The American Athletic Conference logos on the field were new. The Tiger stripes in the end zone — blue and black — were new. And the home team's chrome helmets were as new as they were shiny. Alas, this was a Memphis Tiger football season opener, and the final score was not new. The Duke Blue Devils scored a pair of touchdowns inside the game's final ten minutes to break a tie and give the Tiger program its ninth consecutive opening-game loss. A crowd of 44,237 at the Liberty Bowl — the largest for a Tiger game since the 2009 opener — watched a Memphis team much improved from the one that fell at Duke last season (38-14) but not quite ready to finish off a Blue Devil team (now 2-0) growing under coach David Cutcliffe.
"I'm not happy," said Tiger coach Justin Fuente after the game. "Just playing a team well — and losing — is not what we're shooting for. But I'm not frustrated either. That's the wrong word. There are a lot of teaching points we have to make. A lot of growing up we have to do. As a program, we have to learn how to finish against a good team."
Duke opened the scoring early when quarterback Anthony Boone pranced into the end zone from 23 yards just 3:15 after the opening kickoff. (Memphis went three-and-out on the opening possession of the game.) Tiger punter Tom Hornsey "flipped the field," as they say, by drilling a 79-yard punt — the second longest in the history of Memphis football — after another three-and-out. Senior tailback Brandon Hayes appeared to score on a 30-yard touchdown that would have tied the game late in the first quarter, only to be called for stepping out of bounds (untouched) at the 18-yard-line. The Tigers failed to convert on fourth-and-one and trailed 7-0 after the first period.
Junior cornerback Bobby McCain intercepted a deep Boone pass and returned it 75 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the second quarter to tie the game at 7. Boone was forced to leave the game midway through the second quarter with what was described as "an upper-body injury." His replacement, Brandon Connette, proved integral to the Duke attack, completing 14 of 21 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns.
Duke regained the lead on an 8-yard run by Juwan Thompson just over five minutes into the second half. With the Tigers at the Duke 24 early in the fourth quarter, freshman quarterback Paxton Lynch fumbled on fourth-and-short, returning the ball to the Blue Devils with the score still 14-7. Lynch responded on the next Memphis possession, though, completing a 45-yard pass to sophomore wideout Tevin Jones for the Tigers' biggest offensive strike of the day. Freshman Sam Craft followed the Jones reception with a 14-yard run around left end after a double reverse, then senior tailback Jai Steib carried the ball up the middle for an 11-yard touchdown that tied the game at 14 with 11:38 to play.
Connette connected with junior Jamison Crowder for deep passes on each of the next two Duke possessions, both leading to touchdowns: a 22-yard reception by Issac Blakeney and a 12-yard reception by Brandon Braxton.
"Against good teams, you can't make little mistakes," said Fuente. The coach seemed generally pleased by the play of Lynch in his first college game, but stressed the importance of protecting the football, especially on short yardage downs, plays he said "you have to make." Lynch completed 14 of 24 passes for 148 yards. Lynch acknowledged some nerves early in the game, noting it was the largest crowd he'd ever played before. But he added that he felt comfortable and in command as the game developed.
"I want to play perfect," said the Florida native, who redshirted last season behind Jacob Karam. "But I didn't, so I don't think I played well."
As they did a year ago, the Blue Devils ran considerably more plays than the Tigers (82 to 57) and won despite being sloppy with the ball (three turnovers). The Memphis ground game wasn't strong enough to sustain drives (89 yards on 33 carries). Duke converted 10 of 18 plays on third down, while the Tigers were but two for 13.
In addition to his interception, McCain recovered a fumble to lead the Tiger defense. Junior end Martin Ifedi added two sacks and three tackles for lost yardage.
Crowder stood out among the Blue Devils, catching 11 passes for 140 yards.
The Tigers play their first road game of the season next week in Murfreesboro, where they'll face a Middle Tennessee team that's won four of the last five meetings between the schools.
The lasting impression from today's loss may be that crowd, a swollen mass of blue willing to sit in 93-degree heat at kickoff to cheer a team coming off a 4-8 season. "I want to thank everyone for coming out," said Fuente. "Keep coming out, because we're going to get better."