Bowl eligibility arrived for the University of Memphis Saturday afternoon at the Liberty Bowl, and it came with an extra dose of history for the program. In hammering the Golden Hurricane for the second straight season, the Tigers improved to 6-4 for the season and will play in a bowl game for a fifth straight year. Central to the victory was the performance of tailback Darrell Henderson
, who became only the second player in Memphis history to surpass 3,000 rushing yards and only the third to score 40 touchdowns in his career. Henderson ran for 166 yards and a pair of touchdowns — giving him 1,446 and 20, respectively, for the season — to further secure his place among Tiger all-time greats.
"If it wasn't for the other ten guys [on the field], I wouldn't have numbers like those," said the soft-spoken junior after the game, a grin and tilt of his head the only indications that the statistics carry significant meaning. And as eye-popping as Henderson's records have become, Saturday's win was indeed a group achievement.
"We had a good week of preparation," said Tiger coach Mike Norvell. "I challenged our guys to play our most complete game. I wanted to see it in every phase. And I thought we dominated in every phase. It was exciting for me to see on the sideline as a coach. I'm proud of our defense; they were dominant. Offensively, we knew we had to establish the run, and we were efficient throwing the ball."
The play of the game actually came on special teams early in the fourth quarter, when junior Pop Williams
took a Tulsa punt at the Tigers' 28 yard line, spun 360 degrees amid a gang of Tulsa tacklers, then raced to the right sideline and into the end zone for a 72-yard touchdown, the first return to pay dirt of his career. The Tigers received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for the sideline mob that joined Williams to celebrate his electrifying play, but even Norvell acknowledged it was a penalty worth taking, himself spotted at the 15-yard-line when the flag was thrown.
"One of the best parts of coaching is when you see the emotional response to one guy having success," said Norvell. "True freshmen. Offensive linemen who aren't playing. All losing their minds. Defensive players. You see the energy developing with relationships."
A Tiger defense that entered the game ranked 86th in the country shut out the Golden Hurricane over the game's first half. Riley Patterson
kicked a 30-yard field goal on the Tigers' opening drive and Brady White
threw short touchdown passes on their next two possessions (to Williams and tight end Joey Magnifico
) to make the score 17-0 entering the second quarter. Henderson scored the first of his two touchdowns late in the second quarter to put the game out of reach.
"We're now bowl-eligible, and that's huge for our program," said Norvell. "We want that to be the minimum standard. For our senior class to ensure themselves one more game . . . that's important to me. I'm proud of this team. And I like where we are right now."
Among the stars on defense was sixth-year linebacker Jackson Dillon
, who had one of five sacks for the Tigers, and his first personally since the 2014 season. Having been part of the program since the 3-9 season of 2013, Dillon has special appreciation for the big-picture strides Memphis football has taken.
Pop Williams (9) and happy teammates.
"It's a big deal," emphasized Dillon. "I never thought it would come to this. Or maybe I thought it would, but I knew we had to put in a lot of work. It's a big-time program. We had some stumbles earlier in the year. But that's gonna happen. We're not going to go undefeated every season. It sounds good, but it's not gonna happen. You just stay the course. We've had good weeks of practice, but it's about getting your mind ready to playa the game. That's where we've struggled in the past. If we have adversity, we still fight through."
"You had 11 guys on that defense playing as one," said Norvell. "We saw a higher level of relentless pursuit. Guys flying around with energy. Coach [Chris] Ball came up with a great plan and it was executed at a high level. We forced them into long-yardage situations. It was dominant."
White completed 14 of 20 passes for 184 yards and didn't throw an interception. (He has 22 touchdown passes against three interceptions for the season.) Damonte Coxie
caught six passes for 110 yards, his third consecutive game over 100 yards (and fifth of the season). Coxie is 51 yards from becoming only the third Memphis receiver to top 1,000 yards in a season. In a supporting role to Henderson, Patrick Taylor
ran for 96 yards on 20 carries and scored a touchdown on a one-yard dash in the third quarter.
The 47 points Memphis scored are the fewest in a Tiger win this season. The offense compiled 499 yards while holding Tulsa to 252. The Tigers scored on all seven of their trips into the red zone.
Having leveled their record in American Athletic Conference play (3-3), the Tigers travel to SMU to face the Mustangs Friday night. SMU is now 5-5 (4-2) after beating UConn Saturday, 62-50. Memphis owns a four-game winning streak in its series against SMU.