One-point losses torture. Today's defeat in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl — by that most narrow of margins — will leave a scar for certain Tigers, those like Riley Ferguson, Anthony Miller, Genard Avery, and Gabe Kuhn, who have now each played their final game in blue and gray. Playing before a sellout crowd of 57,266 on a chilly, overcast day in the Mid-South, Iowa State capitalized once more than did the home team, a third-quarter touchdown reception by game MVP Allen Lazard providing the winning point total. Lazard pulled down the catch — his 10th, tying the record for the bowl game — as he fell down behind a trio of Memphis defenders, his backside barely still in play.
Lazard's game-winner came moments after Memphis linebacker Curtis Akins intercepted a Kyle Kempt pass, a turnover that seemed to preserve a 17-14 Tiger lead. But Avery — voted the Tigers' Most Outstanding Defensive Player — was penalized for roughing Kempt on the play. (The senior linebacker didn't leave his feet on the contact that knocked the Cyclone quarterback to the turf.) "I was just playing my game," said Avery during the postgame press conference. "I felt like it was a bad call."
The third 10-win season in Memphis history ends, ironically, on a two-game losing streak, the team's final record 10-3. Iowa State finishes 8-5.
"It was among our tougher challenges," said Cyclone coach Matt Campbell. "To come in here and win a game against a team that's very familiar with their environment. That's one thing that makes a bowl game a little different: usually it's at a neutral site. But that's part of the uniqueness of the game this year. Our guys were all for it. I think it adds to the lore of the win for this football team."
Trailing by one (21-20) with just over four minutes left in the game, Memphis forced the first fumbled turnover all season by the Cyclones, Iowa State tailback David Montgomery losing the ball as he fell into the end zone. (The play was confirmed after a lengthy review that left the blue side of the stadium elated and the red enraged.) But The Tigers' final drive of the game stalled at midfield, Ferguson missing his fourth-down target (senior receiver Phil Mayhue) before Memphis could get within field-goal range for kicker Riley Patterson.
"[Coach Campbell] came into the huddle and told us that he hoped the call went against us," said Cylcone linebacker Joel Lanning. "He wanted us to show people that we've learned [through adversity]. We just keep playing. Memphis is a great team, and they drove down on us pretty quick. We had to cover everything. Guys made great plays there at the end."
"We weren't able to establish our running game today," said Memphis coach Mike Norvell. "And that allowed them to tee off on us a little bit." The Tigers allowed Ferguson to be sacked six times after allowing a total of 15 sacks over the team's first 12 games. The U of M's top rusher this season, Darrell Henderson, missed the game with a leg injury. Patrick Taylor had a pair of 20-yard runs on a drive that culminated in a field goal late in the third quarter, the final points of the ball game.
"It's been a heckuva two years," said Ferguson, voted the Tigers' Most Outstanding Offensive Player. "I've been truly blessed to play for the University of Memphis. I love my brothers, my coaches, this program. It's not the way we wanted to end it, but this is a special place, no matter what." In passing for 286 yards, Ferguson became the first Tiger quarterback to surpass 4,000 yards in a single season. His two touchdown passes Saturday set a new U of M single-season mark of 38 for the year.
Ferguson's first touchdown connection came on a screen to senior Anthony Miller, his record-breaking partner in crime. The 40th touchdown of Miller's Tiger career tied the score at 7 midway through the first quarter. (Among former Tigers, only DeAngelo Williams reached the end zone more often.) Miller was generally held in check by the Cyclone defense but finishes his senior season with new records for receptions (96) and yardage (1,462), eclipsing the standards he set in 2016.
Memphis took the lead on its first possession of the second half. Ferguson completed a four-play, 66-yard drive with a 36-yard completion to Mayhue, one the receiver signed with a brilliant juke around two Cyclone defenders. That 21-17 lead held until the Lazard game-winner. No points were scored in the fourth quarter.
One Tiger possession late in the first quarter will linger in the minds of those who ponder when, exactly, a game tilts. With the game knotted at seven points, Ferguson appeared to hit his target for a go-ahead touchdown, only for the play to be negated by an illegal-player-downfield penalty. When Riley Patterson missed a 38-yard field-goal attempt, the possession proved empty. And in one-point games, empty possessions can prove fatal.
In being held to 20 points, Memphis fell eight points shy of the first 600-point season in program history. The Tiger offense ran only 59 plays, compared with 80 for the Cyclones. The Tigers were only 3 for 12 on third-down conversions. In a one-point game, the heavy advantage Iowa State enjoyed in time of possession — 37:49 to 22:11 for Memphis — may be, for posterity's sake, the decisive factor.
"All the pieces are in place to continue to grow," said Norvell, now armed with a five-year contract extension after putting up a record of 18-8 over his first two seasons in Memphis.
"The commitment from our university, from the young men in our program, is one of the highest standards. We have to learn from these experiences. The highs, the lows. That's all part of it. These kids are going to be hungry. We have a great foundation."