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Memphis football tops Arkansas State in season opener

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USA TODAY

MEMPHIS — There were no fireworks or smoke or an inflated Tiger head for the Memphis football team to run through. There was barely a crowd with just 4,507 fans due to social distancing requirements at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

It was perhaps the strangest start most had seen for a recent Memphis opener. But the finish brought the same joy with Memphis taking a 37-24 win against Arkansas State.

Ryan Silverfield got his first win as Memphis head coach after losing his debut at the Cotton Bowl in December. Here’s five things we learned from the nearly four-hour game to kick off the 2020 season:

The Dreke Clark era is here

The sophomore’s rave reviews during fall practice were validated by his first 100-yard game in his first start. He doesn’t have the breakaway speed of Kenneth Gainwell, but he has strength as an Arkansas State defender found out.

On a 14-yard gain in the third quarter, Clark ran over a defender trying to tackle him. For fans used to Tigers backs running by defenders, it’s a different style but one that could be just effective.

Welcome back Sean Dykes

Dykes played in four games last season before a season-ending injury. During fall practice, offensive coordinator Kevin Johns said he expected him to bounce back this season.

Well the senior looked like it. He not only caught two touchdowns, but he also finished with 10 catches for 137 yards.

Memphis’ offense? Sizzle without spice

The Tigers only had three plays from scrimmage over 20 yards, but they still had 502 yards of total offense. Without Gainwell or Antonio Gibson, the Tigers didn’t show off explosive playmakers — just reliable ones.

Brady White threw four touchdown passes for the fifth time in his career and even showed off more mobility on a some designed runs. He finished with 275 yards on 26-for-36 passing.

Damonte Coxie and Calvin Austin each caught touchdowns and lineman Joseph Dorceus even showed his speed by running 25 yards after taking a direct snap on a fake punt.

The Turnover Belt returns

The Tigers didn’t have any sideline celebrations last season but they will this season under new coordinator Mike MacIntyre. And it’s a familiar one.

After Xavier Cullens recorded an interception, he ran to greet his teammates and had the WWE championship-style belt waiting for him to put on. The belt appeared again in the third quarter after a forced fumble by JJ Russell and an interception by Sylvonta Oliver in his first start.

The Tigers had a belt in 2017 and 2018 and it’ll be back as long as MacIntyre’s new defense keeps creating takeaways.

Memphis’ defense was missing players

The Tigers were without two starters in defensive back Jacobi Francis and linebacker Thomas Pickens. Neither was on the sideline after being atop the depth chart entering Saturday.

That adds to a defense already missing safety La’Andre Thomas, who was not listed on the depth chart after starting all 14 games last season. No reason was given for their absences before the game.

It showed with the Tigers’ secondary struggling, especially Oliver, who was targeted by Arkansas State’s passing attack.

You can reach Evan Barnes on Twitter (@Evan_B) or by email at [email protected]

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