Rivalry could be at end of road after today


MEMPHIS — Arkansas State and Memphis share a rivalry that dates back nearly a century.

The future of the series is sketchy, though, with nothing scheduled between the two the next few years and nothing planned long term.

So when the Red Wolves and Tigers meet this afternoon at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, there will be a flood of emotion on the field and in the stands. For now, it is one last chance for two schools separated by about a one-hour drive to play with honor and pride at stake.

Kickoff for the 58th meeting between ASU and Memphis is 3:30 p.m.

“It’s a big game,” ASU junior safety Sterling Young said. “It’s important to them and it’s important to us as well. It’s a rivalry dating back to I don’t know how long. This is probably the last of the rivalry for a long time, so it’s a pretty big game.”

The first meeting between Arkansas State (2-1) and Memphis (0-2) took place 99 years ago in 1914. The Tigers own the overall series edge 28-24-5, but the Red Wolves have won four of five, including the last two.

While there have been breaks in the series, ASU and Memphis have always found a way to bring the rivalry back.

Arkansas State’s administration hopes to have the Tigers back on the schedule soon. Memphis’ administration has taken more of a wait-and-see approach.

It’s that uncertainty that amplifies the importance of today’s meeting.

“We want to end the series with a win,” said ASU running back Sirgregory Thornton, who is from Memphis. “I’m confident in the team, the coaches and in the game plan that we’re going to go out and play hard, and hopefully we will get the win.”

Arkansas State has dominated the series in recent years, including an embarrassing 47-3 victory over the Tigers in 2011. The Red Wolves survived a couple of special teams breakdowns to win 33-28 last year.

ASU erased a 31-6 halftime deficit to win 35-31 in 2007, and the Red Wolves won on a Hail Mary pass from Corey Leonard to Patrick Higgins the year before.

Regardless of the year, the situation or the records, the matchup almost always brings out the best from both.

“It’s very intense,” Thornton said.

New Arkansas State coach Bryan Harsin is getting his first taste of the rivalry.

He understands the history and expects an emotional football game. But Harsin is hoping to keep his team grounded and focused so it continues toward its season-long goals uninterrupted.

ASU bounced back from a 38-9 loss to Auburn with a 41-34 victory over Troy in its Sun Belt Conference opener last week.

“The reality of it is we know it’s a big game and we have a tremendous amount of respect for this opponent, for their coaching staff and their entire football team,” Harsin said. “The reality of it is we have to go and prepare ourselves for a football game and, good or bad, all the outside noise, we can’t worry about that.”

Five players on Arkansas State’s roster are from Memphis or the surrounding area, while the Memphis roster is overflowing with homegrown talent.

For many of those who will take the field today, this won’t be the first, second or third time to play one another. They’ve been competing on the gridiron since high school, which makes this all the more important.

“It’s going to be the last game for a while, so the guys are really excited for it,” said ASU quarterback Adam Kennedy, a newcomer to the rivalry. “Everyone knows everybody it seems, so there’s a lot of buildup for this game.”

Memphis limps into the matchup following losses in its first two games.

The Tigers were handled by Duke in the season opener 28-14, then lost on a late fourth-quarter field goal at Middle Tennessee State last week, 17-15.

Memphis has struggled offensively — the Tigers are averaging 294 yards and 14.5 points a game. But UM’s defense has been productive and kept it close in both games.

Meanwhile, Arkansas State has been explosive offensively. The Red Wolves are No. 15 in the nation in total offense with 544 yards a game while averaging 37.3 points a game.

It is a matchup of strengths on opposite sides of the football.

“It should be a battle,” ASU receiver Julian Jones said. “It’s a good defense versus a good offense.”

There’s also a great number of reasons to play well for both teams. But one seems to outweigh them all.

“It will be a huge game,” Young said. “The bragging rights are up for the taking.”