Larry Porter has taken his share of shots this month, but say this about the second-year Tiger football coach: He’s got a winning record against teams from Tennessee. In beating Austin Peay tonight at the Liberty Bowl, Memphis ended an 11-game losing streak, one that began a week after a victory over Middle Tennessee a year ago Sunday. (Porter’s only loss to an intrastate rival came against Tennessee last November.) A measure of relief could be heard in the coach’s voice during his postgame comments. “I want to commend our team for sticking together, and fighting through,” said Porter. “We got off to a very slow start, with penalties. We can’t sustain that type of play and create any kind of energy early in the game. But our defense stepped up and almost held a team scoreless. All in all, this victory was needed. It’s much easier to correct errors after a victory than a loss. We’ll continue to build from this point forward.”
Facing a second-tier team (from the Football Championship Subdivision) that lost its opener to Cincinnati, 72-10, the Tigers found themselves in a scoreless battle entering the second quarter. Had Austin Peay kicker Stephen Stansell not missed a pair of field-goal attempts, the U of M would have been down six points. But with 8:14 left before halftime, the Tigers’ freshman quarterback Taylor Reed — a left-handed passer — rolled wide left and hurled a 42-yard strike to Tannar Rehrer just inside the goal-line pylon for the first Memphis lead of the season. “That was a play we just put in this week,” explained Reed after the game. “It was a long, drawn-out double post and, honestly, the ball should have been there quicker than it was. He made a great play on the ball. It was actually designed for me to carry myself to the right and set up behind protection.”
A 30-yard field goal by Paulo Henriques gave Memphis a 10-0 lead at the half, then a bit of good fortune helped the Tigers take a commanding lead early in the third quarter. Reed connected with tight end Andrew Ena-Ita with a pass across midfield, only to watch Ena-Ita fumble the ball when hit deep in the Governor secondary. To the rescue, though, came freshman wideout Kevin Wright, who picked up the loose ball and scampered 22 yards for a touchdown that gave the Tigers a 17-0 advantage.
Thanks largely to a 93-yard catch-and-run touchdown by Billy Foster with two minutes left in the game, Reed finished his first college win with some glowing numbers: 20 completions in 30 attempts for 332 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. “You’ve got to give credit to our skill guys who made plays downfield,” said Reed. “I mean, Billy turned nothing into something big there at the end. And I wasn’t sacked at all tonight.”
Foster’s numbers jumped off the stat sheet as well, with 62 yards on the ground and 118 via four catches. Marcus Rucker caught six passes for 64 yards before leaving the game in the third quarter after being kneed in the back. On the defensive side of the ball, linebacker Akeem Davis had 10 solo tackles for Memphis.
After giving up more than 600 yards against both Mississippi State and Arkansas State, the Tiger defense held Austin Peay to 368 yards and picked off a pair of Jake Ryan passes (by Lavaris Edwards and Taurean Nixon).
The Tigers (1-2) will host SMU next Saturday in their first Conference USA game of the season. (The Mustangs, now 2-1, beat Northwestern State 40-7 on Saturday.)
NOTES: The Tigers played the majority of the game with their third-string center, freshman Monte Golden, after today’s starter, Chris Schuetz left the game with a leg injury. • Porter said he does not anticipate tailback Jerrell Rhodes returning for the SMU game. Rhodes suffered a knee bruise in the opening game of the season. • Tonight was the first time Memphis has scored 20 points since its last victory (over MTSU) on September 18, 2010.