Sometimes it's a quick-strike offense. Sometimes it's a bone-crushing defense. And sometimes, it's a thick left upright.
Thanks in part to UT-Martin kicker Jackson Redditt drilling the aforementioned upright not once, but twice, the Tigers kept today's game close enough for a late-arriving offense to seize control and earn the home team its second win of the season. Senior Brandon Hayes and freshman Sam Craft scored touchdowns inside the game's final eight minutes to make the difference in a game that saw Memphis penalized 12 times for 123 yards, allow 164 yards rushing (the Tigers entered the game ranked sixth in the country in rush defense), and turn the ball over twice.
"I told the kids, 'I'm happy for you, but not real proud of you,'" said Memphis coach Justin Fuente after the game. "We've got to be accountable to each other, and we weren't today. We reverted to some old bad habits because the other team was really taking it to us. And that's what bothers me the most." The coach added, "I'll take [a win] any way we can get them."
Among the newsworthy penalties was freshman offensive lineman Tony Mays — a graduate of Whitehaven High School — being ejected for making contact with an official, an infraction Fuente is convinced was inadvertent. Today's game was the first start for Mays. Later in the game, freshman B.J. Ross was flagged for targeting — and ejected — on a punt-coverage tackle, only to have the ejection recalled . . . but the penalty enforced. For conspiracy theorists, today's officiating crew was the same one that penalized the Tigers 15 times for 145 yards at Middle Tennessee on September 14th.
The Tiger defense — backed by that upright — held UTM to six first-half points despite three Skyhawk drives into the red zone. Memphis finally got on the scoreboard 23 seconds before halftime when quarterback Paxton Lynch scurried six yards for a touchdown to cap a 65-yard drive (aided by a pass-interference call on an attempt to Tevin Jones).
Neither team scored in the third quarter, and the Tigers needed an escape from Lynch — almost sacked near midfield — to set up Hayes's touchdown. Spinning 360 degrees and out of the grasp of the UTM rush, Lynch ran down the left sideline for 24 yards. Hayes followed with a 12-yard dash in the same direction for his team-leading sixth touchdown of the season. The Tigers' final score was set up by freshman Doroland Dorceus's only carry of the game, a 32-yard jaunt up the middle of the field on which he fumbled . . . the ball recovered by the Tigers.
"There are a lot of things I do not like about what we put on display today," said Fuente. "But there's teaching and growth to be done from it. We'll learn from it. We didn't handle the surge of them playing well to start the game. That encompasses penalties, poor execution, and turning the ball over."
Senior cornerback Bobby McCain spent most of the game draped over UTM's star receiver Jeremy Butler, who entered the game with 70 catches for 914 yards. Butler caught five passes for 95 yards, but didn't reach the end zone. Like his coach, McCain will take the win and prepare for next week's trip to South Florida.
"We've got to get better," said McCain. "Every win's big. We don't treat it differently if it's homecoming [like today] or on TV."
Hayes starred for the Tiger offense, carrying the ball 27 times for 105 yards. Lynch completed 15 of 22 passes for 189 yards and Craft caught three passes for 83 yards. Terry Redden and Ricky Hunter picked up sacks for the Memphis defense and Anthony Watson had an interception near the Tiger end zone in the fourth quarter to kill a Skyhawk drive.
The Tigers (now 2-6) will finish the season with three of their last four games on the road, starting next Saturday at USF (also 2-6). They'll return home on November 30th to face Temple.