In a game that completed a half-century of Memphis football at the Liberty Bowl, the Tigers made plenty of history in beating the Connecticut Huskies today. The final score of 41-10 is almost the direct inverse of last year’s meeting (a 45-10 UConn win) and completes a precise reversal of the Tigers’ 3-9 record last season. In winning their ninth game of the season — a total reached by only five other teams in U of M history — the Tigers clinched at least a share of the 2014 American Athletic Conference championship. It’s the program’s first league title since winning the Missouri Valley Conference in 1971.
“I want to thank everyone who came out to tonight and supported this special, special group of kids,” said Tiger coach Justin Fuente of the 35,102 fans in attendance. “I don’t think I can say enough good things about them. The way they worked . . . . I don’t know if they’re the most talented team around, but they certainly played together. This was a fantastic all-around effort.”
The 2014 Tigers are just the second team in Memphis history to score 400 points in a season. With a total of 416, they could break the record of 430 (set in 2004) in their bowl game (still to be determined). The team’s current six-game winning streak is the program’s longest since 1969, and the nine wins this season match the total for the four-year seniors — honored before kickoff today — who played from 2011 to 2013.
The Memphis offense had difficulty gaining early traction against UConn (2-9), settling for a pair of Jake Elliott field goals in the first quarter. But late in the second quarter, quarterback Paxton Lynch found senior wideout Keiwone Malone on a six-yard fade pattern to complete an 80-yard touchdown drive and give the Tigers a 13-0 lead, all the points they’d need.
Lynch threw three more touchdown passes on three consecutive third-quarter possessions to fully prep Tiger fans for a championship celebration unlike any seen in these parts. He found Malone again (for nine yards), then Tevin Jones (for 12), and Phil Mayhue (for 21). For the game, Lynch completed 22 of 41 passes for 194 yards and did not throw an interception for the sixth straight contest. He also rushed for 56 yards in helping the Tigers score on all six entries into the red zone.
“After the Houston game [the Tigers’ last defeat], I made a bet with myself to not turn the ball over and hurt my team,” said a jubilant Lynch after the game. He finished the regular season with 18 touchdown passes and six interceptions (half of them in that Houston game).
Tailback Brandon Hayes had the unique experience of a second Senior Day, having been granted a sixth year of eligibility last spring (he missed the 2010 season due to a knee injury). Hayes gained but 65 yards today, but will lead Memphis in rushing yardage a third straight season. “After we beat Cincinnati, I knew we had the chance to be contenders, to win the conference,” said Hayes. “But Coach [Fuente] stayed on us, told us not to look past the next opponent. Just go 1-0. Everybody bought into it.”
Hayes and the 20 other Tiger seniors will be the faces of one of college football’s most remarkable recent turnarounds. “When I saw the confetti flying, I got choked up a bit,” he said. “I was just grateful to come back and showcase what I had. This is all bonus. It’s a great feeling. Going out with a bang like we did, the seniors deserve it. It means so much. We trusted in the coaches.”
Cornerback Bobby McCain is another senior grateful to be making plans for a bowl game and fully aware of the difference his class has made in Tiger football history. “We were just trying to get to a bowl game, do something special,” he said. “Coach Fuente told us during offseason workouts that we had the chance to do something special. He meant it. When we lost to UCLA, you could tell the way we came together. And then beating Middle Tennessee, a team we hadn’t beaten since I’ve been here. The seniors are great leaders. They come in ready to work. I’m gonna miss these guys. But I’ve got one more game to play.”
Fuente recognized the contributions — and not just this year’s — of the 2014 senior class. “They have set a great example for our young kids,” he said. “They’ve been selfless. Some of them don’t start, some play a lot on special teams. But they don’t do anything but try and help the team, every day. Think about what these kids have been through, and to achieve something a lot of people didn’t believe they could achieve. It speaks volumes about their character and work ethic. It will take them a long way in life. I think you’ll see them successful in whatever endeavor they choose.”
The Tigers must wait to see if their conference championship is theirs alone. For such a scenario, East Carolina must beat UCF next Thursday and Houston must beat Cincinnati next Saturday. Meanwhile, the Tigers will relish the finest season in 50 years of football at the Liberty Bowl, and await the December 7th announcement of where they’ll be traveling for postseason football. Birmingham? Miami? Atlanta? Doesn’t matter so much, as long as that confetti is flying.