Big plays and turnovers decide football games.
Tonight at the Liberty Bowl, Memphis scored a touchdown on a blocked punt and a defensive strip of Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato. The Tigers forced five turnovers and did not commit a single one themselves.
A script for victory, right?
Well, the Tigers’ leading rusher tonight was their punter. And they botched two point-after attempts. If you’ve followed the 2011 Memphis Tigers at all, you know two points erased from the scoreboard means one thing: a one-point loss. Final score: Marshall 23, Memphis 22.
“We played well in spurts,” said coach Larry Porter after the game. “The resolve of this team is something, but the inability to finish is frustrating. We just didn’t make the plays.”
For the second time in six days, Memphis let a fourth-quarter lead greater than 10 points evaporate. As deflating as last Saturday’s 41-35 loss to UAB was, Porter’s squad earned some credit for showing up on a cold night in a near-empty stadium, and fighting until the final play. (A fourth-down pass to freshman Kevin Wright fell incomplete on a play many of the few remaining fans considered pass-interference against the Herd defender.)
“It wasn’t about taking our foot off the gas,” emphasized Porter. “We’re not about that. We talked about playing a full game. We just didn’t make the plays in the fourth quarter.”
Just 77 seconds into the game, Marshall receiver Antavious Wilson took a pass at the Memphis 20-yard-line — with no Tiger defender within 20 yards of him — and pranced in for a 44-yard touchdown. It appeared the rout was on once again for a Memphis team that had given up 35.4 points per game.
But freshman quarterback Taylor Reed led an impressive 10-play drive that included completions to freshmen Wright and Reggie Travis before Billy Smith ran the ball into the end zone from a yard out.
The score remained tied at 7 until 19 seconds into the second quarter, when yet another freshman — Kendrick Golden — picked up a blocked Marshall punt and ran it 36 yards for a go-ahead touchdown. (The ensuing point-after attempt by Paulo Henriques was blocked.)
In a game of strange plays, Tom Hornsey’s punt less than two minutes into the second half was the stuff of Charlie Brown. Marshall’s Derek Mitchell broke through the Tiger line to block the kick, but Hornsey himself managed to recover the twice-stricken football from the turf. Only after being urged by astonished teammates did Hornsey take off for the sideline, pigskin in hand. His 27-yard scamper gave the ball back to the Memphis offense at the Memphis 49-yard-line. Alas, three plays later, Hornsey got to test his kicking leg again and let it sail.
With the Tigers up 16-10 and almost four minutes gone in the fourth quarter, Memphis defensive tackle Tommy Walker wrapped up Cato, allowing defensive end Frank Trotter to strip the ball and dash 18 yards to the end zone for a lead that could have been decisive. But the snap on the point-after was fumbled. And the ensuing kickoff was returned 65 yards by the Herd’s Andre Booker. Ten seconds later, Tron Martinez ran the ball in from 21 yards to cut the Tiger lead to 22-17.
Having replaced Reed early in the third quarter (Reed suffered a lower-leg injury), Andy Summerlin completed 11 passes, but not enough to sustain drives in the fourth quarter. With 6:10 to play, Marshall’s Travon Van ran through the Tiger defense for 19 yards and what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.
The Tigers recovered a Marshall fumble with less than two minutes to play and had the ball, first down, at the Herd 46-yard-line. Summerlin tossed a ball over the middle to Tannar Rehrer — who earlier in the game caught his 60th pass of the season — only to see the ball slip through Rehrer’s fingers near the 20-yard-line. On the next and final play, the attempt to Wright fell incomplete.
“They lined up and really got after us,” said Porter. “We gave up two or three big plays, and that was the difference. It’s gonna hurt to watch this film tomorrow. We had the opportunity to take control of the game and we didn’t do it.” Now 2-9, the Tigers finish their season with the Black-and-Blue Game at Southern Miss on November 26th.