JONESBORO — Like most of his teammates, Arkansas State offensive tackle Makilan Thomas has little to no experience against the Memphis Tigers.
That does not make Thomas, a redshirt freshman from Little Rock, unaware of how those in and around the program feel about taking on ASU’s nearest, most-played football rival.
“I feel it. I felt it walking in the building yesterday as well as today,” Thomas said during ASU’s weekly press conference Tuesday. “I know it’s a big rivalry game and it’s going to be a very physical fight all the way through the fourth quarter. I feel as though this is going to be a good one. I’m ready for the challenge.”
A year removed from their highest-scoring meeting, the Red Wolves (1-1) and Tigers (1-1) clash for the 61st time this evening at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium in Memphis. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m.
Memphis has a three-game winning streak in the series, which dates to 1914, and holds a 31-24-5 all-time advantage. The Tigers have won six of the last 10 meetings between the teams, including the last three on their home field.
“I’m super excited to be a part of this game. We’ve been talking about it since (Sunday), how big of a game this is for us, the same type of intensity as last year,” ASU senior defensive end Kivon Bennett said. “It was a shootout type of game. This rivalry is one that means a lot to us here. Coach (Butch) Jones has expressed that highly to us. Everybody knows what’s at stake.
“I think that we’re going to have a lot of fire and energy leading up to that, similar to how we came out against Grambling as far as intensity. We’ve got to build onto what we did versus Grambling and Ohio State leading up into this week, then adding on the fact that it’s a rivalry match and just let that add a little more fuel to the fire.”
Last year the Tigers led for all but the first 100 seconds when they came to Jonesboro, yet couldn’t relax until an ASU pass fell incomplete on the final play of their 55-50 victory.
The teams combined for 1,360 yards in a freewheeling offensive display. Memphis scored five touchdowns on plays covering 50 yards or more.
Memphis head coach Ryan Silverfield said he wouldn’t use last year’s game against ASU as a motivator for his defense.
“It’s kind of a regional rivalry, which I’m excited about, but no, we don’t harp on the past with that game,” Silverfield said. “Our players who were a part of it understand that. Some of those guys who played in that game, it’s sticking somewhere in the back of their mind, I’m sure.”
That’s certainly the case for Bennett.
“Definitely a very frustrating night. You look back at the game and we just did a poor job tackling, leading to a bunch of explosive plays that really shouldn’t have happened,” Bennett said. “It pains me, but I know it pains Coach (Rob) Harley and Coach Butch more than it pains me. We’ve got to get a feel for what they’re doing. Obviously not much of it changed from what they did last year, so we know what to expect. It’s just the execution and that aspect of it.”
ASU quarterback James Blackman completed 19 of 28 passes for 306 yards and four touchdowns in last year’s meeting, helping the Red Wolves throw for 582 yards as a team. Memphis’ Seth Henigan was 22-of-33 passing for 417 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman making his second career start.
Henigan passed for 415 yards and two touchdowns last week in Memphis’ 37-13 victory over American Athletic Conference foe Navy. After running for just 91 yards and averaging 2.8 yards per carry against the Midshipmen, the Tigers are also eager to get their running game going.
Memphis’ Brandon Thomas rushed for 191 yards and two touchdowns last year against the Red Wolves. Jevyon Ducker, a transfer from Northern Illinois, joins Thomas at running back.
“Ducker was the Freshman of the Year in the MAC, so now you add him to your rotation along with Thomas and they have as good of a backfield as we’ve seen in terms of depth and the ability to make plays, and speed on the perimeter,” said Jones, ASU’s head coach. “They do a good job of the deep ball. We know we’re going to be challenged with the deep ball, with double moves, posts, verticals, play pass, the naked game and quick screens, the tempo plays. That’s another thing we have to do a better job, getting lined up and playing faster offensively and defensively. That will be a point of emphasis as well.”
Jones said deciphering the Tigers’ defense is a challenge since they have a new coordinator and faced vastly different offenses in their first two games, Mississippi State’s pass-heavy Air Raid and Navy’s run-heavy option scheme.
Silverfield notes that ASU’s offense is different than anything the Tigers have defended, too. The Red Wolves opened with a 58-3 rout of Grambling State before being kept out of the end zone in a 45-12 loss at third-ranked Ohio State.
“It is a different scheme than what we’ve seen. They do some good things,” Silverfield said. “Say what you want, Grambling is a good FCS program and they were able to light up the scoreboard versus Grambling. They were able to put up some good points last year and I think they have some good weapons. They’ve done a nice job running the football, but they’re pretty darn multiple.”
Tonight’s game is the third in a four-game contract that brings the Tigers back to Centennial Bank Stadium again next year. The teams also have a four-year, home-and-home contract that will run from 2026-29.
With Sun Belt Conference play starting next week at Old Dominion, the Red Wolves will try to move on quickly no matter what happens this evening.
“We understand it’s a rivalry football game. We understand this game means a lot to individuals,” Jones said. “It means a lot to us, it means a lot to them, but we have a long season and every single game is important. It’s trusting the process of taking it one game at a time.”