) Cody Schrader
The Tigers are much better when running back Cody Schrader is making his presence felt in the run game. In fact, Missouri is 4-2 when he's the team's leading rusher. Last week, he had 18 rushes for 70 yards and two touchdowns. If he can have more performances like that and not the one he had at Tennessee, 10 carries for 25 yards, Mizzou will be able to open up the passing game and have a chance to make Arkansas' 118th-ranked pass defense play on its heels.
4.) DJ Coleman
Coleman has a streak of six straight games with at least 0.5 sacks and a seven-game streak of at least 0.5 tackles for loss. His sack streak started when he was playing another physical quarterback in Florida's Anthony Richardson. He actually forced a strip sack on Richardson, as well as Vanderbilt's AJ Swann. Coleman has started the last three games and has shown that he's a pass-rush specialist. If he can replicate the success he's had for weeks then that disruption can force more punts or turnovers, and the longer Arkansas' offense is on the bench the more likely it is that it loses.
3 Keys to the game
1.) Situational football
Missouri will have to win third down and the red zone battle on both sides of the ball. The offense was 9 of 14 on third down last week, but the defense allowed a 120th-ranked New Mexico State team to convert 8 of 16 third downs and both of its red zone trips resulted in touchdowns. That won't fly on Friday.
A couple of weeks ago at Tennessee, Mizzou was 5 of 17 on third down (not great) and held Tennessee to 4 of 11 on third down, but also allowed the Volunteers to go 7 of 7 in the red zone.
Mizzou enters this game tied for 111th in red zone offense converting 30 of 39 (76%) red zone opportunities with only 23 scores being touchdowns. It ranks tied for 116th in red zone defense with opponents converting 29 of 32 (90%) of their red zone opportunities with 21 of them being touchdowns.
Arkansas puts up touchdowns, so if Mizzou relies on the kicking game it likely won't be a great day.
Missouri missed 15 tackles against New Mexico State. Again, every Arkansas position player is at least 6-2 and 200 pounds. Poor tackling, which Mizzou has struggled with at times this season, can single-handedly lose it this game. This isn't the game to rely on hit power alone. The Tigers should be focused on wrapping up their opponents and bringing them down because the Razorbacks are going to bounce off of a lot of hits.
3.) Stop the run
If Sanders averages 6.6 yards per carry like he is for the season, Missouri will have a massive problem on its hands. That will open up Arkansas' passing game and it gives Jefferson the room to break the pocket and make plays with his legs if he needs to.
This one is simple.
Missouri has to make Arkansas one-dimensional like it made Kentucky. Missouri has the ability with its 35th-ranked defense, but the one-two punch of Jefferson and Sanders is unlike anything the Tigers have seen this season.
2 Questions that need answering
1.) Can Cook keep up the production?
Over the last three games, Cook has completed 39 of 60 passes for 472 yards, six touchdowns and no turnovers. The Tigers are 1-1 in those games with a lopsided loss to Tennessee and a lopsided win over New Mexico State, but this has been the most consistent production Cook has had all season. Can he keep it up? Can he produce those numbers with the Battle Line Trophy and bowl eligibility on the line?
2.) Will Dominic Lovett be a factor in this game?
Mizzou's offense is at its best when wide receiver Dominic Lovett is heavily involved. Since his career game at South Carolina in week nine where he recorded 10 receptions for 148 yards, he has had five receptions for 59 yards and a touchdown and two rushes for one yard. Drinkwitz said earlier in the season and has stuck to it that Lovett is the team's best offensive player. He needs to have the ball in his hands. Can Cook get him the ball? Can Drinkwitz scheme up more ways to get him the ball? That will be key this week.
Jarod: This game can truly go either way. Arkansas has a better offense than it does defense and that's the inverse for Missouri. So, whose strength will shine more on Friday? The Razorbacks' offense or Mizzou's defense? I say Missouri wins 26-24, re-claims the Battle Line trophy and goes bowling once again.
Gabe: Nothing will really surprise me in this game. Both teams have been up and down most of the season, which is why they've combined for an exactly .500 record. But in the end, I just don't see Mizzou having enough on offense to keep pace with KJ Jefferson and Rocket Sanders. I'll go with the Razorbacks 31-23 leaving Missouri's bowl fate in the hands of the APR to end a regular season of almosts and what ifs.