These are high times for the relationship between the two largest football programs in the state.
Historically, aside from a basketball game or club sport showdown here and there, the University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University have operated in their own separate athletic universes.
In the last couple years, that’s been changing.
The schools’ athletic directors, Hunter Yurachek and Terry Mohajir, are friends and have chatted a few times about the prospect of the schools playing each other in football.
This summer, Yurachek expanded the Razorbacks’ policy of playing in-state schools to include Arkansas State and UCA in all sports but football. It seems like it’s a matter of “when,” not “if,” that the game will happen.
In past decades, many Razorback fans adopted former athletic director Frank Broyles’ attitude of “We have nothing to gain by playing in-state competition,” but nowadays fan polls and social media reactions indicate the majority of fans welcome the idea of the Hogs playing in-state schools.
More and more, it seems there is a sense of fraternity and state pride among Hog fans that makes room for supporting multiple in-state programs.
Some of this, unfortunately, emerged from a tragedy. Late last summer, Wendy Anderson, the wife of A-State coach Blake Anderson, died after a two-year battle with breast cancer. In the aftermath, Hog fans and Razorbacks alike reached out to Anderson to offer condolences.
“Blake and his family are definitely in our thoughts and prayers,” former Hogs coach Chad Morris said at a LR Touchdown Club luncheon. “I talked to Coach in early June. It just breaks your heart. A lot of people across our great state are praying for him, his family and their team at this time.”
Around the same time, Yurachek Tweeted: “The @ArkRazorbacks family is keeping the @AStateRedWolves family in our thoughts and prayers today.”
A few months later, after Morris was fired and Sam Pittman arrived as the new Hogs head coach, the programs were drawn closer together through the transfer of Jerry Jacobs.
Jacobs had been a star defensive back from the Red Wolves in 2018 and 2019, but decided he wanted to play for the Hogs.
“”I actually transferred because it was a great opportunity,” Jacobs said in a recent press conference. “You know, Coach Pittman. I first talked to coach Rion Rhoades. That was my head coach in JUCO.
“So, I wanted to go to something bigger, playing in the SEC. I always wanted to play in the SEC. Once I talked to him, he said he had a scholarship offer for me. Man, I kicked down the door. I got in here. I came in as quick as I can.”
Despite Jacobs’ departure, though, Anderson still supports him.
“That was my best friend. Like a father to me at Arkansas State,” Jacobs said of his former coach. “I love that dude and we still talk to this day even though I came here. He helped me out a lot in life.”
At Arkansas State, Jacobs daily locked horns in practice with all-conference level wide receivers like Omar Bayless, Kirk Merritt and Jonathan Adams, Jr.
His ability to challenge receivers and force them to improve their games has translated well to the Razorbacks. Many insiders consider him a lock to start this fall.
Red Wolves grab national spotlight
On most weekends, in most football seasons, the statewide attention given A-State is dwarfed by what the Hogs get.
That script finally flipped last Saturday, when the Red Wolves were the main show on national TV against Kansas State. (The Hogs don’t play until Sept. 26.)
Thousands of Hog fans who normally wouldn’t spend the time watching an A-State game tuned in to this one. And they were treated to a great game, as Arkansas State eked out a 35-31 win on the road. It was A-State’s first win against a Power 5 team since 2008 — and that includes nine straight winning seasons.
All of the sudden, as Andy Hodges put it, “the team a lot of Hog fans like to look down their noses at is the one getting the best publicity right now.”
If A-State keeps it up in upcoming games against Tulsa and Coastal Carolina, their odds on winning the Sun Belt title for the first time since 2016 should improve.
They currently have the fourth best odds, but a couple more wins could boost them into the top three.
The star of the show was Jacobs’ former teammate, Jonathan Adams, Jr.
Three of the Jonesboro native’s eight catches were touchdowns, including the game-winner. He snared a couple of outstanding one-handed receptions that had Fox analyst Reggie Bush calling him a “man among men” and helped earn him multiple player of the week awards.
In the same way that the Razorbacks developed a national reputation as “Running Back U” in the era of D-Mac, Felix Jones, Knile Davis, Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, A-State is on the cusp of developing into a mid-major “Wide Receiver U.”
That’s in part thanks to the elite competition their receivers had to deal with every day in practice when Jacobs was in Jonesboro.
For once, A-State’s gain is Arkansas’ too. That’s something both programs’ fans should root for more of.
UA graduate Evin Demirel is the author of “African-American Athletes in Arkansas: Muhammad Ali’s Tour, Black Razorbacks & Other Forgotten Stories”