It's a measure of the Memphis football program's growth that a crowd of 45,172 could be drawn to the Liberty Bowl for a game — on Thursday night — that they could have watched on TV at home with the rest of the country courtesy of ESPN. And with nary an SEC foe in sight.
But how do Memphis and Cincinnati — merely front-runners in the American Athletic Conference — keep such a crowd (and national audience) energized? How about combining for 1,322 yards of offense, 12 touchdowns, and 11 lead changes in 60 minutes of game action. Not until Tiger linebacker Leonard Pegues
picked off a desperation toss by Bearcat quarterback Hayden Moore with six seconds left — inside the Memphis
20-yard line — were the Tigers able to secure a program-record 11th straight victory and a 4-0 start to the 2015 season. In doing so, Memphis earned its first AAC win of the season and dropped league favorite Cincinnati to 0-2 in AAC play.
"I want to thank our fans and the city of Memphis for putting on such a great show tonight," said Memphis coach Justin Fuente
, whose career record is now, for the first time, above .500 (21-20). "It was a special atmosphere. We have a lot of improvement to do, on both sides of the ball. I felt lucky at halftime to only be down two points. But we found a way to get it done. Our kids showed great perseverance. There were things I didn't like: too many penalties [nine for 100 yards] and we didn't play well defensively [752 yards on 100 plays by Cincinnati]. The kids have worked incredibly hard. We're not in uncharted territory when it comes to being in battles. I'm happy that we won, but 752 yards is not something I'm proud of."
Just five days after scoring 44 points in a win at Bowling Green, the Tigers extended a program-record of consecutive 40-point games to six (dating back to the end of the 2014 season). The U of M's final points of the night were scored on a three-yard run by junior Sam Craft
with 53 seconds to play. After losing a fumble on his team's opening possession, Craft found some vindication by carrying on three successive plays for the final 20 yards in the Tigers' game-winning drive.
"Sam's one of the first guys who came here over other places," noted Fuente. "He's from Memphis. I know he was excited to play tonight. This game meant a lot to him on a personal level. When he struggled early, I wanted him to know that we were going to come back to him, and he'd play a big role in the game. Maybe he was too excited. But I wanted him to know he's important to us.
Also important to the Tiger cause is quarterback Paxton Lynch
. The junior completed 24 of 36 passes for 412 yards and two touchdowns, one of them for 82 yards in the first quarter to Anthony Miller
, the longest scoring strike of Lynch's career. For the season, Lynch has now thrown eight touchdown passes without an interception. He also carried the ball 11 times for a team-high 61 yards (losing nine yards on a Bearcat sack) and converted a two-point conversion that gave Memphis a 46-39 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
"I told the defensive guys to just keep plugging away," said Lynch. "Like last week when we were in a shootout with Bowling Green, just get a stop, give the offense a chance. We believe in each other and always have each others' backs. We're resilient; we never give up. We'll fight to the last minute of a game."
Are such games energizing for a quarterback? Or just tiring? "Definitely very tiring," he said. "And emotional, but that's how football is. You play long enough, you're bound to play in one of these games. You just have to stay locked in. The mindset is to go out and score on every drive."
Cincinnati quarterback Gunner Kiel went down on a violent (but legal) hit from Tiger cornerback Chauncey Lanier late in the first quarter. He was taken to a local hospital where reports had him conscious and moving all extremities. Reserve Hayden Moore (a redshirt freshman) completed 31 of 53 passes for 557 yards and four touchdowns. Three Cincinnati receivers accumulated more than 100 yards for the night: Max Morrison (162), Chris Moore (153), and Shaq Washington (120).
Over its last two games, the Memphis defense has allowed a combined 1,063 yards through the air. Dion Witty
led Memphis with eight solo tackles. Reserve cornerback Arthur Maulet
returned an interception 59 yards for the Tigers' first touchdown of the game in the first quarter.
Miller led the Tigers with 156 yards on five catches. Roderick Proctor
had 78 on just three receptions. The Tigers have scored 215 points in their first four games. The program record is 471, scored over 13 games last season.
When asked about the magnitude of reaching 11 straight wins less than four full seasons after inheriting a team near the bottom of college football's barrel, Fuente deferred such a big-picture view. "I have a hard time with that," he said. "I'm happy for the program, but for me, it's about the season. I know how many difficult challenges we have ahead, and how much better we've got to get to win just one more game. I'm proud of it, but I'm kind of a small-picture guy. We're trying to focus on just one at a time. The bottom line is we're 1-0 in the conference and now we go to South Florida next week."