Missouri State football travels to Arkansas in Bobby Petrino's highly anticipated return
Bobby Petrino will make his long-awaited return to Fayetteville when he leads his Missouri State football program into Arkansas.
FCS No. 5 Missouri State will meet the FBS No. 10 Arkansas Razorbacks at 6 p.m. at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Saturday. The game is Petrino's first appearance in Fayetteville since he was fired by the Arkansas program just over a decade ago.
Both teams enter the game 2-0 and with sky-high expectations in their respective subdivisions.
The Bears, in their third year under Petrino, have made back-to-back postseasons and should be on their way to a third. They opened the season with a 27-14 win at Central Arkansas followed by a 35-30 win over UT Martin — which beat the Bears by one point in the first round of the 2021 FCS Playoffs.
Arkansas is also off to a hot start which started with a win over then-No. 23 Cincinnati, which is coming off a College Football Playoff appearance, and followed with a 44-30 win over SEC-foe South Carolina last week.
The Razorbacks' greatest challenge will be to slow down MSU star quarterback Jason Shelley who has looked like the best quarterback in the FCS through the first two weeks of the season. He's currently a 68.5% passer for 563 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions through two weeks.
Shelley will be throwing to an equally hot wide receiver in Ty Scott who has 16 catches for 256 yards and three touchdowns so far. He's considered one of the top wideouts in the entire FCS. The Razorbacks enter the game with some injuries in the secondary that the Bears will hope to take advantage of. Arkansas is currently 129th out of 131 in the FBS in passing yards allowed.
“Shelley’s a good player,” Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman said. “He can run and pass. A very good player. He’s got some good talent around him. He runs the show. He's a very good athlete. He can run and has a very good arm. We have to keep him locked up in that pocket. We’ve got to get to him. If we don’t, he’s very accurate with the ball and has some really good wideouts.
"They’ve got a wideout from Central Michigan (Ty Scott) who I think’s fantastic. Their running back from K-State, (Jacardia) Wright, is a really good player. Obviously, Coach Petrino knows how to recruit."
Missouri State will hope to keep its ground game going this week after Wright emerged as the Missouri Valley Football Conference's Newcomer of the Week. He had 120 yards on the ground along with three catches for 42 yards and a score. The Hogs' defense is 20th against the run in the FBS while allowing just 76.5 yards per game. Razorbacks junior linebacker Drew Sanders is coming off a National Player of the Week game against South Carolina in which he had 11 total tackles with three tackles including two sacks.
Slowing down Arkansas' ground game will be the key to any type of success the Bears can achieve when sportsbooks had the Bears as a 23-point underdog as of Thursday afternoon. Rocket Sanders has been one of the nation's best backs and has run for 273 yards after a breakout freshman year made him an SEC All-Freshman selection. The Razorbacks currently have the eighth-best rushing offense in the country while averaging 259.5 yards on the ground per game.
"They're big and they can really run the football," Petrino said. "They break a lot of tackles and they're really gonna challenge our tackling and getting guys to the ball. Rocket's big and physical and, in last week's game, he broke lots of tackles. So you've gotta get a number of guys to the football and wrap up and be gap sound. Even when teams are gap sound, he still breaks tackles and makes a big play so it's a good challenge for us."
Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson is also a different type of quarterback the Bears are used to seeing as he stands at 6-foot-3, 242 pounds. He's a redshirt junior who can run the ball, break tackles and has a strong arm. He's a 76.6% passer thus far with 385 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He threw only four interceptions in all of last season.
"His biggest 'uniqueness,' I guess you can say, is that you can have free rushers and you can get guys there to him and he breaks the tackle," Petrino said. "He can run out of it and he can throw the ball or he can take off and run. They've done a really good job with him the last two years."
This could be a week the Razorbacks try to get their passing game going while Arkansas pays Missouri State $450,000 to play the game. Jefferson's passing offense ranks 102nd in the FBS in passing offense with 192.5 yards per game. Talented newcomers at wide receiver including Toledo transfer Matt Landers and Oklahoma transfer Jadon Haselwood are capable of having big games.
Both teams have season-defining conference games in the weeks ahead. Missouri State hosts FCS No. 2 South Dakota State on Sept. 24 at Plaster Stadium and goes on the road to FCS No. 22 North Dakota the following week.
The Razorbacks will travel to Arlington, Texas, next week to play No. 24 Texas A&M before returning home to play No. 2 Alabama. The latter could be a milestone win for the Razorbacks under third-year head coach Sam Pittman.
How to watch Missouri State vs. Arkansas
Game time: 6 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 17
Where: Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium; Fayetteville, Arkansas
TV channel: SEC Network +
Listen: KWTO-FM 101.3
Wyatt D. Wheeler is a reporter and columnist with the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact him at 417-371-6987, by email at email@example.com or Twitter at @WyattWheeler_NL. He's also the co-host of Sports Talk on Jock Radio weekdays from 4-6 p.m.