Time and Date: Saturday, September 11 at 7:00 p.m. ET
Location: Centennial Bank Stadium — Jonesboro, AR
Spread: Memphis (-5.5)
ESPN FPI: Memphis has 65.1% chance to win
All-time series: Memphis leads, 30-23-5
Last meeting: Memphis 37, Arkansas State 24 — September 5, 2020
Setting the scene
Remember September 2020 when we every game had a high chance of being postponed at any moment? And when we weren’t sure which conferences were actually going to play their 2020 seasons? And every game that actually kicked off felt like a gift?
The Memphis vs. Arkansas State matchup may bring memories of that time period because that was the featured ESPN Saturday night primetime game in college football’s opening week. A few matchups preceded the Tigers and Red Wolves on the schedule, but this was college football’s grand entrance for the 2020 season.
This year, the matchup takes a backseat from ESPN’s flagship network to ESPN+ and the setting moves from the Liberty Bowl to Jonesboro, AR. Memphis and Arkansas State both sport undefeated records entering this game after disposing of FCS competition in Week 1. The competition ramps up for both teams this week and a 2-0 record awaits the victor.
Memphis Tigers outlook
It’s year two of the Ryan Silverfield era in Memphis and the jury is still out on where the Tigers stand in 2021. The program experienced high turnover this offseason after losing starting quarterback Brady White and several other key contributors from the past few seasons.
But after a slow start in the Liberty Bowl last Saturday, Memphis used a 19-0 second quarter to soundly defeat FCS visitor Nicholls, 42-17.
Memphis’ opener presented a bit of a surprise as projected starting quarterback Grant Gunnell sat on the sidelines instead of taking the field. The Arizona transfer suffered a leg injury prior to kickoff and is currently undergoing surgery. A return this season has not been ruled out, but the surgery leaves true freshman Seth Henigan to assume the No. 1 quarterback position.
Henigan’s collegiate debut went rather smoothly with 265 yards and a touchdown while completing 19 of 32 attempts. His offensive line prevented him from absorbing a single sack and the youngster avoided committing a turnover. Due to the success of the line and the production of the rushing attack, Henigan received plenty of support from the Memphis offense last Saturday.
The Tigers’ run game may have found a breakout star. Redshirt freshman Brandon Thomas took over the starting role and registered 147 rushing yards on 16 attempts. Rodrigues Clark, Memphis’ rushing leader in 2020, also managed over nine yards a carry with 84 yards against Nicholls. The Tigers sported a top five rushing offense in 2018 and the opener felt reminiscent of three years ago. The wealth was spread around the backfield and the team totaled 322 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
Thomas will be a player of interest in this matchup this week as he returns to his home state of Arkansas. The North Little Rock native committed to Memphis after holding an offer from the Red Wolves. As Memphis’ new lead halfback, he hopes to surpass the century mark for the second consecutive week on the Red Wolves’ defense.
Many defenses will prioritize shutting down wide receiver Calvin Austin III this fall. As the star of Memphis’ offense, Austin will handle the load in the receiving department. He led all Tigers with six catches last weekend and tallied 47 yards and a score for the offense. With the losses of Tahj Washington and Damonte Coxie, Austin was in dire need of another receiver to step up alongside him. That breakout candidate appears to be Javon Ivory after his 106-yard showing to launch the new season.
On the other side of the ball, Memphis’ defense could have started better but they quickly molded into a force. The opening sequence involved Nicholls generating an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. Then, Memphis quickly cranked up the intensity and forced punts for the remainder of the first half while the offense began to cook. The Tigers didn’t rely on turnovers as a crutch, so it was promising to see their defense record stop after stop Saturday. Free safety Quindell Johnson and middle linebacker J.J. Russell were the ringleaders of the group, each recording seven tackles while putting pressure on the opposing running backs.
