Fumbles are damaging to the chances of a good football team. For a struggling team — facing one of its league’s pacesetters — fumbles are positively deadly.
The Tigers fought gamely tonight at the Liberty Bowl and trailed UCF by only four points (14-10) at halftime. But two ugly fumbles turned what might have been the first real upset this program has seen in years into an all-too-standard blowout.
Down 7-0 with less than five minutes to play in the first quarter, the Tigers had the ball inside the UCF five-yard line thanks to a drive led by the rushing of Jai Steib and Brandon Hayes. But instead of Steib and Hayes carrying toward the goal line, freshman tight end Alan Cross — lining up at fullback — was given two straight opportunities. After falling just short on first-and-goal, Cross fumbled on the second attempt, the Knights recovering. Moments later, UCF’s Latavius Murray galloped through the Tiger line for 83 yards and a 14-0 UCF lead.
“We’ve had that package [with Cross carrying] and have practiced it since the start of the season,” said Tiger coach Justin Fuente after the game. “We just haven’t been near the goal line all that much.”
The U of M capitalized on a fumble too, though, as senior cornerback Robert Steeples picked up a Storm Johnson drop and raced untouched for 27 yards and a touchdown to close the UCF lead to four with 5:30 to play before halftime. It was Steeples’s third fumble recovery in four games and the play of the night for a Memphis defense that played with an intensity and urgency for a second straight home game.
UCF scored the only points of the third quarter — a 29-yard touchdown connection from Blake Bortles to J.J. Worton — and the Tigers found themselves driving into Knight territory early in the fourth period. Memphis quarterback Jacob Karam completed a pass to Keiwone Malone for what would have been a Tiger first down, but Malone lost the ball. Knight cornerback A.J. Bouye picked up the ball and raced 79 yards for the game-clinching touchdown. (The two teams traded meaningless touchdowns inside five minutes to play.)
“Our kids played their tales off,” said Memphis coach Justin Fuente following the game, the program’s third straight loss on homecoming weekend. “I think we’re getting better. We played a real good football team tonight, and we had our chances. But we made too many mistakes to win the game.”
Typical of the game’s pattern was a two-play sequence early in the third quarter. On fourth down from their own 27, the Tigers faked a punt, Tom Hornsey running for 21 yards and a first down near midfield. But on the next play, Karam hurled the ball downfield toward Marcus Rucker, only to see it picked off by Bouye. (Look for Bouye when C-USA announces its defensive Player of the Week.)
The Tigers managed to outgain UCF, 361 yards to 351. (The Knights lead C-USA in total defense.) Steib ran for 88 yards on 13 carries before leaving the game with an injury in the fourth quarter. (Fuente was unsure of the severity.) Hayes added 83 yards on 17 carries and was saluted by his coach for his “dedication and work ethic.” Karam completed 20 of 28 passes but for only 121 yards. He scored his first rushing touchdown of the season with 39 seconds to play.
The Tigers fall to 1-6 on the season and will travel for their next two games (at SMU and at Marshall). UCF improves to 5-2 and is one of two teams still undefeated in C-USA play (along with Tulsa).
Progress is hard to measure in an 18-point loss, but the Tigers’ rookie coach is convinced he sees it. “At times, we’re playing really good football,” said Fuente. “Our margin for error is small, and we know that.”