Memphis tight end Sean Dykes knows it’s been three years since the Tigers lost a home game.
The last time a visiting team beat Memphis at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium was Oct. 13, 2018, when UCF left town with a 31-30 win.
Since then, the Tigers have won 16 straight home contests. It’s a streak Dykes wants to extend at 3 p.m. Saturday when Mississippi State visits Memphis in a battle of 2-0 teams.
“I want to be the Liberty Bowl packed, loud and fanatical,” Dykes said Tuesday. “Give us everything you got — we’re going to need it.”
Memphis handled Nicholls State at home on Sept. 4, a 42-17 win, before hitting the road and outlasting Arkansas State 55-50 on Saturday.
But the Tigers know a Southeastern Conference program like the Bulldogs presents another challenge altogether.
“Mississippi State’s a fantastic team, undefeated on the year,” head coach Ryan Silverfield said Monday. “They’ve been absolutely dynamic in all three phases.”
The Bulldogs are coming off a 24-10 win over NC State in which their defense shined, limiting Wolfpack running backs Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person, Jr. to a combined 50 rushing yards.
Memphis offensive coordinator Kevin Johns praised Mississippi State’s defenders at every level — the massive defensive linemen up front; the “thick,” physical linebackers; the standout secondary.
“This defense is nationally known,” Johns said Tuesday. “These guys are the real deal. It’s been proven year after year. We’ve got our hands full. We’re going to have to give them all we got and hope it’s enough on Saturday.”
The Tigers’ offense is led by Dykes, redshirt freshman running back Brandon Thomas and freshman quarterback Seth Henigan. But it’s wide receiver Calvin Austin III who might be Memphis’ most dynamic playmaker, putting up 239 yards and three touchdowns against Arkansas State on just three catches.
Austin said he’s excited to battle Mississippi State cornerbacks Martin Emerson and Emmanuel Forbes, both of whom have excelled through their first two games.
“I’m just looking forward to competing against guys who are NFL-quality corners,” Austin said. “I think it’ll be a great matchup. They’re kind of taller guys, so that always provides a challenge.”
On defense, the Bulldogs will be hoping to exploit a Memphis team that gave up several big plays last week, including touchdowns of 53 and 89 yards.
Silverfield said his team had only one true busted coverage but that the Tigers’ inability to get to the football cost them.
“There were times where we could have made plays on the ball, and that’s what we’ve got to be able to do: execute a little better,” he said.
Silverfield praised Mississippi State coach Mike Leach’s ability to spread the field with his Air Raid scheme, which requires an able quarterback to execute. The second-year Memphis head coach said the Bulldogs have the right player in place.
“Will Rogers is a fantastic player,” Silverfield said. “Smart. Heady. He understands this system — gets the ball out with a quick release. He’s got the good length and can see over his offensive line. He’s as capable as any quarterback we’ll see, and we know what he’s able to do.”
Silverfield also knows what Lideatrick Griffin is able to do, having watched the Bulldogs returner go for 70 yards against Louisiana Tech and a 100-yard score against NC State.
He said kicker Noah Grant must be smart with ball placement and that the Tigers’ kickoff unit as a whole has to be solid to limit another big play from Griffin.
“We’ve been fortunate to have some good kickoff returners here at Memphis, but Mississippi State’s returners are as special as they come,” Silverfield said. “ We’ve got to be sound with what we’re doing. It’s just having that understanding of what we need to do as a kickoff unit and to be sound with our assignments, and I think we’ll be fine.”
Silverfield said winning a game like Saturday’s can “go a long way” in continuing the excitement of a Tigers team with 20 wins over the past two seasons. But even though Memphis has a concept of what it will take to beat the Bulldogs, putting that plan into action against an SEC team is easier said than done.
“We know it’s going to be a heck of a matchup, but our young men are up for the challenge,” Silverfield said. “We can’t wait to see a packed Liberty Bowl this Saturday.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.