“It wasn’t pretty, but we found a way to get it done.” Justin Fuente was strangely subdued shortly after his first victory as a head football coach. And the trouble was, his comments could barely be heard over the joyous screams from the Tiger locker room next door. “These kids have been through a lot the last two years,” said Fuente. “And this year, for that matter. They deserve this. I’m proud of them.”
On a raw, wet night at the Liberty Bowl, in front of a sparse crowd (likely half the announced attendance of 17,831), the Tiger defense played like those longtime fans might recall from the Rip Scherer era of the late Nineties. Three-and-out on the opening Rice series. Seven tackles for loss. Two quarterback sacks (twice the team’s total over its first four games). Best of all, the defense held a Rice offense that had been averaging 30 points a game to merely three. (The Owls scored a touchdown on the recovery of a Tiger fumble just two minutes into the game.) Having allowed 487.5 yards per game entering tonight’s contest, the Memphis defense held Rice to 221. The Owls gained only 12 first downs and were four of 16 in converting third downs.
“The defense kept us in the game,” said Fuente, “so we were able to keep running the ball. We put them in some bad spots, but they came through, every single time.”
Rice led the game at halftime, 10-0. An Owl defense that had given up an average of 43.6 points per game in starting 1-4 confounded the Tigers, who turned the ball over twice in trying to establish that running game.
But after halftime, Memphis took control of field position thanks to a series of strong Tom Hornsey punts, one of which was fumbled by the Owls’ Dennis Parks and recovered by Tiger safety Cannon Smith. Memphis wideout Keiwone Malone made an acrobatic catch of a five-yard Jacob Karam pass in the back of the end zone — keeping one foot barely in bounds — for the Tigers’ first touchdown exactly halfway through the third quarter.
Then with 3:01 to play in the third, reserve quarterback Eric Mathews found tight end Alan Cross wide open on play action, lofting the ball into Cross’s hands for a 14-10 lead and what turned out to be the final points of the game.
A committee of four Tiger running backs combined for 165 yards with freshman Carl Harris leading the way (68). Brandon Hays had a key 29-yard gain on third-and-two midway through the fourth quarter to keep a Memphis drive alive and kill valuable time on the clock.
“It was a big team win,” said Karam after the game (and after leading the band during a postgame celebration). “I’m really happy for the guys. We’ve worked so hard since January. We’re excited to get back to work. This group’s gone through a lot. But we’ve never really gotten down. We didn’t panic.”
Karam completed eight of 12 passes for 70 yards without an interception. “Credit should go to the offensive line,” he said. “They did a great job of opening holes for our running backs. And when we ran the quarterback draw, there were tons of real estate out there.”
The win is the Tigers’ first to open Conference USA play since 2000, and ends an eight-game losing streak dating back to the 2011 season. Among the stars on defense was end Martin Ifedi with two tackles for loss and a key fourth-quarter sack of Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue. Tank Jakes added six solo tackles, including a sack.
Memphis (1-4) travels to East Carolina next Saturday. The Tigers’ next home game will be on October 20th when UCF visits the Liberty Bowl during homecoming weekend.