Memphis’ Joseph Scates (6) and other players celebrate after the game between Memphis and Navy in Memphis, Tenn., on Thursday, September 14, 2023. Memphis defeated Navy 28-24. © Chris Day/The Commercial Appeal / USA TODAY NETWORK
AMES — Just two Iowa State head football coaches have led the Cyclones to as many as three eight-win seasons: Earl Bruce and Matt Campbell.
That tie could be broken in Friday’s 2:30 p.m. AutoZone Liberty Bowl matchup between Memphis (9-3) and ISU (7-5) in Memphis, Tenn. The Cyclones opened as 7.5-favorites and that number ballooned to 9.5 as game week swung into view.
Still, Campbell knows it won’t be easy to beat the nation’s seventh-best scoring offense in its home stadium for the second time during his eight-plus season tenure.
“This game has meaning to it,” said Campbell, who has guided his team to postseason play in six of the past seven seasons. “It’s a great bowl game. It’s gonna be a great crowd. (There’s) a great dynamic around the game.”
Soon it will be time to play it. With that in mind, here (below) are five Tigers to watch when they take on the Cyclones on their home turf.
QB Seth Henigan
The 6-3, 210-pound junior from Denton, Texas has been outstanding in the second half of the season, throwing 15 touchdown passes to just two interceptions in the Tigers’ past six games. Memphis won five of those games — and put up 44 or more points in each of those triumphs. Henigan produced perhaps his best game of the season in the lone setback in that span — a 38-34 loss to SMU. He threw for a season-high 402 yards and two touchdowns against the Mustangs. Henigan can also make plays with his legs, but only if the opportunity presents itself. He’s rushed for 247 yards and four touchdowns this season. Henigan’s a three-year starter and has compiled a 75-to-25 touchdown-to-interception ratio while completing 63.6 percent of his career passes.
RB Blake Watson
The swift, yet sturdy 5-9, 195-pound Old Dominion transfer personifies the term “bell cow” when it comes the the Tigers rushing game, as he’s accounted for 45 percent of his team’s carries this season. Watson’s turned that heavy usage into eye-popping numbers, too. He eclipsed the 1,000-yard barrier for the second time in his career while averaging 5.9 yards per carry and scoring 17 total touchdowns. He’s coughed up just one fumble this season and is a potent pass-catcher out of the backfield, as well. Watson, a senior, has rushed for 100 or more yards in a game 13 times in his long career and also boasts a 100-yard receiving game this season.
LB Chandler Martin
The Tigers’ leading tackler with 86 total stops is also one of the defense’s biggest playmakers. The 6-0, 215-pound sophomore from Lithonia, Ga., has forced two fumbles, recovered one, and also has two interceptions this season. One of those picks — a 60-yarder returned for a touchdown — fueled Memphis’s 44-38 overtime win over Charlotte. Martin also is one of three Tigers with two or more sacks this season and is complemented by fellow linebacker Geoffrey Cantin-Arku, who boasts similar numbers. Martin earned first-team All-AAC honors this season.
DB Simeon Blair
The 5-10, 208-pound senior from Pine Bluff, Ark., ranks third on the team in tackles. He also leads Memphis with two fumble recoveries this season and has snared two interceptions — one behind team leader Cameron Smith. Blair’s been solid in run defense, as well, totaling four to seven tackles in each of the past 11 games. He transferred in from Arkansas, where he played a significant role in the Razorbacks’ secondary for three seasons. He’s in his fifth season of college football.
WR Joseph Scates
The former Cyclone has declared for the NFL Draft, but will still play in the Liberty Bowl for the Tigers. Scates, a 6-2, 210-pound senior from Dayton, Ohio, ranks second on the team in touchdown catches with five after finishing with four last season. He’s not as prolific as leading Memphis pass catchers Roc Taylor (921 receiving yards, four touchdowns) or Demeer Blankumsee (825 yards, six touchdowns), but is coming off a season-best four-catch, 78-yard performance in the Tigers’ regular-season-closing blowout win over Temple.