If the University of Memphis football program turned a corner tonight at the Liberty Bowl, it wasn’t so much big plays on offense, creative play-calling, or opportunistic takeaways by the defense. (The game had all three.) No, two simple defensive stops — simple only on the surface — that bridged the third and fourth quarters made tonight’s win over Tulane one Tiger fans may recall when charting progress of the nascent Justin Fuente era.
Clinging to a 23-16 lead with less than a minute to play in the third quarter, the U of M defense found itself backed up to its own one-yard line, the Green Wave and its stellar quarterback, Ryan Griffin, three feet from tying the score. Griffin handed the ball to tailback Orleans Darkwa, who plowed into the Memphis line. No gain. End of the quarter.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, now facing fourth down and goal, Griffin again handed off to Darkwa, who actually lost two yards upon being met by the Tigers’ Corey Jones and Johnnie Farms. End of series, Tiger ball, with Memphis still leading by a touchdown.
“We’re trying to create an aura about playing here at the Liberty Bowl,” said Fuente after the game. “We tried to make them earn everything they got, and eliminate the big play. For the most part, we did that.”
If the goal-line stand turned that fabled corner, the ensuing 97-yard drive was the first, biggest stride toward legitimacy for a program that won only its seventh game over the last four seasons. Memphis quarterback Jacob Karam connected with sophomore wideout Reggie Travis for 44 yards, Travis securing the ball only after bobbling it when hit by a Green Wave defender.
The Tigers later gained 15 yards when wideout Keiwone Malone was hit after throwing a pass down field on an end-around. (Read that sentence again, longtime Memphis fans.) Rarities collided when the U of M attempted a trick play and benefited from a personal foul on the same snap of the ball. On fourth-and-one from the Tulane 24, Karam rolled right and connected with tight end Alan Cross for a 19-yard gain. (This was merely the second fourth-down conversion on a scoring drive by the Tiger offense tonight. Read that sentence again.) Memphis took a two-touchdown lead when tailback Brandon Hayes took a pitch from Karam and lofted a pass softly into the hands of Travis in the right corner of the end zone. Two trick plays and a fourth-down conversion. On the same drive. By the Memphis Tigers.
“I’m not opposed to doing [the trick plays],” said Fuente in his postgame press conference. “I just want to make sure that the guys doing it are trustworthy guys. I think it’s important that the other team knows it should be alert. I’m all for those types of plays.”
Karam managed to outduel Griffin, passing for 270 yards (to Griffin’s 211) and throwing but a single interception (compared with three by Griffin). Griffin’s final pick was taken back 32 yards by Tiger linebacker Tank Jakes to give Memphis a 37-16 lead with 3:31 to play.
Karam smiled in recollecting the length-of-the-field drive that provided his team an all-too-rare cushion on the scoreboard. “It kind of went by fast,” he said. “We were getting in and out of the huddle, executing our job. It was fun. It’s all about execution for us. We know if we go out there and do what we’re supposed to, we can be hard to stop. Coach has confidence in us to go for it on fourth down. We hope to keep doing it.”
In many respects, this was very much a game between teams that had combined for three wins before kickoff. Over one short sequence in the second quarter, the teams threw back-to-back interceptions, and the same Tiger player (Hayes) fumbled on consecutive plays. By game’s end, the teams had combined for eight turnovers. But for most of the crowd of 18,796, the final numbers on the scoreboard served as just the right makeup for this pig of a game. When the Tigers return to the Liberty Bowl to play Southern Miss on November 24th, they’ll have the chance to even their home record at 3-3. (The U of M travels to UAB next Saturday.)
“This was not the be-all, end-all, perfect game for us,” said Fuente, as composed in victory as he’s been in eight defeats as a head coach. “I’m awfully proud of the guys tonight. It's important that we show some grit and toughness, and that element is starting to show. I'm proud to see our guys continue to battle, and get rewarded tonight."
Tonight's win was the Tigers' seventh straight over Tulane and matched last season's win total (2) with two games to play.