It took 12 games as a head coach for Mike Norvell
to earn his first Gatorade shower.
Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson
hit his favorite target, Anthony Miller
, on a slant pattern for a 10-yard touchdown with 19 seconds to play Friday afternoon to give the Tigers their biggest win of the season to date. The duo's 15th connection of the game gave Memphis the victory after four lead changes in the game's final ten minutes. After a week of speculation about whether or not he would play following an undisclosed injury last week at Cincinnati, Ferguson completed 30 of 45 passes for 409 yards and four touchdowns. As for Miller, the record-setting junior scored two of those touchdowns and added 169 yards to the single-season record he'd already established (now 1,283). Miller shattered Isaac Bruce's single-season mark for receptions in a season (74) and now has 84 with a bowl game to play.
The heart-pounding win made for fitting holiday fare, with 36,527 fans in the Liberty Bowl for Senior Day and a national-TV audience watching, ABC hooked largely by Cougar upsets earlier this season of Top-5 opponents Oklahoma and Louisville. Instead, Memphis ended a six-game losing streak to its longtime rival from Texas and avenged a one-point loss last season.
"What a game," said a partially dry Norvell after the win. "I'm so very proud of this football team, this coaching staff, everyone associated with this program. We had an opportunity to go out and do something special. The way our guys prepared was incredible. I'm glad the game went the way it did — with the ups and downs — because it provided us an opportunity to show our heart and character, how our guys would respond. Houston has a terrific football team. But today, our guys would not be denied. To see the joy and excitement in that locker room . . . that's what makes coaching."
Memphis scored on its second play from scrimmage, a 67-yard pass from Ferguson to Phil Mayhue
, and proceeded to score on every other possession — five of them — in the first half for a 34-17 lead. The Cougars had the lone punt of the first half, and an interception by junior safety Shaun Rupert
preceded a two-yard Darrell Henderson
touchdown run that seemed to give the Tigers a cushion heading into the second half.
Houston scored the next 20 points, though, quarterback Greg Ward tossing a pair of lengthy touchdown passes, first to Chance Allen (35 yards), then to Linell Bonner for 55 to give the Cougars their first lead (37-34) with just over seven minutes to play in the game.
A 35-yard surgical strike from Ferguson to Miller in the right corner of the end zone seized the lead back for the Tigers and culminated a 75-yard drive with 3:49 left on the clock. But the Cougars responded and drove 75 yards themselves, Ward hitting Allen just inside the right boundary of the end zone for a 44-41 Houston lead with 1:29 to play.
"We live for this," said Ferguson when asked about his team's final drive of the game. "I was talking with [reserve quarterback] Jason Stewart on the sideline. It's like MJ [Michael Jordan]. Give us the ball."
After a 12-yard Ferguson scramble took the ball to the Memphis 40-yard line, Ferguson found Mayhue, who made a leaping catch near the sideline for a 30-yard gain. A pass interference penalty on Cougar cornerback Brandon Wilson took the ball to the Houston 15 with less than a minute to play. Doroland Dorceus
ran inside for five yards, setting up the game-winning pass to Miller.
"We knew if we got man [coverage], we were going to work Anthony," said Norvell. "It was a great play call by [offensive coordinator] Chip Long. They executed. What a great ending."
Ferguson laughed when asked about his prime target. "Try and guard him," he said. "Throw the ball to Anthony . . . and try and guard him."
"You've got to have that confidence," said Miller, "that no one can stop you. I saw the linebackers stepping up, which left the middle wide open. This is one of the biggest wins of my life. Coach says big-time players make big-time plays, in big-time situations. Phil Mayhue made some huge catches. And shout-out to the O-line." Mayhue finished the game with six catches for 142 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The Tigers won despite giving up 624 yards on an astounding 101 plays by the Houston offense. This despite eight tackles behind the Houston line of scrimmage. Junior safety Jonathan Cook
had 10 solo tackles to lead the Tigers and sophomore Tye Northern
The U of M ground attack accumulated 146 yards against a Cougar defense that came into the game allowing fewer than 100 per game. Overall, Memphis gained 555 yards, its third-highest total of the season.
"Early in the week," said Norvell, "we felt good about what we could do. Plans don't always look very good on game day, but our kids prepared. They studied. They had a focus. We had to be balanced. We ran the ball for 150 yards against a team that doesn't give up 100 all year. Our offensive line . . . what an incredible job."
The win improves the Tiger record to 8-4 (5-3 in the American Athletic Conference), while Houston falls to 9-3 (5-3). Memphis now awaits an invitation to its postseason game, one of eight bowls affiliated with the AAC.
Talk has centered around the Boca Raton Bowl (December 20th) and the Birmingham Bowl (December 29th), the latter where the Tigers' 2015 season ended with a loss to Auburn.
Norvell considers any bowl destination its own championship of sorts. "Every bowl game is a reward," he said. "It's an opportunity to be in that locker room one more time with that group of guys. It's going to be special. We're going to be grateful, and we're going to prepare to be victorious. We want to maximize every opportunity. When you walk in our team room, that's what you see at the top of our pyramid: finish as bowl champions. Every year."