If there’s a single team capable of dethroning No. 6 Houston in the American Athletic Conference West Division, it’s Memphis.
We learned that much Thursday night.
Thanks to a 27-0 run beginning late in the third quarter, Memphis (4-1, 1-0) was able to shake off a sluggish start to beat Temple (3-3, 1-1) in the Liberty Bowl by a final score of 34-27, becoming the biggest threat — next to the Cougars — to represent the West in the conference title game in December.
“That was an unbelievable football game,” said first-year Memphis coach Mike Norvell during his postgame press conference. “You have to give hats off to Temple. They came in and played extremely tough. Offensively, we really had a couple of setbacks and weren’t clicking the way we would have liked to have started. I’ll tell you, our defense battled.”
Down 13-0 with just seconds to spare before the half, kicker Jake Elliot connected on a field goal to get the Tigers on the board. That was just the beginning.
Elliot hit a 42-yarder to bring the score within a touchdown before the floodgates opened. Running back Doroland Dorceus unleashed a 71-yard touchdown run to change the complexion of the game. Linebacker Genard Avery returned an interception for a score less than a minute later that consolidated the momentum shift and gave Memphis the lead for good at 20-13. Then freshman back Darrell Henderson added a 28-yard touchdown of his own with 8:14 left in the game.
“We had a lead at halftime. We had the chance to put (Memphis) away,” said Temple coach Matt Rhule.
“Too many penalties. We got the ball down to the three-yard line and moved the ball back and we missed a field goal. If you miss two field goals and you (give up) a kick return for a touchdown, it’s hard to win. Our kids always fight hard, they play hard. There were some amazing individual performances. At the end of the day, we weren’t able to win the game.”
Temple quarterback Phillip Walker, who finished with 445 yards passing and two touchdowns but also threw two costly picks, gave his best effort in bringing the Owls back by finding Jahad Thomas on a 61-yard score with 6:47 remaining, but any hopes of a late comeback or overtime were crushed on the ensuing kickoff — Tony Pollard closed the doors shut with 95-yard return and Chauncey Lanier’s interception with 18 seconds left gave Memphis the seven-point win.
Riley Ferguson ended the game 17-of-26 for 174 yards and the Memphis backfield totaled 149 yards and two scores. Avery led the defense with nine tackles, a sack and of course, and interception returned for a touchdown.
“I’m so proud of our football team and the guys in that locker room right now for the work they put in,” said Norvell.
“We talk all the time — it matters how you start, but it’s all about how you finish. The second half, our guys came out and played at an exceptionally high level. I’m so proud of them. A lot of great individual performances, but collectively as a football team, that’s what it’s supposed to be like.”
Memphis may still have some work to do before it can be considered a New Year’s Six bowl contender, but luckily its upcoming schedule aligns perfectly and should allow plenty of room for continued growth and improvement. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), Memphis should have no trouble getting past its next four opponents — three of four which come on the road — to improve to 8-1 before season-defining meetings with USF, Cincinnati, and Houston.
The formula predicts the Tigers to go 1-2 during that vigorous three-game November stretch, with less than a 40-percent chance to come out on top against both USF and Houston, but a 64.7-percent shot at taking out the Bearcats on the road.
“(This win) shows that we have a good football team,” Norvell added. “But we are not even close to where we need to be. We have to continue to build and get better.”
History says Memphis will put up a fight when hosting the conference’s No. 1- and 2-ranked teams later this year. Since 2014, it leads the AAC with a 14-2 record at home, blowing away opponents by average of 32.1 points in those wins, including last season’s remarkable 37-24 upset over No. 13 Ole Miss. The Tigers are riding a three-game winning streak against USF and are still fighting off nightmares from their 21-point collapse in Houston last fall.
Until then, however, it’s all about continuing to stay under the radar and getting to mid-November healthy and unscathed. If the Tigers can follow through with that plan the next few weeks, we’ll certainly be talking about the Tigers in high regard by season’s end.