In front of a cool, rainy-night crowd that was announced at 32,000 but seemed sparser, the Memphis Tigers and Houston Cougars traded scores and turnovers for three quarters, before the Tigers faded and were finished off by quarterback Paxton Lynch's third interception as the Tigers were driving for a score with a minute left. Final: Houston 28, Memphis 24.
The Tigers broke through early, scoring on a long mid-first-quarter drive that culminated in an 18-yard pass from Paxton Lynch to Tevin Jones. On the ensuing kickoff, Houston was pinned at its own 6-yard-line, but drove inside the Tigers 10, before the UM defense stiffened and forced the Cougars to a field goal try, which failed.
Houston then held Memphis to a three-and-out series but fumbled the punt and put the Tigers back in business at the Cougar 31. A few plays later, the Tigers took advantage of the short field on a 6-yard run by Paxton Lynch. Less than a minute into the second quarter it was 14-0, Memphis, and it appeared the rout might on.
But Houston responded in unexpected and spectacular fashion, as quarterback Greg Ward Jr. broke free from an almost certain sack and zipped 64 yards into the Tiger end zone, eluding would-be tacklers all the way. The actual ground covered by Ward was nearer to 80 yards. At 12:47 of the second quarter, Memphis' lead was cut to 14-7. It was a harbinger of things to come.
Bobby McCain returned the Houston kickoff to the Tiger 40 and Lynch went back to work, leading the Tigers to a couple of first downs before an ill-advised pass was picked off and returned to the Tiger end zone. A penalty nullified the touchdown, but Houston took over at the Tiger 21 and drove into the end zone five plays later to tie the game.
On the Tigers ensuing possession, they drove to the Houston 35, only to have Lynch fumble it away to Houston. On Houston's first play, Ward returned the favor, fumbling at his own 45, after being stripped by Memphis' Tank Jakes, who recovered the ball.
The game of give-away quickly resumed as Lynch threw his second interception — and the Tigers' third turnover of the first half — which was picked off at the Houston 25.
Three punts later, Keiwone Malone put the Tigers back in Houston territory with a return to the Houston 39. Taking over with 2:18 left in the half, Memphis quickly moved into the end zone on a 21-yard pass from Lynch to Dan Montiel, making the score 21-14, Tigers, at the half. The turnover score was knotted at three for each team.
The second half began with neither team able to mount a sustained drive. After several punts, Houston found its offense, again behind Ward, who scrambled out of trouble repeatedly, leading the Cougars to a tying score with 3:45 left in the third quarter. The Tigers seemingly had no answer for the elusive Ward, a punt-returner turned quarterback with more moves than a one-legged salsa instructor. At the end of three quarters, the game was tied at 21, but Houston had the ball in Tiger territory — and all the momentum.
A few plays later, Ward again scrambled out of trouble, and tossed a 21-yard touchdown pass to Markeith Ambles. Houston had its first lead of the night, 28-21, with 13 minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Memphis worked its way downfield after the ensuing kickoff, driving into Houston territory for the first time in the second half. After gaining a first and goal at the at the four, two Tiger running plays went nowhere, and Lynch was sacked at the 13 on third down, forcing the Tigers to settle for a 36-yard field goal. With 7:27 left, it was 28-24, Houston.
The Tigers' task was clear: Stop Ward and the Houston offense, get the ball back, and score a touchdown.
Memphis' defense responded, holding Houston to a quick three-and-out. Starting at their own 47, the Memphis offense seemingly had a great chance to grab the lead back. But Houston held again and the Tigers were forced to punt. Houston took over on its own four-yard line.
The task for the Tigers? Same song, second verse, only shorter — 4:40, to be precise. And again, the Tigers defense stepped up, forcing Houston to punt from its own end zone. A short punt led to the Tigers taking over at the Houston 42 with 2:58 remaining. And again the offense faltered, as Tevin Jones was stripped of the ball after catching a slant pass from Lynch on the Tigers first play, and Houston took over at its own 27. Same song, third verse, and this one would have to be played in 2:45.
And again, the Tiger defense held. Houston let the clock run down to two minutes before punting one last time to Memphis, which took over at its own 20 with one timeout and 1:59 to play. But, after three completed passes, Lynch misfired on his fourth. Houston intercepted and it was game over.
Final: Houston 28, Memphis 24. CBS Sports Game Stats.