"[Temple] beat us in every facet of the game. They played better than us, every phase, from the opening kickoff."
Memphis coach Justin Fuente was succinct in his postgame evaluation of Senior Day at the Liberty Bowl, an annual contest for which you'd like to think the home team will play its hardest, grittiest game of a season. As 15 U of M players played their last home game today, though, the Tigers collectively played their worst game of the year. Facing a Temple team at the bottom of the American Athletic Conference standings (1-10 overall record, 0-7 in American play), the Tigers gave up their most points and most yardage (534) of the season. Worse, though, was the Memphis offense. Facing an Owl defense ranked 113th in the country, the Tigers gained but 228 yards and were a woeful 2-of-12 on third down (and 1-of-3 on fourth), one possession after another ending abruptly, often with a Tom Hornsey punt.
Despite running only 18 plays (compared with 52 for Temple) in the first half, the Tigers were very much in the game four minutes into the third quarter after Sam Craft caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from Paxton Lynch, one of three touchdowns Craft scored in the game. ("Sam was the only guy who played really well for us," said Fuente. "He showed toughness, grit. I was proud of Sam.") The touchdown closed the Temple lead to 17-14.
But on the next play from scrimmage, Temple quarterback P.J. Walker (like Lynch a freshman) hit tight end Chris Coyer over the middle and Coyer sprinted untouched into the end zone for a 75-yard touchdown. Then just 1:11 of game time later, Sharif Finch broke through the Tiger line and blocked a Hornsey punt into the end zone, where it was recovered by Michael Felton to make the score 31-14. It was the 291st punt of Hornsey's record-breaking career and only the second the Ray Guy Award finalist has had blocked.
The Tigers responded with a 62-yard touchdown drive, converting on fourth-and-four on a Lynch-to Craft connection, Craft then carrying the ball the final three yards for his third touchdown of the game. But Memphis wouldn't threaten to score in the fourth quarter, while the Owls added 10 points to pad their first AAC victory.
"They had a crushing defeat last week [to Connecticut]," said Fuente, "and they showed us how to handle adversity. Their offensive line had their way with our defensive line, their running backs and receivers had their way with our secondary, their linebackers had their way with our running backs. They went to work and showed up here ready to play a football game. They're better than their record. Their quarterback is special."
Walker completed 20 of 32 passes for 328 yards and four touchdowns (three of them to Robby Anderson). Jamie Gilmore carried the ball 16 times for 92 yards to lead the Owls. Lynch connected on 19 of 29 passes for 162 yards while senior tailback Brandon Hayes was limited to 38 rushing yards on 16 carries.
When asked about his departing seniors, Fuente was again succinct: "I wish they, and everyone else on this squad, had played better today."
The Tigers (3-8) finish their season next Saturday at Connecticut. After losing their first nine games, the Huskies have won their last two, including a victory over Rutgers today.