Playing their first American Athletic Conference game, the Tigers came painfully close to their biggest win in several years. Had Memphis passes into the end zone — one by quarterback Paxton Lynch, another by tailback Brandon Hayes — landed in Tiger hands instead of those of their opponents from UCF, the U of M likely celebrates a second straight victory and a 2-2 record. But with those two interceptions, along with a bizarre sequence of close calls over the game's final four minutes, Memphis falls to 1-3 on the season and has now lost nine straight to the Knights.
"I couldn't be more proud of our kids," said Memphis coach Justin Fuente. "That's a group of men that went into battle for each other. We didn't make enough plays to win the game. It's nobody else's fault. It's on us." In all three Memphis losses this season, the Tigers have led or been tied in the fourth quarter.
After forcing UCF to punt after three plays on the game's opening possession, the Tigers drove 67 yards on just seven plays to take a 7-0 lead on a 16-yard scamper by Hayes. (It was the second straight game Memphis has scored on its opening possession.) The drive was highlighted by 26-yard pass from Lynch to tight end Alan Cross.
The Knights capitalized on an interception by Jacoby Glenn late in the first quarter to earn their first points: a 26-yard field goal by Shawn Moffitt. Glenn returned the pick 33 yards and was finally tackled at the Tiger 26-yard line by the man who threw the pass (Lynch).
Memphis drove into the UCF red zone late in the first half, keyed by a 44-yard pass-and-run to Mose Frazier, a 14-yard run by tailback Jai Steib, and a 19-yard connection from Lynch to Joe Craig. A second-down pass from the 8-yard line was dropped in the front corner of the end zone by Adrian Henderson, then Lynch had a deflected pass intercepted by UCF's Terrance Plummer on the next play. Despite holding a dangerous UCF offense to 95 yards over the game's first 30 minutes, the Tigers led only 7-3 at halftime.
William Stanback finished a 12-play UCF drive with a one-yard run to give the visitors the lead with 5:48 left to play in the third quarter. But the Tigers answered with a 48-yard field goal by freshman kicker Jake Elliot to tie the game three minutes later.
With the ball at the UCF 48 early in the fourth quarter, the Tigers lined up in punt formation, only to have punter Tom Hornsey tuck the ball and dart through the right side of the line for a 14-yard gain. With the crowd of 30,274 fully energized, Lynch found Tevin Jones for 21 yards, then handed the ball to freshman Sam Craft, who ran around left end and through three UCF defenders for a touchdown that gave Memphis a 17-10 lead.
That lead appeared to be enough, right up to the 3:11 mark, when UCF faced fourth-and-ten from the Memphis 28-yard line. But Knight quarterback Blake Bortles completed a 15-yard pass to Breshad Perriman to keep the UCF hopes alive. Two plays later, Storm Johnson carried the ball from the one, fumbled, and watched tackle Chris Martin recover the ball in the end zone to tie the game at 17.
On the ensuing kickoff, Tiger freshman Marquis Warford was crushed at the 12-yard line, fumbled the ball, and lay prone as UCF's Drico Johnson picked up the ball and ran into the end zone untouched. Fuente asked for a booth review, but the play was upheld, despite some talk about a helmet-to-helmet hit that could have been penalized. The score gave UCF a 24-17 lead with 1:56 to play.
Junior wideout Joe Craig replaced Warford on the next kickoff and proceeded to dash 97 yards for what could have been a game-tying touchdown. The play was nullified, though, by an illegal Tiger block that brought the ball back to the Memphis 25-yard line.
Lynch led the first two-minute drill of his college career in style, completing passes to Craft, Frazier, and Jones on a march that took the Tigers to the UCF 6-yard line with less than 45 seconds to play. But on a halfback option play, Hayes lofted a pass toward the right corner of the end zone, where it was intercepted by Plummer, your leading candidate for American Defensive Player of the Week (he also had a sack of Lynch, one of five times the Tiger quarterback was dropped).
"We can't let this linger," said Fuente. "It's life, and life isn't always easy." When asked about how he would handle such a crushing loss, Fuente responded, "When I got here, there weren't crushing losses. They were just crushed."
The coach was pleased that his defense held a potent offense to 17 points, despite losing junior cornerback Bobby McCain to a left-knee injury in the first half. "Our kids understand the scheme," he said, "and they're flying to the football. When you're half a step off, it glares at you against a team like [UCF]."
Lynch completed 20 of 38 passes for 279 yards. (Bortles was 17 of 36 for 160.) Linebacker Tank Jakes picked up the only sack of the game for Memphis, which came into the game leading the American with 13 for the season. Hayes led the ground game with 73 yards on 12 carries.
Lynch saluted the conquering team, all the while turning his eye to next week's challenge at Houston. "This was one of the most diverse defenses we'll face," he said. "We know we can win now. We just have to go out and do it, and not hurt ourselves. When I make a mistake, it's rough. But after you mess up, you have to shake it off."