As far as introductions go, the script seemed firmly in place. A crowd just shy of 40,000 filled most of a dolled-up Liberty Bowl to greet rookie coach Justin Fuente and sound off a new era for a football program desperate for a positive vibe. Before kickoff, players pranced atop a new artificial turf and stole glimpses at the mammoth, $2.5-million video board above the south end zone. The sky was sunny, the breeze steady (if a bit stiff). And the Tigers’ opponent on this opening night was not Ole Miss. Wasn’t even Mississippi State. The UT-Martin Skyhawks were in town.
Tiger tailback Jerrell Rhodes lost the ball on the first Memphis possession, but the sky didn’t fall (not yet). Quarterback Jacob Karam — also making his Memphis debut — led a 97-yard drive, highlighted by a pretty connection with reserve tight end Alan Cross down the right sideline. Rhodes carried the ball the final three yards to give the home team a 7-0 lead with 5:43 left to play in the first quarter.
The Skyhawks tied things on a 9-yard pass from Derek Carr to Quentin Sims midway through the second quarter. But a pair of botched field goals by UTM added to the sense that this would be a Memphis night, however sloppy. Early in the third quarter, Tevin Jones got his hand on a Skyhawk punt, giving Memphis the ball at the UTM 34 yard line and eventually setting up a 33-yard field goal by Paulo Henriques. Tigers back on top, script holding to form.
Then came the rain.
At 7:58 p.m, with 7:51 to play in the third quarter, severe-weather warnings came to fruition, complete with lightning, thunder, and local meteorology giant Dave Brown standing 50 feet tall on that new video board. The stadium emptied, fans huddling for shelter along the Liberty Bowl’s wide, ground level concourse. For two hours and forty minutes. (The press box briefly lost power, making some wonder about the wisdom of sitting in such a venue, ten stories closer to the lightning than most.) Not quite two hours into the delay, public address announcer Chuck Roberts emphasized that the game would be completed, however long it took to resume. (The two teams not sharing the same conference complicated rules for cancellation.)
When play finally resumed (at 10:38 p.m.), the Skyhawks completed a 75-yard drive with a five-yard dash by D.J. McNeil to take a 14-10 lead. The remaining crowd (less than half the 39,076 who originally came) seemed to take pause when the fourth quarter opened with Memphis behind by the same score. (The last time Memphis lost to a team currently in the Football Championship Subdivision was in 1972, to Drake.)
UTM kicker Cody Sandlin missed another field goal attempt (from just 19 yards) with 12:05 to play. But he extended the lead to seven points four minutes later after a pair of penalties by Tiger freshman Reggis Ball — one a horse-collar, the other a facemask — gave the Skyhawks 30 yards of field possession.
The Tigers found themselves facing fourth down and 12 yards to go at their own 27 with 3:30 left on the clock, which is where Fuente made the first bold call of his head coaching career. Karam dropped back to pass and found Keiwone Malone for 18 yards and a first down. The Texas Tech transfer scrambled for big gains to extend the drive and finally connected with senior wideout Marcus Rucker on a cut-back with just under a minute to play. Rucker dodged Skyhawk tacklers the final 20 yards to tie the game at 17.
The Memphis defense held UTM to three downs on the ensuing possession, forcing a punt. Malone fielded the ball cleanly, but lost it as he tumbled backward to the turf upon being hit, UTM recovering. (The play was reviewed but upheld by the game officials.) Sandlin then ripped the script to shreds just before midnight, connecting on a game-winning 43-yard field goal with four seconds to play.
“This was a rough loss,” said Fuente as Saturday turned to Sunday. “I was proud of some aspects of our program. But I was not proud of the penalties we had in the fourth quarter. We’re not going to tolerate that.”
Fuente became the sixth straight Memphis football coach to lose his debut. “I’m not into moral victories,” he said. “I saw our team handle adversity, and I’m not sure we have in the past. It’s a step in the right direction. Kids take their cues from the coaches, and I’ll have a very spirited preparation for next week [at Arkansas State].”
The new coach acknowledged the welcome he received, however damp and gloomy the night may have become. “The fan support was great,” he said. “I wish we could have delivered a better product for them. It’s definitely a process.”
• Rhodes gained 106 yards rushing, while Karam added 52 on the ground
• Karam completed 12 of 28 passes for 157 yards and did not throw an interception.
• Tiger punter Tom Hornsey averaged 44.2 yards on four kicks, with one going 63 yards.
• Lonnie Ballentine was the star for the Memphis defense with the first two interceptions of his career.
• Skyhawk quarterback Derek Carr completed 19 of 38 passes for 211 yards and was not sacked.