In a game played roughly 70 miles from Memphis, two touchdowns of 70-plus yards from a running back who did not play last season were key elements in a mix that allowed the University of Memphis Tigers to get out of Jonesboro, Arkansas with a five-point win over Arkansas State.
The Tigers’ 55-50 victory last Saturday came in a game where the offense amassed 680 yards and the defense gave up the exact same amount of yardage to the Red Wolves (1-1).
U of M running back Brandon Thomas led a balanced attack with a career high 191 yards on 18 carries and two touchdowns for the Tigers (2-0). It was the first time in the Memphis program’s history that a player covered 70-plus yards twice to score touchdowns in the same game.
Head coach Ryan Silverfield put Thomas’ ascension in this context: “If I had asked you last year to pick him (Thomas) out of a lineup, you would have said, ‘Who is that?’ We thought he had a bright future here and we saw that this spring.”
Freshman quarterback Seth Henigan also continued to impress, completing 22 passes for 417 yards and five touchdowns. He has yet to throw an interception in two games.
“They (Thomas and Henigan) know they are just now scratching the surface and have to do work to get better,” said Silverfield.
As for the game, “They are all hard,” Silverfield said. “There are no easy games in college football. We found a way at the end to get a stop. Was I pleased? No. We have a lot of work to do but we have time to do it. We have to hurry up and get a lot of things fixed.”
Senior linebacker Thomas Pickens had a career-high 10 tackles for a Memphis defense looking to show improvement against Mississippi State’s Bulldogs, who take on the Tigers during a nationally televised game set to kick off at 3 p.m. on Saturday at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. ESPN2 will handle the telecast.
The Tigers’ Calvin Austin III had a career day, with six catches for 239 yards and three touchdowns. It was the second most receiving yards in the school’s history behind Anthony’s Miller’s 250-yard performance against Tulsa in 2016.
“He (Miller) was a senior my freshman year,” said Austin. “It is surreal when you put it all into perspective. … It was a dream to put up big performances in big games. I am just blessed to just be in this position … to have a great supporting team around me.”
The play of freshmen Henigan and Thomas is not really a surprise, Austin said.
“When Seth first got here, he was always poised. The first time he threw he just caught everyone’s attention. We knew what Brandon could do. He would always run hard. He has that ‘want to.’”
The Tigers jumped out to a 20-10 first-quarter lead and were up 34-23 at the half. lead into the half. They were in control and looking unstoppable until the last half of the fourth quarter. Then came two Memphis three-and-out drives and an inability to stop a determined Arkansas State offense until the final drive of the game.
“They put together a great game plan. They have great football players,” Silverfield said, particularly referencing Arkansas State’s passing game (582) yards. “We put ourselves in bad situations. It starts with the pass rush to the linebackers in coverage to the DB; everyone has to win their battles.”
Henigan is confident the Tigers “will be up for the task” against the SEC’s Mississippi State.
“When I can look out there and see veteran guys like Calvin Austin and (tight end) Sean Dykes, when I see those guys they give me a lot of confidence,” Henigan said of his approach to playing.
“Our whole O-line has some experience. Just knowing that those guys have my back puts confidence in me that I can play to the level that I am expected to play at.”
* Tight end Sean Dykes had 143 yards on nine receptions.
* The Tigers’ 680 total yards on offense are the most for the team since gaining 703 yards against UCF on October 17, 2020.
* On the Memphis offense’s high-level execution on the road, Henigan said, “We executed so well in practice. … We were locked in on assignments. We watched a lot of film and it translated ….”