Arkansas State Red Wolves outlook
The Butch Jones era officially commenced in Jonesboro. The seasoned head coach takes over a program which has a revolving door set up outside its coaching office. Jones is the sixth different full-time head coach to lead Arkansas State in the last 12 seasons, and he’ll be tasked with reinvigorating a program coming off its first losing season since 2010.
Like Memphis, Arkansas State enjoyed a tune-up game to initialize its 2021 campaign. The Red Wolves’ start to their contest could best be described as rocky. They entered halftime trailing Central Arkansas of the FCS, 7-6. But an offensive epiphany occurred after halftime and Arkansas State rattled off five second half touchdowns to secure a 40-21 win.
The Red Wolves ran a two quarterback system under head coach Blake Anderson in 2020, and that unorthodox system could potentially return with Jones at the helm. Florida State transfer James Blackman started Week 1 over incumbent quarterback Layne Hatcher, and the former Seminole produced 169 passing yards while completing 16/29 attempts.
Then Hatcher took over in the late third quarter and scorched earth. Arkansas State’s tenured quarterback completed all 12 of his attempts, firing for 150 yards and four touchdowns. His perfect performance was the primary stimulant for the Red Wolves’ second half scoring barrage. It would not be shocking to see both quarterbacks make an appearance against the Tigers this Saturday after Hatcher’s dominance off the bench.
Arkansas State’s rushing attack was better than pedestrian as the team averaged 5.0 yards per carry. That was a promising sight after the Red Wolves ranked 104th in rushing offense in 2020. No running back broke out for more than 70 yards but Yale transfer Alan Lamar handled the heaviest load by fielding 18 handoffs for 67 yards.
The Red Wolves’ roster has featured some of the top wide receivers in college football over the past two years. Omar Bayless racked up unanimous All-American honors in 2019 and Jonathan Adams was showered with several All-American selections in 2020. Now, Corey Rucker is off to a strong start in filling those shoes. Rucker hauled in nine receptions for 138 yards and three touchdowns in the opener. And he wasn’t the Red Wolves’ only productive wideout. TCU transfer Te’Vailance Hunt chipped in six receptions and 96 yards, proving that Memphis’ defensive backs will have their hands full this weekend.
Arkansas State’s defense handled the run with ease against Central Arkansas, and the unit produced many stops before the running backs broke past the line of scrimmage. Tennessee transfer defensive end Kivon Bennett factored heavily into limiting Central Arkansas to 2.1 yards per carry. He accumulated three tackles for loss and was responsible for the Red Wolves’ lone sack in the opener. However, they’ll need that pressure to amplify when facing a stout offensive line that is protecting a true freshman quarterback.
After one week, a clear takeaway from Arkansas State was how well the program reloaded through the transfer portal this offseason. With new additions in Blackman, Lamar, Hunt, and Bennett serving as key contributors in Week 1 — not to mention Hatcher is a former Alabama transfer — it is evident the Red Wolves are benefiting from the transfer movement more than almost any program in college football this season.
Memphis and Arkansas State are far from the teams they were in 2020. The Tigers lost plenty of major contributors from a year ago and the Red Wolves changed head coaches. Not too much was learned about these teams after recording comfortable wins over FCS squads in Week 1.
But Arkansas State presents the advantage in the quarterback department. The Red Wolves have two viable, veteran passers in James Blackman and Layne Hatcher and the quarterbacks are gifted with an impressive slew of receivers. That receiving group is pitted against a Memphis aerial defense which ranked 12th-to-last in most passing yards yielded per game in 2020.
Memphis is still breaking in a true freshman quarterback who wasn’t expected to start Week 1. Thus, more question marks linger within the Tigers’ offense. However, Memphis can attain the offensive edge if the line dominates the trenches and if Brandon Thomas and Co. are able to break past Arkansas State’s run defense.
The Tigers are slight favorites on the road and won this matchup handily in 2020. Now, the scene shifts to Jonesboro and Arkansas State’s offensive weapons will be enough for the Red Wolves to pull off a statement upset.
Prediction: Arkansas State 37, Memphis 31