For the first time in six long years, the Memphis Tigers are bowl-bound. When Jake Elliott's 31-yard field goal attempt just cleared the left upright as time expired tonight in Philadelphia, the U of M secured its sixth win of the season and retained a portion of first place in the American Athletic Conference. Better yet, the Tigers avenged perhaps the ugliest defeat in coach Justin Fuente's three years at the helm, a 41-20 loss to Temple last November at the Liberty Bowl.
After the Owls tied the game with a 45-yard field goal by Austin Jones with 2:46 to play, the Tigers drove the ball 66 yards to set up the winning kick. Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch completed short passes to Mose Frazier, Tevin Jones, and Keiwone Malone around ground gains by tailback Brandon Hayes. (In rushing for 75 yards on 26 carries, Hayes became the eighth Tiger to rush for 2,000 yards in his career.) Elliott's winning field ended one of only two second-half drives that didn't culminate in a punt for Memphis, the other being a 27-yard field goal that gave the Tigers a 13-10 lead late in the third quarter. (That field goal was set up by a fumbled punt recovered by the Tigers' Regis Ball at the Temple 10-yard line.)
With the exception of a 75-yard touchdown run by the Owls' Kenny Harper late in the first quarter — a score that gave Temple an early 10-0 lead — the Memphis defense contained an offense commanded by dual-threat quarterback P.J. Walker. Several Walker passes hit targets, only to be dropped or deflected (one of them intercepted by Tiger cornerback Andrew Gaines in the second quarter, deep in Memphis territory). The Tigers held Temple to 308 total yards (4.4 yards per play), enough for them to win their first game of the season without gaining 200 yards on the ground (81).
The Tigers also protected the ball against an Owl defense that forced seven turnovers in an upset last Saturday of East Carolina. The only Memphis miscue came on a Temple punt that deflected off B.J. Ross before being recovered by the Owls. Temple was unable to score despite taking over at the Tigers' 25-yard line.
The Tigers' lone touchdown came shortly after a shanked punt by Temple's Alex Starzyk. From the Temple 41, Lynch completed a 24-yard pass to Frazier, then a 17-yarder to Hayes who entered the right corner of the end zone untouched to tie the game at 10 with just under four minutes to play before halftime. After the break, the teams combined for eight punts and three field goals, the Tigers' game-winning drive the only steady display of offense.
Now 6-3 (4-1 in American play), Memphis has a chance to make a good season rather special. The Tigers' three remaining games are against AAC bottom-feeders Tulane (next Saturday in New Orleans), USF (November 22nd at the Liberty Bowl) and UConn (November 29th at the Liberty Bowl). Two more wins would give the program just its fifth 8-win season in more than 50 years. Memphis also remains in the hunt for the American championship, currently a five-team race alongside ECU, UCF, Houston, and Cincinnati.
For now, there's plenty to celebrate in merely gaining bowl eligibility. One year after finishing 3-9, three years after finishing 2-10, the University of Memphis is riding a three-game winning streak toward postseason football. Wait 'til this year, indeed.