MEMPHIS — Maybe it’s a good time to take a break.
While the future of Arkansas State’s series with rival Memphis remains uncertain, the Tigers left little room for doubt in what will be their final meeting for at least a few years.
After winning four of the last five meetings, Arkansas State was no match for an inspired Memphis team that dominated from the start in a convincing 31-7 victory over the Red Wolves Saturday at the Liberty Bowl.
“They played hard, they played well, they made plays,” new ASU coach Bryan Harsin said. “They had explosive plays and we didn’t have enough. They came out and they started fast.”
For a third straight week, Arkansas State (2-2) had a hard time stopping its opponent. This time, though, the Red Wolves couldn’t keep up offensively and didn’t create turnovers.
Memphis (1-2) scored on its first two possessions, took control of the game on both sides of the ball and finished with 505 yards offense. It was the Tigers’ highest output since the 2008 season.
The Tigers pounded out 329 rushing yards and averaged 7.3 yards a carry while taking advantage of ASU’s over-pursuit. The Red Wolves got crossed up on several misdirection plays that went for big gains.
Arkansas State’s defense was in trouble most of the day.
“They just picked the right play at the right time,” ASU safety Sterling Young said. “They started out going to the teeth of the defense and then busted it back out. It was a lot of misdirection and sometimes (we) didn’t hold the point on the backside.”
Memphis running back Marquis Warford rushed for 173 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries, while Brandon Hayes had 114 yards and a score.
Warford ripped off impressive runs of 47 and 63 yards, and also had a 16-yard touchdown carry. But it was Hayes who set the tone early with big gains on plays that started one way and ended in the opposite direction.
Memphis scored on its first two possessions and led 14-0 a little more than halfway through the first quarter.
Harsin indicated ASU didn’t play with the intensity he hoped for, but backed off from saying the team was flat.
“Each and every game, you have to come out there and be prepared to play,” Harsin said. “Not that we weren’t prepared, it’s just we needed to make the plays in those early situations that we didn’t make. That comes down, as we know in games like this, it comes down to plays. They made more plays early.”
Outside of one drive and a couple of sporadic moments, Arkansas State was hardly the explosive offensive team it had been the previous three weeks.
The Red Wolves came into the game No. 15 in the nation in total offense but managed just 255 yards, including a season-low 74 yards rushing.
New ASU quarterback Adam Kennedy had his worst game, struggling to complete passes while under constant pressure.Kennedy was 20-of-37 passing for 166 yards and no TDs. He also threw his first interception.
But the real issue for Kennedy was the duress he was under.
Memphis sacked the ASU quarterback seven times to tie a school record, including 2 ½ sacks by defensive end Martin Ifedi and 2 by end Terry Redden.
“A credit to their defense, they were really good today,” Kennedy said. “They were dropping their outside linebackers into the lanes outside, taking away some of our easy throws that we’ve been hitting the last couple of games, and then they were just able to create some pressure. As you saw, it was a rough day.”
Kennedy was forced to abandon the pocket on numerous occasions to avoid the Tigers’ rush.
Memphis mostly used three-man fronts, often dropping eight defenders into coverage. But the Tigers won the battles up front and consistently broke through ASU’s offensive line.
ASU center Bryce Giddens said the Tigers showed some things the Red Wolves hadn’t seen before.
“From what I could tell, they were almost faking a zone blitz but then the guys that we thought were zone blitzing, they were hanging around and ended up making the play,” Giddens said. “We’ve just got to adjust to that earlier.”
Memphis took the opening possession and scored in just under three minutes.
The Tigers drove 77 yards on seven plays and punched the ball into the end zone on Hayes’ 6-yard sprint out to the left side.
Arkansas State was forced to punt and Memphis return man Keiwone Malone scooped Paul Jones’ line-drive kick on the run for a 31-yard gain to the ASU 36.
Four plays later, Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch used play action to lure in the Red Wolves, then flipped a pass to tight end Alan Cross for a 6-yard score.
Jake Elliot’s point-after kick gave Memphis a quick 14-0 lead.
“They got momentum early and they kept it the whole game,” Giddens said.
ASU responded with its only score of the day.
The Red Wolves went to their hurry-up tempo and moved down field behind a series of three quick passes to Julian Jones.
Sophomore quarterback Fredi Knighten came in and found J.D. McKissic open on a short route, and McKissic turned it into a 15-yard touchdown. McKissic got to the sideline, then jumped the final four yards into the end zone to make it 14-7 with 5:03 left in the first quarter.
“I thought our tempo was great, I thought our execution was great,” Harsin said of the lone scoring drive.
But the positive plays were scarce from there for the Red Wolves. Memphis drove for two more scores before halftime to lead 24-7 at the break.
Elliot capped a 79-yard drive to the ASU 5 with a 23-yard field goal that put the Tigers up 17-7. And, after Memphis held again, Malone broke free for a 28-yard punt return to the ASU 34 to set up another score.
Memphis’ Sam Craft appeared to be held up at the line of scrimmage but bounced out of a pile of defenders and scored on a 5-yard run for a 24-7 lead.
Harsin was disappointed in the number of missed tackles by the Red Wolves.“We need to improve on tackling,” Harsin said. “There’s no doubt about that. That’s one (problem) that did show up in this game. They had some good misdirection (plays) that they hit, and I thought their backs did a nice job of bouncing and circling the field.”
Memphis had a chance to put the game away with another score late in the first half. But the Tigers stalled on downs at the ASU 1 when the Red Wolves sniffed out a trick play on fourth-and-goal.
Arkansas State went away quietly, though, never threatening to score again.
The Red Wolves had six possessions in the second half and crossed midfield twice. They were forced to punt four times, turned the ball over on downs twice and had 121 yards offense after the break.
“We didn’t execute very well and I think that was the key,” ASU defensive tackle Ryan Carrethers said.
The win gave Memphis a 29-24-5 edge in the series and snapped ASU’s two-game win streak. There are no other games currently scheduled between the two rivals.