This is what its like to be in purgatory.
This is what it must have been like to be Sisyphus.
This is Memphis football.
For the second consecutive season, Tennessee scored the winning points in the final minute of the game as the Vols beat the Tigers 19-17 before 63,121 rain-soaked fans at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium Saturday.
After Scott Scherer hit senior tight end Billy Kendall with a 24-yard touchdown pass with 2:56 to go in the game it looked like a repeat of last seasons final score in Knoxville, when Tennessee scored with a minute to go for a 17-16 win. But Memphis couldnt make the score stick.
As it has for most of this season of disappointment, Memphis had a special teams breakdown in a crucial moment. Leonard Scott returned Ryan Whites kickoff 44 yards to the Tennessee 48. Freshman quarterback Casey Clausen then drove the Vols to the Memphis 17 where Alex Walls kicked his fourth field goal of the game with 13 seconds left.
After the game, just as he did following the disappointing loss in Knoxville last season, Memphis head coach Rip Scherer lashed out at certain members of the Memphis media who he thinks have been negative in reporting about his program.
I cant tell you how proud I am of this football team. These kids are good kids and they deserve better. I wouldnt trade this football team for any other team in the country, an emotional Scherer said after the game. This week we circled the wagons and hung in there and competed. We didnt let this negative stuff bother us, divide us, or create doubt.
Both teams came into the game wanting to play a conservative, ball-control offense. In the first quarter Tennessee did just that, keeping the ball for more than 10 minutes of the period. The Vols average starting position was its own 47; Memphis its own 12.
The Tigers suffered yet another special team mistake when senior punter Ben Graves mishandled a high snap and barely got a punt off from his own end zone. Tennessee got the ball at the Memphis 21-yard-line and Alex Walls kicked a 42-yard field goal with 53 seconds left for a 3-0 lead.
In the second quarter, the table turned. Memphis completely dominated the period with Scott Scherer leading the Tigers on a 82-yard, 14-play drive culminating in a Dernice Wherry touchdown with 9:15 to go in the first half. Tennessee committed a special teams mistake of its own and Memphis extended its lead to 10-3 when the Tigers turned a fumbled punt return with 11 seconds to go into a 43-yard Ryan White field goal.
Tennessee came out of the locker room strong in the second half. Walls connected on a 30-yard field goal and Tennessee later drove 93 yards to take a 13-10 lead with 4:54 left in the period. The big play in the drive was a 60-yard Clausen to Donte Stallworth pass.
The Vols seemed about to take control of the game when Clausen hit Memphis native Burney Veazey with a 19-yard scoring strike at the start of the fourth quarter, but the touchdown was nullified by an illegal motion penalty. David Martin fumbled the ball on the next play. Memphis senior Jarvis Slaton recovered at the Tiger 18.
Memphis fumbled the ball back, leading to Walls third field goal and a 16-10 lead. But with five minutes to go in the game Ryan Johnson returned a Tennessee punt 50 yards to the Tennessee 36. Five plays later Kendall caught the touchdown pass and Memphis only had to hold the Vols one last time to get their second win in the series.
They couldnt do it.
Scott Scherer, named the starter just before kickoff, played the entire game completing 15 of 27 for 137 yards. But he often had to run for his life as Tennessee had five sacks. Kendall caught four passes for 57 yards and the touchdown. Sugar Sanders was the leading ball carrier for Memphis with 59 yards.
Neither team could run the ball. Tennessee had 99 yards rushing, with Travis Henry getting 50. Clausen hit 19 of 30 passes for 224 yards and an interception. He was at his best at the end of the game, hitting back-up receiver David Martin three times for 20 yards in the final, decisive drive.
Memphis falls to 4-5, and saw dreams of a seven-win season pass them by. Tennessee, winners of three straight, is now 5-3. Both teams play at home next week, with the Vols hosting Arkansas and Memphis taking on Cincinnati.
As they did in the 1996 upset, Memphis wore blue pants with blue jerseys. It was the first time this season the team had worn all blue. . . . Dernice Wherry
s second-quarter touchdown was the first of the juniors career. . . . The attendance of 63,121 is the fifth largest at the Liberty Bowl. The record was set in 1996 when the Memphis-Tennessee game drew 65,885. . . . Ben Graves
had one of his worst days of the season, averaging 32.4 on 8 punts and mishandling a snap in the Memphis end zone, leading to Walls first field goal. . . . Memphis struggled again converting third-downs, making only 2 of 13. The Tigers were only 43 of 135 (32 percent) on third-down conversions before today. . . . The Tigers rushed for less than 100 yards for the fifth time this season. In those games they are 0-5. In the four games that they surpassed the century mark, Memphis is 4-0. . . . Memphis was worried about containing huge Tennessee defensive lineman John Henderson
. The concern was justified. Henderson had two tackles for lost yardage, forced one fumble, and recovered another. . . . Junior Andre Arnold
got his 11th sack of the season, setting the single-season record for sacks at the school. . . .Nose tackle Marcus Bell
was instrumental in the Vols inability to run the football. The senior had four tackles for lost yardage and consistently clogged the middle.
(You can write Dennis Freeland at email@example.com