Two fumbles and two penalties.
The margin for error against a Top-10 team is razor thin to begin with. When reviewing film of their one-point loss to 10th-ranked UCF Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl, the Memphis Tigers will recoil at four plays that were more than enough to give the Knights their 19th straight victory.
Down a point with less than a minute to play and with no timeouts left, Tiger quarterback Brady White
completed a pass near the right sideline to tight end Sean Dykes
. But Dykes failed to get out of bounds at the Knights' 35-yard line. Scrambling into formation, a Tiger offensive lineman was penalized for a false start. Not only did the infraction move the Tigers out of Riley Patterson's field-goal range, but the 10-second clock runoff took the play clock down to 18 seconds. White complete a pass to Tony Pollard
on the next play, but it proved to be the last of the game when Pollard was tackled in bounds. Thus ended the Tigers' 12-game winning streak at the Liberty Bowl just as a Memphis losing streak to UCF grew to 12 games.
"In the second half, we did things that cost you against a great opponent," said Memphis coach Mike Norvell. "We turned the ball over twice, had a touchdown called back. Errors you can't have. Our team battled. It's disappointing when you come up short, because we had opportunities in that game. You put a lot of time and effort into that one opportunity, and we came up short. They represented our university well."
On the Tigers' penultimate possession, Darrell Henderson
appeared to give Memphis the lead on a 33-yard touchdown run, only to have the play negated by a holding penalty against freshman guard Dylan Parham. An ensuing sack of White forced the Tigers to punt.
Fumbles on consecutive Tiger possessions in the second half — one by Henderson and one by Kedarian Jones (at the Knights' 26-yard line) — allowed UCF to erase a 30-17 halftime deficit. Taj McGowan rambled 71 yards on a fourth-and-one play from the Knights' 29-yard line to close the deficit to 30-24 and UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton scored what proved to be the game-winner on a 7-yard run not quite three minutes into the fourth quarter. Milton converted a third-and-11 pass play on the decisive drive, connecting with tight end Michael Colubiale.
"They made adjustments [in the second half]," said Norvell. "They did things to disrupt our running game. The rain created some challenges when we tried to throw the football. It's unfortunate that we couldn't finish it off."
"You gotta have a great intensity and focus," emphasized White. "It was just a matter of not finishing." White completed 17 of 29 passes for 209 yards, comparable figures to Milton, a preseason favorite to win the American Athletic Conference's Offensive Player of the Year honors. Milton connected on 17 of 29 passes for 296 yards. The Tigers sacked him four times (two each by John Tate
and Joseph Dorceus
The game had different rhythms in each half. Memphis scored on all six of its possessions in the first half, one of them a 25-yard jaunt by Henderson, who rushed for 199 yards on a career-high 31 carries and surpassed 1,100 yards for the season. UCF kicker Matthew Wright ended the first half with a 44-yard field goal after the Tigers called timeout just as he previously drilled an attempt off the right upright.
The teams combined to punt on the first five series of the second half before McGowan's touchdown run. Despite their struggles after halftime, Memphis outgained UCF for the game, 490 yards to 461 (both figures well below the teams' averages for the season).
The loss drops the Tigers to 4-3 (1-3 in the AAC), while UCF improves to 6-0 (3-0 in the AAC). Memphis travels to Missouri next week to face another streak of Tigers. They won't return to the Liberty Bowl until November 10th when Tulsa comes to town.
"Each game of this magnitude, you have to be great at the little things," stressed Norvell. "We gave them a short field, and then the penalties. You're not going to beat a good team when that happens. The rain plays a factor, but it was wet for both sides. They did a good job with their adjustments. We can't control the weather. We have to keep growing, keep getting better. We have eight seniors, and their leadership is key. The future's bright, but having these experiences . . . it's hard."