American Athletic Conference West Division champions.
The 2017 Memphis Tigers — ranked 18th in the AP poll and climbing — still have a lot to play for this season. But however the next two weeks unfold — whether or not they achieve what not long ago would have been considered beyond reach — the Tiger program has a shiny new piece of hardware for which to be extra thankful this holiday season. In erasing an early 10-0 deficit and beating the SMU Mustangs Saturday at the Liberty Bowl, the Tigers extended their winning streak to six games and, for the first time, clinched a berth in a league-championship game. (The AAC title game will be December 2nd, location still to be determined.) Memphis improved its overall record to 9-1 (6-1 in the AAC) behind an offense just about as balanced as they come: 333 yards rushing and 331 yards receiving.
"I'm so very proud of our football team," said Tiger coach Mike Norvell. "To play with the energy and passion they did against a very good SMU team . . . they were relentless all day long. We did something to make Mother Nature not like us a whole lot, but even through that . . . the mindset, the attitude. No adversity was going to distract this football team."
Severe weather moved into the area early in the fourth quarter and, with lightning within eight miles of the stadium, the game was delayed for 57 minutes. The Mustangs, down 52-38 at the time of the delay, failed to convert on third down when play was resumed and punted to the Tiger 48-yard-line. On the Tigers' first post-delay snap, sophomore tailback Darrell Henderson
sprinted though the line and 52 yards later secured the contest. It was the sixth of seven rushing touchdowns for the Tigers (tying a program record), but only Henderson's second-longest of the game. The Batesville native galloped 70 yards with 10:17 to play before halftime to give Memphis its first 14-point lead of the game.
Two of the top-10 scoring teams in the country, the Tigers and Mustangs took turns reaching the end zone on eight consecutive possessions — three of the scores coming in the second quarter, four in the third, and one in the fourth — growing the score (the Tigers led throughout the stretch) from 24-10 to 52-38. Not until the lengthy delay and Henderson's 52-yard jaunt did Memphis gain what could be called comfortable separation.
"That's what I wanted to see with the character of this team," said Norvell. "Going 1 and 0 this week. With everything they've done before today, they had a chance to hoist a trophy. And that was a goal we established when we started. We wanted to go undefeated in the West Division, and we accomplished that today. To see them celebrate together, and knowing how hard they worked and prepared is pretty special. I'm honored to be their coach. The journey's not done. We just afforded ourselves one more opportunity."
The Memphis defense presented just enough resistance, senior linebacker Genard Avery
leading the way with three tackles behind the line of scrimmage. (He now has 17 such stops this season.) But this was a game for offensive stars. And the Tigers had their share:
• Senior wide receiver Anthony Miller
caught eight passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns, breaking Duke Calhoun's Memphis career record for receptions (he's up to 217) and surpassing 1,000 yards for the season, which makes him the only Tiger in history to accumulate such a total twice. Miller's two scores give him 35 career touchdowns, one shy of Dave Casinelli for second in Memphis history.
• Sophomore tailback Patrick Taylor
carried the ball 18 times for 114 yards and scored his 10th and 11th touchdowns of the season.
• Senior quarterback Riley Ferguson
completed 21 of 27 passes for 320 yards (surpassing 3,000 yards for the season), tossed two touchdown passes, and ran for three more, the first time, Ferguson says, he's ever scored three rushing touchdowns in a game. ("He's been telling me about a move for two years," chuckled Norvell, "and I finally got to see it.")
• Henderson's lengthy runs added up to 147 yards on the ground and now put him within range of a 1,000-yard season with 923. "Our line did an amazing job today," said Henderson, "giving me big seams to run through." When asked if he's ever been caught from behind on a lengthy sprint to the end zone, Henderson smiled slightly, tilted his head, and said, "Nooo."
Ferguson knows there's more to achieve. A win next week over East Carolina would give the program only its third 10-win season (and second in the last four years). A win in the AAC Championship (over UCF or USF) would likely earn the Tigers a coveted trip to a "New Year's Six" bowl game (the Peach in Atlanta). Every win gives more meaning to the next week's game. "We don't worry about rankings, or what our record is," said Ferguson. "We're trying to go out each week and be the best Memphis Tiger football team we can be, and if we do that, things work out, like they have been."
The Tigers host the Pirates (3-8 after beating Cincinnati Saturday) next Saturday at the Liberty Bowl. Kickoff is scheduled for 11 a.m.