If it's not the biggest win in Memphis Tiger history, it will lead the conversation for years to come. After falling behind by 14 points in the game's first six minutes, the Tigers scored 31 unanswered points, held 13th-ranked Ole Miss scoreless in the fourth quarter, and completed the program's 13th consecutive win. Now 6-0 on the season, the Tigers will surely enter the AP Top 25 as they stare at a second half of the season packed with American Athletic Conference foes.
"I couldn't be prouder to be associated with this city, this community, and this program today," said Memphis coach Justin Fuente after the game. "The 8:30 Tiger Walk this morning was unbelievable. We want to encourage them to keep coming, make this place a true home advantage." The crowd of 60,241 was the seventh-largest to see a Tiger game at the Liberty Bowl. The upset was also witnessed by a national TV audience, courtesy of ABC's cameras.
Paxton Lynch delivers.
"[Ole Miss] is really talented," said Fuente. "You could see that on the field. But our kids clawed, fought, and scratched, and found a way to win the game." The win is just the Tigers' third (in 29 games) against an SEC opponent since the monumental upset of Tennessee in 1996 (the last time Memphis beat a nationally ranked opponent). The Rebels beat second-ranked Alabama four weeks ago, but now find themselves 5-2 on the season.
Tiger quarterback Paxton Lynch
likely climbed some NFL draft boards by completing 39 of 53 passes for 384 yards and three touchdowns, one thrown with surgical precision over 31 yards to Mose Frazier
, extending the Tiger lead to 31-14 early in the third quarter. Lynch threw his first interception of the season in the second quarter, a pass deflected by Tiger wideout Jae'lon Oglesby. He now has thrown 13 touchdown passes.
Ole Miss All-America Robert Nkemdiche - a defensive tackle - was lost for the game carrying the ball on a third-and-one play early in the second quarter. He suffered a concussion on the play. "Every time he goes in on offense, they give him the ball," said Tiger linebacker Jackson Dillon
. "So we just swarmed him."
Ole Miss opened the scoring with a trick play just 20 seconds into the game. Rebel receiver Laquon Treadwell took a lateral pass from Chad Kelly, then tossed a lob to Quincy Adeboyejo who pranced down the right sideline for a 68-yard touchdown.
"I thought it was a great call for them," said Fuente, "knowing how excited we were to play. We over-committed and they hit us. We didn't make a tremendous amount of adjustments. We were able to put some pressure on the quarterback, keep the ball in front of us." The Tiger defense came up with two fourth-down stops, one at the Rebel 34-yard line late in the second quarter that ultimately led to a six-yard scoring strike from Lynch to sophomore Anthony Miller.
For the game, Miller caught 10 passes for 132 yards.
Ole Miss marched 68 yards in just over a minute of playing time and pulled within ten points (31-21) on a touchdown pass from Kelly to Treadwell midway through the third quarter. A 24-yard field goal by Gary Wunderlich with 16 seconds to play in the period brought the Rebels within a touchdown of the lead. But the Tigers chewed up much of the clock in the final period behind the running of Jarvis Cooper
(76 yards on 17 carries), extending their lead with a pair of field goals by Jake Elliott
, who moved into fifth place on the Memphis career-scoring chart (256 points).
Drew Kyser clears a path for Jarvis Cooper.
caught a one-yard touchdown pass from Lynch to open the Memphis scoring in the first quarter, breaking the Tiger career record for scores by a tight end (13). Cross was effusive in his praise of Lynch after the big win. "He's come a long way," said Cross. "I've seen him go from a young man to a man in just the snap of a finger. Today he kept his composure, made some good reads, made some good slide protections. He's a good leader."
The Tigers outgained the Rebels, 491 yards to 480, and held Ole Miss to 40 rushing yards on 24 carries. Sophomore safety Chris Morley
led Memphis with seven unassisted tackles, one of them in the Rebel backfield.
Noted Fuente, "I think there was a point in the first quarter when the guys were like, 'Yeah, maybe Coach hasn't been lying to us. Maybe we can do this.' My message has been you don't have to be better than you are. You don't have to be somebody you're not. Your best you is what we need. We need you to prepare, we need you to play well. They settled down and made some plays."
When asked about the remarkable progress the Memphis program has made in less than four years on his watch, Fuente deflected the spotlight as best he can. "If you think there have been distractions before, wait till now," he said. "I'm going to continue to try and protect them, but I know the attention will come. I appreciate [the magnitude of today's win], and I don't want to diminish that. I respect that. But it cannot be our focus. We are in the middle of a season. I'm going to relish it for a few hours with my family, but then we have to turn the page."
On the next page will be a Friday-night tilt at Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane lost at East Carolina today to fall to 3-3 on the season. The Tigers will return to the Liberty Bowl on Halloween when Tulane comes to town.