On a chilly November night at the Liberty Bowl, the Memphis Tigers were victimized by a bouquet of Flowers.
Entering Saturday's game, USF quarterback Quinton Flowers had compiled the kind of numbers — 1,941 passing yards, 921 rushing yards, and 27 combined touchdowns — that would have him leading Heisman Trophy projections if he played in a Power Five conference. Merely starring in the American Athletic Conference, though, Flowers continues to compile the numbers — and stupefy defenses — without any false illusions about a trip to New York City in December. Against Memphis, he passed for 263 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 210 yards with three more scores. Flowers's season totals now exceed 2,000 yards passing, 1,000 yards rushing, and 30 touchdowns with two regular-season games still to play. His Bulls improved to 8-2 on the season and are in contention for the AAC's East Division title with a 5-1 league record.
The numbers are one thing, but the plays Flowers makes — in traffic and through space — distinguish him like few dual-threat quarterbacks in the land. With the scored tied at 42 and less than five minutes to play, Flowers twice converted third-down plays through sheer athleticism. On the first, from the Tiger 49-yard line, Flowers escaped a heavy Memphis pass rush and galloped around right end for the five necessary yards, and then some. Three plays later, needing eight yards to extend the drive, Flowers completed a pass with Tiger linebacker Austin Hall
wrapped around his legs. The 22-yard, game-winning touchdown run that soon followed seemed casual in comparison.
"There were a bunch of plays where we had people in place," noted Tiger coach Mike Norvell
. "But then the missed tackles. You've got a guy with freakish abilities, to be honest. There were numerous plays, including the last touchdown, when we had guys on him, and he found a way to escape. He's done that to a lot of people. That doesn't make it any better for it to happen against us."
After falling behind 14-0 midway through the first quarter, the Tigers fought back steadily, and took the lead — twice — in the third quarter. After a 36-yard run by tailback Patrick Taylor
, U of M quarterback Riley Ferguson
hit Daniel Hurd
for a seven-yard touchdown on the Tigers' first possession of the second half, giving the Tigers a 24-21 lead. Anthony Miller
then recovered an onside kick at the USF 49-yard line, but the momentum shift died when Ferguson threw an interception (by Deatrick Nichols) at the 19. The Bulls responded with a quick drive culminating in a (ho-hum) Flowers 12-yard run. But Ferguson found tight end Daniel Montiel
from the one on the ensuing drive to give the Tigers a 31-28 lead.
Three precious points slipped away late in the third quarter when Memphis kicker Jake Elliott pulled a 50-yard field-goal attempt slightly left, leaving the score 35-34 in USF's favor.
Following a Marlon Mack touchdown (42-34, USF), Tony Pollard
returned the kickoff to the Tiger 43-yard line. On the next snap, Ferguson found Miller in stride for a 57-yard touchdown. The two-point conversion (Ferguson to Phil Mayhue
) knotted things at 42, setting up Flowers's game-winning heroics.
Memphis had one last chance — three, really — to tie the game at 49, but three Ferguson passes fell incomplete from the Bulls three-yard line, the last one deflecting off Miller's hands as he was tightly covered. (Perhaps too tightly. Miller claimed after the game that his arm was grabbed as he jumped for the ball.)
All in all, this was Pac 12 football two time zones early. USF gained 679 yards on 79 plays while the Tigers racked up 608 on 81. Ferguson completed 29 of 46 passes for 331 yards. Montiel caught ten passes for 100 yards. Three different Tigers — Darrell Henderson
, Taylor, and Doroland Dorceus
— each ran for at least 75 yards.
Flowers aside, the star of the show was Anthony Miller. The junior wideout caught ten passes for 153 yards and in so doing, broke the great Isaac Bruce's single-season Memphis record for receiving yards (1,054 in 1993). With three games left to play, Miller has 1,077 yards. "It seems like we lose every time I break a record," said Miller after the game. "So I don't know how to feel about it really."
"I hurt for [our team]," said Norvell. "It really hurts, coming up short. But I love the guys in that locker room. We have to respond the right way. I want to thank all the veterans who came out to support us tonight. We're so grateful for their service. We're honored to play this great game; working hard to make you proud. It's a shame we came up short today."
The loss drops Memphis to 6-4 for the season (3-3 in the AAC). The Tigers travel to Cincinnati for their next game, Friday night. They'll host the regular-season finale (against Houston) on November 25th.