Growing pains. The day may come when Justin Fuente looks at tonight's loss in Murfreesboro as a necessary lesson in the construction of a winning football program. For now, though, just pain.
Cody Clarke drilled a 40-yard field goal with 1:42 to play in Murfreesboro to give Middle Tennessee the win, its fifth in the last six meetings between two programs scratching for recognition in a state dominated by its two SEC representatives. Memphis seemed on the verge of its first win of the season with the Blue Raiders facing third-and-14 at their own 31-yard line with less than three minutes to play, but quarterback Logan Kilgore connected with Marcus Henry across the middle for an 18-yard gain. A 25-yard completion to Tavarres Jefferson followed, gaining enough yardage to set up Clarke's game-winner.
The Tigers overcame a miserable first half, one in which they had 11 penalties (for 114 yards) compared with just five first downs. Freshman quarterback Paxton Lynch threw a pair of costly interceptions, one at the Middle Tennessee one-yard line, another that set up the Blue Raiders' second touchdown of the game, a one-yard run by Jordan Parker that gave Middle a 14-3 lead 3:39 before halftime.
Tiger kicker Jake Elliot's three field goals kept Memphis in the game as Lynch and the offense found a rhythm for the first time this season shortly after halftime. A 15-play, 70-yard drive culminated in a 27-yard field goal by Elliot that closed the Tiger deficit to 14-9 with 5:50 to play in the third quarter. After the Tiger defense held the Raiders to three-and-out, Memphis put together a 10-play drive over 5:08, the final yard of the 69-yard drive coming on a roll-out pass from Lynch to tight end Alan Cross. The Tigers' first lead of the young season remained 15-14 after a two-point conversion attempt failed.
Tiger defensive end Martin Ifedi picked up his third sack of the season on the Raiders' next possession, but Kilgore's clutch third-down delivery to Henry proved to be the difference.
There were some promising numbers for Memphis. After rushing for only 89 yards in their opener against Duke, Memphis gained 180 yards on the ground tonight, led by Brandon Hayes with 81 on 15 carries. Overall, the Tigers outgained Middle Tennessee, 350 yards to 284 . . . until you factor in penalties, where the Tigers gave up 145 yards on 15 calls, compared with the Raiders being penalized only three times for 30 yards.
Lynch finished the game with 164 yards passing (18 for 26) with the two picks and lone touchdown pass. Kilgore completed 22 of 36 for 224 yards, with a touchdown and one interception (by junior Bakari Hollier).
The Tigers return to the Liberty Bowl next Saturday to face another regional rival — Arkansas State — that has won four of the teams' last five meetings. Memphis has started its season 0-2 for the sixth straight season.