You could have tracked the home team's performance today with weather updates. Kicking off at the Liberty Bowl (at 11 a.m.) under gray skies, the University of Memphis looked like one-win teams are expected to look in mid-October: a lifeless offense, porous defense, and large deficit (31-3 at halftime) on the scoreboard.
Then late in the third quarter, just as the sun finally burned the clouds away — creating a rather blinding sparkle off the Tigers' new chrome helmets — Memphis invigorated a small crowd (16,241) with opportunistic defense and special teams, falling a play or two shy of a season-changing comeback victory. Today's silver lining? The Tigers won the second half, 26-3.
Tiger coach Justin Fuente acknowledged his team being outplayed on both sides of the ball — and severely — over the game's first 30 minutes. "It's a combination of several things," he said. "A developing offensive line, young receivers and skill players. They'll make some plays, then they'll make you pull your hair out. We're not good enough at anything to dominate in one area or another."
On the game's second play from scrimmage, SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert found Keenan Holman for a 79-yard catch-and-run touchdown that put the Mustangs up, it turns out, for good. Down 7-3 late in the first quarter, the Tigers were unable to capitalize on a blocked punt, freshman kicker Jake Elliott pushing a 39-yard field goal attempt wide right for the first miss of his college career. Mustang tailback Traylon Shed scored a pair of one-yard touchdowns in the second quarter, one of them after SMU recovered a muffed exchange between Tiger quarterback Paxton Lynch and Marquis Warford. (The Tigers have fumbled the ball eight times over their last two games, losing five of them.) At the break, SMU had outgained Memphis, 282 yards to 116.
With the Tigers trailing 34-3 and just over a minute to play in the third quarter, junior linebacker Ryan Coleman stripped the ball from Shed and ran the ball in from 15 yards for the U of M's first touchdown in more than six quarters. Then with less than 10 minutes to play in the game, Coleman snapped up a fumbled punt at the Mustang 19 and pranced in for another six points. (A two-point attempt failed.)
SMU appeared ready to add to the lopsided score with just over seven minutes to play, but sophomore cornerback Reggis Ball stepped in front of a Gilbert pass at the Tiger three, sprinted down the right sideline and then across the field toward the left corner of the end zone. Clear of any Mustang tacklers, Ball chose to dive into the end zone anyway, drawing an excessive-celebration penalty that took the ball back to the Mustang 16-yard line. (Asked about the call after the game, Fuente said, "I like the rule. I'm a big fan of team celebrations. I'm not a fan of any more individualism out there.)
The Tiger offense was finally able to reach pay dirt when Brandon Hayes carried the ball in from the one-yard line with 5:23 left in the game, making the score 34-23, SMU. Despite a Lynch interception on their next possession, the Tigers were again able to close the gap — alas, as time expired — on an eight-yard pass completion from Lynch to Mose Frazier. After gaining 150 yards over the game's first three quarters, Memphis piled up 170 in the fourth period. Lynch completed 26 of 36 passes for 198 yards, while Gilbert was 27 of 43 for 321.
The loss drops Memphis to 1-5 for the season (0-3 in the American Athletic Conference), while SMU improves to 2-4 (1-1).
"I was disappointed with our perimeter game on both sides," said Fuente, "and I felt like, going in, it was an advantage. Defensively, we've been outstanding in our perimeter game. Since halfway through last season, I felt like we dominated the perimeter game. Little wide-receiver screens, we tackled. And on offense, when we did it, we were pretty good at it. I did not feel that way today. The [series] that sticks out in my mind is the one after the blocked punt. Poor execution."
The Tigers were hurt by nine penalties, including a hands-to-face infraction late in the fourth quarter that negated a 68-yard scoring pass from Lynch to Joe Craig. The offense converted only four of 14 third-down opportunities.
Memphis now begins a stretch in which they'll play one game in three weeks, a Wednesday-night tilt at the Liberty Bowl against Cincinnati on October 30th. The Tigers will need to go 5-1 over the season's second half to gain bowl eligibility.