Arkansas appeared to be cruising to a blowout in last year’s regular-season finale at Missouri on the now-traditional Friday after Thanksgiving.
The Razorbacks led 24-7 at halftime against a Tigers team that owned only two wins in its previous 16 games against SEC competition.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Arkansas’ rout.
Mizzou’s maligned defense pitched a second-half shutout, and a botched punt helped spark the offense to mount a three-touchdown rally in the third annual Battle Line Rivalry.
Landing in the Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech, the Razorbacks then blew a 24-0 halftime lead against the Hokies to finish 2016 in humiliating fashion — a pair of losses that Arkansas hasn’t forgotten.
Asked if the MU loss lingered into the offseason, Hogs senior center Frank Ragnow said, “I would say so. It would be hard to deny that it did. That, along with the Virginia Tech game, is not how we want to finish games. That’s one thing we can’t just ignore and act like it didn’t happen, but we’ve definitely used it to motivate us throughout the whole offseason and going into this season.”
Rather than pout, the Razorbacks have tried to use the embarrassment at Mizzou as fuel.
“The way the season ended is something that’s kind of fueled us this whole offseason,” senior quarterback Austin Allen said. “To be honest with you, that was a terrible feeling walking off the field after those two games, knowing that we let it slip away like that. It was almost a blessing in disguise, because it kind of (ticked) us off and this whole offseason we’ve been working really hard. Our main goal is we want to finish those fourth-quarter games.”
Most players and coaches talk about trying to move on after games, wins or losses, and not let results linger. Of course, that’s harder to do at the end of the season, but it also wasn’t Arkansas’ strategy.
“It’s something that we addressed as leaders,” senior defensive Kevin Richardson II said. “Frank, Austin and I, we talk about it all the time. We want to raise the bar to a higher standard. We set our standard last year, and it was low. That’s not where we want it. We ended up losing games and it ended up shaming us almost.”
It might also provide kindling to help get the Battle Line Rivalry fires burning with more intensity.
“The Missouri rivalry, both (Missouri coach) Barry (Odom) and I said, even going back to (former Tigers) coach (Gary) Pinkel, anything we can do to flame that fire is a good thing for everybody,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. “… It’s hard to create a bunch of history overnight, but that’s happening. If losing in the second half helped stoked that fire, God bless them. All for it, but we didn’t do it for that reason obviously.”
Bielema tossed out another interesting idea to build the Razorbacks’ feud with the Tigers to the north into something special.
“I’ve even had conversations about our high school all-star game being a crossover game to play a high school team from Missouri, so that’s kind of building on its own,” Bielema said.
Rest assured, Arkansas won’t forget how its trip to Memorial Stadium ended last season when Missouri arrives for its biennial trip to Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Nov. 24 in Fayetteville, Ark.
“Any game with a trophy with it is pretty special,” Allen said. “You don’t want to see that team hoisting the trophy up at the end of the game. We’ve got games like Missouri, LSU and Texas A&M, where there’s a trophy game, so that kind of adds a little more incentive to it. Games like that are a lot of fun. When you win and get the trophy sitting in your facility for the rest of the year, it’s pretty cool.”