If you really want to know the story of the Memphis Tigers' 33-28 loss to the Arkansas State Red Wolves in front of over 30,000 fans in Jonesboro Saturday night, look no further than these final statistics:
Memphis ran 56 offensive plays for 293 yards. Arkansas State ripped off 97 plays (third most in school history) for 619 yards.
"We're not into playing games close," said a somber Justin Fuente after the game. "We've got to learn to do a lot of things in this program. We've gotta learn how to win."
The Tigers jumped out to a 21-10 lead with 3:46 remaining in the first half, but Arkansas State outscored Memphis 23-7 from that point forward to pull away to the win.
Perhaps the most critical moment in time came with 5:22 to go in the game when Memphis faced a 4th-and-1 at their own 44-yard line. Fuente ended up sending out his secret weapon, punter Tom Hornsey, for a punt.
Memphis would not get the ball back until there were just 11 ticks left on the clock.
The weary Tiger defense simply didn't have enough legs left to make the stop.
"I thought the defense was getting tired, yeah, I really did," Fuente acknowledged. "That's only understandable (when the opponent runs 97 plays). We would love to have held the ball longer offensively, run the ball better."
Still, Fuente felt that punting at that juncture, trailing 33-28, was the right call to make.
"I thought about it as much time as I'm allowed to," Fuente explained. "But I felt like we had timeouts, and our punter is really good. I felt pretty good that we'd have a chance to get (Arkansas State) pinned back there (deep in their own territory).
"The bottom line is 3rd-and-1. You've gotta make it. We didn't. We punted 'em deep and then, well, you guys saw the rest."
Indeed, Hornsey, who had never played a down of American football in his native Australia before coming to the Memphis football team under Larry Porter, boomed a clutch 51-yard punt and anchored the Red Wolves at their own 5-yard line, but the weary Tiger defense did not hold.
Hornsey punted 8 times for 374 yards (46.8 yards per kick) and pinned Arkansas State inside it's own 20-yard line 7 times.
Memphis got the ball back on downs at their own 14 with 11 seconds to go but could not advance.
Though Coach Fuente does not believe in moral victories, it's hard not to see progress after Memphis was massacred, 47-3, last season on this same field by the Red Wolves.
"The bottom line is we prepared to win," Fuente said forcefully. "I mean, if you want to split hairs (you can) compare where they were last year in this match-up and that kind of stuff, I guess. . . With that said, I think that the team is out there that you can be proud of."
"We're not gonna think about anything that happened last year," said sophomore slot receiver Keiwone Malone, who had a break-out night with 7 catches for 90 yards and a 41-yard touchdown. "This is a new Tiger team. We're trying to establish a new identity, which we're on the verge of doing now.
"We're gonna just keep moving forward and working hard."
"We're not going to quit, there's no quit in this team," junior quarterback Jacob Karam said emphatically. "We've made some incredible strides. We're gonna keep going. I tip my hat off to Arkansas State. Those guys did a heckuva job, coaches and players. They deserved (the win)."
Memphis received a big shot in the arm from the returns of junior running back Jai Steib (9 rushes for 34 yards) and senior defensive end Zach Gholson (6 tackles) from injury.
"Getting Steib back gives us some depth," Fuente began. "We knew that he wouldn't obviously jump in there and carry the ball 35 times but it was good to have him back. We need some depth back there in the backfield.
"And when you play that many snaps on defense, every healthy body you can find is important. It was great to have (Gholson) back. It's his senior year and he'd been struggling with that (lower leg injury), been through a procedure or two. I was happy for him, to get him back, and happy for the team."
Offensively, junior Jerrell Rhodes led the way with 13 rushes for 70 yards while Jacob Karam added 40 on 7 attempts. Karam also passed for 154 yards and 2 touchdowns, completing 14-of-24 attempts.
Junior safety Lonnie Ballentine, III was active with 15 total tackles on defense, while sophomore Charles Harris added 13 tackles and junior defensive lineman Anthony Brown chipped in with 9. Junior nose tackle Johnnie Farms led the team with 2 tackles for loss.
There's no time for the Tigers to wallow in their second consecutive close defeat to begin the season. Next up is Middle Tennessee State Saturday night in the Liberty Bowl. Kickoff is set for 6:00 p.m.