Saturday, November 25, 2017

#17 Tigers 70, East Carolina 13

Posted By on Sat, Nov 25, 2017 at 4:16 PM

Two days after Thanksgiving, a record-setting 2017 Memphis Tiger football team set the table for next week's American Athletic Conference championship game. With a thorough evisceration of East Carolina at a sun-splashed Liberty Bowl, the 17th-ranked Tigers improved to 10-1 on the season, completed the program's first undefeated home schedule (7-0) at the 53-year-old stadium, and will now travel to Orlando to face undefeated UCF — the only team to hand Memphis a loss this year — with a berth in a New Year's Six bowl game (the Peach, in Atlanta) at stake.
click to enlarge Mike Norvell - MATTHEW SMITH
  • Matthew Smith
  • Mike Norvell

"I'm extremely proud of our football team," said Tiger coach Mike Norvell, the third coach in Memphis history to oversee a 10-win season. "All week long we talked about having one focus, to come out here and finish our regular season. For our seniors, what a special occasion: the first Tiger team to ever go undefeated in this stadium. There aren't enough words to truly do justice to what [this senior class] has meant to this program, what they've meant to this community. It's been an honor to coach them. We now have the chance next week to be on a national stage in a championship game. We're going to play a great opponent, and there's a lot of work to be done, but today we're going to enjoy this one. It's a symbolic day for our program, continuing the progression."

Appropriately on Senior Day, a pair of record-breaking seniors — quarterback Riley Ferguson and wide receiver Anthony Miller — connected on the Tigers' first play from scrimmage for an 89-yard touchdown. Ferguson needed only nine pass completions to gain 299 yards through the air and throw three touchdown passes to tie his own Tiger mark (32) for the season. Miller caught only three of those passes, but for 144 yards, his touchdown tying Memphis legend Dave Casinelli for second in Tiger history with 36 for his brilliant career.

Other records and milestones of note:

• The Tigers' 10 touchdowns increased their season point total to 517, the third straight season topping 500 after the program had never reached the mark before 2015. Six more points will break the record of 522 scored two seasons ago. This is the first time Memphis has scored 500 in only 11 games.
click to enlarge Patrick Taylor - MATTHEW SMITH
  • Matthew Smith
  • Patrick Taylor

• Sophomore Darrell Henderson carried the ball 10 times for 122 yards and two touchdowns, increasing his season rushing total to 1,045 (with an astounding average per carry of 9.1 yards). He's the first Tiger to gain 1,000 yards on the ground since Curtis Steele in 2009 and, with Miller, gives the Tigers their first team with both a 1,000-yard rusher and receiver. Alas, he was outgained Saturday by fellow sophomore Patrick Taylor, who carried the ball six times for 127 yards and two touchdowns.

• The Tigers' seventh win in a row gives this year's senior class 37 victories in four years, a program record they can increase with a win next week and/or in their bowl game.

• Sophomore Tony Pollard returned a third-quarter kickoff 100 yards for his fourth kickoff-return touchdown of the season (and sixth in two seasons). Before Pollard arrived on the U of M campus, no Tiger had returned as many as two kickoffs to the end zone.

"They've done everything we've asked of them," said Norvell. "To prepare, to not get distracted, not get caught up in anything else going on outside." Norvell will continue to publicly ignore speculation that has him taking one higher-profile job or another, preaching focus for all involved that much remains to be gained this season, for this team.

"You can get caught up in the compliments," said Norvell. "But what you see is who you are. We're going to continue to progress. We want to continue to get better as individuals. Stay humble. Stay grounded. If you don't play up to the best of your ability, people won't be complimenting you very long."

Pollard echoed his coach's sentiments, knowing the value of an AAC championship, and remembering the 40-13 beating UCF handed his team on September 30th. "We like to take each week a game at a time," said the Melrose alum. "We weren't thinking about UCF or a bowl game. We did a pretty good job of that, so now it's on to the next one."

"I'm gonna enjoy this," said Ferguson, who has played his last game at the Liberty Bowl but will quarterback the biggest game in Tiger history next Saturday. "But then I'm gonna watch some film on UCF and get ready for them. It's a big one. We've come a long way [since the UCF loss]. We've matured a lot."

Norvell spoke the words of a coach who is pleased, but not quite satisfied. "You embrace the emotion," he emphasized, "but this journey is not over. The next chapter is there in front of us, and it's gonna take every bit of preparation that we have. We're playing a great football team next Saturday. We have to go to work and put ourselves in position to be successful."

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