Had you sent your first email on November 9, 1996? Placed your first call with a cell phone? Let it be said technology has evolved a few generations since Kevin Cobb's epic kickoff return for a touchdown to help the Memphis Tigers upset mighty Tennessee during Peyton Manning's junior season. Thursday night at the Liberty Bowl — almost precisely 19 years and 11 months later — a Tiger finally returned another kickoff to pay dirt. After fumbling his first return of the night, redshirt-freshman Tony Pollard
galloped 95 yards to answer a Temple touchdown that had closed a Tiger lead to 27-20 with 6:47 left to play. The drought-ending jaunt provided the winning margin as the Tigers won their American Athletic Conference opener and improved to 4-1 on the season.
"Hats off to Temple," said Memphis coach Mike Norvell
following the game. "They played extremely tough. We had some setbacks in the first half; wasn't the way we wanted to start the game. But our defense battled. We talk all the time: it matters how we start, but it's all about how we finish. We came out in the second half and played at an exceptionally high level."
Norvell acknowledged Pollard's touchdown was the biggest play of the game as it answered the previous scoring punch by Temple. But it was a game — particularly a second half — of big plays for Memphis. With just over two minutes to play in the third quarter and the Tigers trailing 13-6, junior tailback Doroland Dorceus
took a hand-off around the left tackle and broke through for a 71-yard game-tying touchdown, the 21st score of Dorceus's college career.
"We ran a play to the [left] edge," said Dorceus, "and we saw the look they gave us. Coach called the same play, they showed the same look, I saw the hole, made a man miss, and got up the field. We needed a big play. It's no-panic mode at all times. Something's gonna pop. Nobody's gonna stop us. Only we stop us."
On Temple's next possession, Memphis defensive tackle Jonathan Wilson
flattened Temple quarterback Phillip Walker inside the Owls' 10-yard line, a play that may or may not have contributed to Walker's next pass being intercepted by linebacker Genard Avery
, who returned the pick 23 yards for a touchdown to give the Tigers their first lead of the game (20-13).
"They did what they had to do in the first half," said Avery. "We answered in the second half and came up with the win." Avery led Memphis with eight solo tackles and added a sack to the interception on his stat line. Haason Reddick led Temple with 11 tackles (8 solo) including five tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
A 28-yard touchdown run by Darrell Henderson extended the lead to 14 (27-13) midway through the fourth quarter, but Pollard's kickoff return would still be needed to seal the Tigers' fourth home victory of the season. Punter Nick Jacobs
drew a running-into-the-kicker penalty late in the fourth quarter to extend a Memphis drive and senior cornerback Chauncey Lanier
picked off Walker's final pass of the night to clinch the win.
"Our defense was put in some tough situations early," said Norvell, "and to hold them to a couple of field goals allowed us to stay in the game. We used a lot of different faces. Our defense played 38 minutes, and that's difficult. And Chauncey Lanier, what a big play by an incredible young man. So proud of him."
In the first half, the Tiger offense looked like a unit playing its second game in six days. The Tigers managed only five first downs, 111 yards, and three points over the game's first 30 minutes and trailed by 10 (13-3) at the break. Jacobs and Spencer Smith combined for seven punts in the game and Memphis ran a total of 58 plays, compared with 88 (for 531 yards) by Temple. Tiger quarterback Riley Ferguson
(17 of 26 for 174 yards) was outplayed by Walker (36 of 59 for 445) and the Owls' Jahad Thomas caught six passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns, one of them a 61-yarder. Dorceus finished with 93 yards on seven carries.
"We've got to clean up our mistakes," emphasized Norvell. "We've got to do better with our execution. This was a championship-level game. Their quarterback has been struggling early, but he made some plays, played like a four-year starter. I'm so proud of our guys, the way they finished."
In scoring 10 points, senior kicker Jake Elliott
broke Stephen Gostkowski's career scoring record at Memphis. Now with 371 for his career, Elliott — twice the AAC's Special Teams Player of the Year — will likely become the first Tiger to reach the 400-point mark.
The Tigers will have seven full days to prepare for their next game, at Tulane on Friday, October 14th.