"That was a game we needed," said Memphis football coach Mike Norvell Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl, after his Tigers improved to 3-1 on the season. "We obviously didn't play our best game. There are a lot of things we need to get corrected. But we got to see the heart of this football team."
The Jaguars (of the Sun Belt Conference) knocked the Tiger defense around, particularly in the first half. An 11-yard touchdown pass from USA quarterback Evan Orth to Zac Crosby with less than a minute to play in the first half tied the score at 21 and left Norvell and his staff with some motivating to do at halftime. It wasn't until the Tiger defense held the Jaguars on downs inside the Memphis 10-yard line — with the U of M leading 31-27 — that momentum felt firmly in favor of the home team. An ensuing 92-yard drive culminated in a 16-yard touchdown scamper by Tony Pollard
(on a reverse) and provided the Tigers with enough to secure the victory.
"It was a very physical game," said Norvell. "At halftime, we really challenged our guys to show what we're made of. In the second half, we didn't play a clean game. But they found a way to respond in every situation. They battled. I'm really pleased with the big guys on the offensive side of the ball."
The Tigers surrendered 467 yards to the Jaguars, considerably more than they'd allowed any of their first three opponents. Orth completed 24 of 32 passes for 360 yards and three touchdowns. Wideout Jamarius Way stretched the Memphis secondary, hauling in ten passes for 185 yards and a touchdown.
However staggered the Memphis defense may have been, the Tigers had Darrell Henderson
to counter. The junior tailback got Memphis on the scoreboard with a 13-yard run midway through the first quarter to tie the game at 7. He scored again on an electric 54-yard sprint with 11:16 left in the game that gave Memphis a 45-27 lead. For the game, Henderson rushed for 188 yards on 22 carries, giving him 709 rushing yards in four games to go with nine total touchdowns.
Quarterback Brady White
balanced the Tiger attack with 292 yards through the air, completing 22 of 29 attempts and two touchdowns, including an off-balance toss to Damonte Coxie
who made an acrobatic catch in the back of the end zone in the third quarter for his fourth touchdown of the season. Coxie caught eight passes for 113 yards.
led the Memphis defense with 11 tackles and sophomore cornerback T.J. Carter
had seven solo stops. But Carter acknowledged the game is not a model for what remains on the Tiger schedule. "It goes to show you can't under-estimate any team," said Carter. "I feel like we prepared, but it's a lesson learned. We've got a dominant defense, but today we took a step back. Gave up too many points. Most of that was on the back end. I'll take full responsibility for the secondary."
Despite its struggles, the Tiger defense recovered a pair of fumbles, including one inside the Memphis 10-yard line. Memphis did not commit a turnover.
Looking ahead, Norvell emphasized the importance of his team — both offense and defense — "winning their one-on-ones." He applauded White's interception-free outing and mentioned the versatility of his running game, led by the dynamic Henderson. "We wanted to be able to run the football," said Norvell, "but we also wanted to create some space [for the passing game]."
The Tigers have a short week to prepare for their next game, a Friday-night visit to Tulane. With the exception of Missouri (on the road) on October 20th, the balance of the Memphis schedule (eight games) will be American Athletic Conference opposition. Navy lost to SMU Saturday, leaving the Midshipmen even with Memphis in league losses with one apiece.
NOTE: Senior pass-rusher Jackson Dillon left the game with an undisclosed injury and Norvell did not have an update during his postgame press conference.