JONESBORO — Arkansas State scored more points in Saturday night's football game against Memphis than in any of its previous 59 meetings with the Tigers.
The Red Wolves needed a few more.
ASU trailed by as many as 19 points while giving up six touchdown plays of 40 or more yards, yet the Red Wolves stayed in the game to the final snap. James Blackman's 56-yard pass fell incomplete on the last play as Memphis finally sealed a 55-50 victory.
The teams combined for 1,361 yards in the highest-scoring game of their series. While the Red Wolves (1-1) never led, the Tigers (2-0) never had complete control until Blackman's final pass attempt was knocked to the turf at the front of the end zone.
"Really, really proud of our players. We had every opportunity to, I don't like the word quit, but they had every opportunity to maybe get out of the game a little bit and they kept fighting and fighting," ASU head coach Butch Jones said. "We talked all week long about it being a four-quarter game and playing through four quarters, and we had an opportunity to win the game at the end."
Memphis averaged 9.7 yards per play while rolling up 680 total yards. The Tigers snapped the ball from midfield or beyond on five of their eight touchdowns, three of which covered 70 or more yards.
Running back Brandon Thomas, a redshirt freshman from North Little Rock, had touchdown runs of 70 and 75 yards while leading the Tigers with 191 yards on 18 carries. Freshman quarterback Seth Henigan completed 22-of-33 passes for 417 yards and five touchdowns.
Memphis' Calvin Austin III had touchdown receptions of 55, 50 and 75 yards while catching six passes for 239 yards. Tiger tight end Sean Dykes caught nine passes for 143 yards.
"Our tackling, our fundamentals, our discipline to execute on defense was not there," Jones said. "Too many big explosion plays, and that's a really good football team that we played, but the big plays are unacceptable, the missed tackles are unacceptable. We'll get to work on that, but I thought our players competed for 60 minutes, had an opportunity to win the game at the end and came up a little bit short."
ASU's quarterback competition took another turn as Blackman, the Red Wolves' first-game starter, replaced starter Layne Hatcher in a reversal from the Central Arkansas game.
Hatcher was 23-of-38 passing for 276 yards and a touchdown in two-plus quarters Saturday, also running for a touchdown. The Red Wolves trailed 41-23 when Jones switched to Blackman with 2:32 remaining in the third quarter.
"I thought our team needed a spark. Layne did some good things, but I just thought we needed a spark and I've said it, we're very fortunate and blessed to have two individuals in our football program like Layne Hatcher and James Blackman," Jones said. "They're both good football players and even better people, and great competitors. It was just a gut feel. I thought we needed a little change in momentum and obviously James was able to do that."
Blackman rallied the Red Wolves while completing 19-of-28 passes for 308 yards and four touchdowns. He led ASU to the end zone within four plays of entering the game, completing a 46-yard pass to Jeff Foreman on his first attempt and a 23-yard touchdown pass to Corey Rucker on his second.
"He made so many plays on the field that it opened up more outside runs and throws for us," Foreman said of Blackman.
Blackman said he rushed through reads and missed open receivers in the opener against UCA, when he was 16-of-26 for 169 yards.
"Last week was my first time in a game in a long time. I played two games at Florida State in 2020," Blackman said. "That was my last two games playing, and I hadn't played since, so getting back out there last week was a bit of me just knocking the rust off, getting back in the groove and feeling what it feels like to be in the game, to be in the atmosphere of fans and things of that nature."
Blackman threw an 89-yard touchdown pass to Foreman with 10:54 left in the game. He had touchdown passes of 1 yard to Adam Jones and 5 yards to Akeem Hayes as ASU scored the final 14 points.
"That was the James Blackman we saw in training camp where he's very aggressive, very confident, very rhythm-oriented in his drop," Jones said.
Hatcher and Blackman combined to pass for 584 yards, an ASU single-game record. The Red Wolves finished with 681 total yards, including 97 rushing yards on 32 carries.
Te'Vailance Hunt had nine receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown; Foreman caught eight passes for 198 yards and a touchdown; and Rucker had five receptions for 76 yards and one touchdown.
Henigan threw a 55-yard touchdown pass to Austin on the game's first possession. The Tigers went up 13-0 on a 17-yard touchdown pass to Dykes that finished a 92-yard drive later in the period.
Hunt beat one-on-one coverage to catch a 53-yard touchdown pass from Hatcher with 4:20 left in the opening quarter, only to see Thomas answer 25 seconds later with a 70-yard run to make the score 20-7.
ASU turned two Tiger fumbles, the second a deflection on a punt, into Blake Grupe field goals of 48 and 37 yards. Memphis answered again as Dykes caught a 40-yard touchdown pass at the 5:09 mark of the second quarter.
Hatcher scrambled to the end zone on a 12-yard run with 1:30 remaining in the half, cutting the Red Wolves' deficit to 27-20, but again they could not hold. Thomas broke free for a 75-yard touchdown run 10 seconds later.
"There were a lot of times we were out of our gaps," Jones said. "You have to be a gap-control defense to stop the run and everyone is responsible for a gap, and a lot of times they split us and divided our defense. You can't have that."
Hatcher drove ASU to another field goal, Grupe's 34-yard kick on the final play, to pull the Red Wolves within 34-23 at halftime.
ASU stalled on its first three drives of the second half as Memphis took a 41-23 lead on Henigan's 50-yard touchdown pass to Austin. Up 41-30 to start the fourth quarter, the Tigers finished a 65-yard touchdown drive on Marquavius Weaver's 4-yard run with 11:46 to play.
Foreman beat one-on-one coverage two plays later on an 89-yard touchdown reception. Memphis had one more response, Henigan's 75-yard touchdown strike to Austin, and led 55-36 with 10:39 to play.
"They did a good job of always answering us," Jones said. "We'd get the momentum back, we'd score on offense and then we could never get off the field defensively."
Blackman led touchdown drives of 65 and 87 yards as ASU closed within five points. The Red Wolves forced a punt and got the ball back at their 4-yard line with 53 seconds to play and no timeouts remaining.
Four pass completions took the Red Wolves to their 44 with time for one play, Blackman's desperation heave.
"This is a learning step, another lesson that we could take and put in our back pocket, understand where we went wrong and go fix the mistakes we made. But we have a lot of good that we can grow from," Blackman said. "If we just keep capitalizing off the good and keep getting better, keeping stacking the days and making the days count, and not counting the days, we'll be in great shape."
The Red Wolves travel to Seattle to play Washington next Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:15 p.m.