Homecomings should all be so sweet. Returning to the Memphis Tiger sideline he knew so well as a player 17 years ago, Larry Porter earned his first victory as a head coach Saturday night, beating Middle Tennessee 24-17 in front of 27,965 fans at the Liberty Bowl. Turns out there will be more to discuss about the Tigers’ home opener than a vastly improved tailgating atmosphere.
Simply allowing fewer than seven touchdowns would have been considered an improvement on the Tigers’ first two games. Holding the Blue Raiders — favored to win the Sun Belt Conference — to a total of 287 yards and 17 points can be called what it is: progress. “This was a total team effort,” said a smiling Porter after drying off the Gatorade from his white vest. “I couldn’t be more proud of our team. It’s not about me; it’s about those young men.”
Senior tailback Greg Ray was the offensive star, carrying the ball 25 times for 121 yards, including a pair of 9-yard touchdown jaunts. Freshman quarterback Ryan Williams was steady, if unspectacular, in his first full game under center, completing 15 of 28 passes for 129 yards and a 22-yard scoring strike to Jermaine McKenzie in the second quarter. The Tigers did not turn the ball over against Middle Tennessee, while the defense intercepted three Logan Kilgore passes (two of them by freshman cornerback Todd Washington).
Middle Tennessee scored on its opening possession, but merely a field goal. A Paulo Henriques field goal and Ray’s first touchdown game Memphis its first lead of the season, 10-3 just over three minutes into the second quarter. On the Blue Raiders’ next possession, running back Phillip Tanner fumbled at his team’s 43-yard-line. Sophomore safety Tremaine McKenzie — Jermaine’s twin — recovered the fumble for the Tigers. Six plays later, Jermaine hauled in that touchdown pass from Williams and Memphis had a 17-3 lead.
Big plays by Middle Tennessee kept the game tight. Malcolm Beyah scored on a 52-yard catch-and-run barely a minute after Jermaine McKenzie’s touchdown. A 53-yard completion from Jeff Murphy to Sancho McDonald set up another Blue Raider touchdown, a keeper by Murphy with 1:54 left in the third quarter that closed the Tiger lead to 24-17. (Ray’s second run to paydirt happened four minutes into the second half, between the two Blue Raider scores.)
The fourth quarter was scoreless, despite Memphis being backed up inside its own 10-yard-line twice with less than 10 minutes to play. Tiger punter Tom Hornsey averaged 41.7 yards on ten punts, and twice trapped Middle Tennessee inside its own 20. When the Tigers reached Murphy for a loss on fourth-and-one in Blue Raider territory with 1:50 to play, the game was decided.
“I saw the look in their eyes,” said Porter. “In the fourth quarter, guys stepped up and made plays, and that’s what football is all about. It’s not about the scoreboard; it’s about playing with your heart. We supported each other, encouraged each other. You need to grow through adversity”
NOTES: • Senior guard Dominik Riley left the game in the first quarter with what appeared to be a right-knee injury. His status will be determined Monday. • Tiger defensive backs Marcus Ball and D.A. Griffin each delivered hits that brought the crowd to its feet in the second half. • Defensive end Frank Trotter led Memphis with six solo tackles, while end Corey Jones had a pair of tackles behind the line of scrimmage. • The Tigers, now 1-2, travel to El Paso next Saturday to face UTEP in their second Conference USA game.