Improbable championships are the ones we remember most. In beating Houston Friday at the Liberty Bowl, the Memphis Tigers earned the American Athletic Conference's West Division title despite starting the month of November with a 1-3 record in league play. Four straight wins give the Tigers a final regular-season record of 8-4, with a 5-3 mark in the AAC, just strong enough to earn a tiebreaker with Houston (and/or Tulane and/or SMU). The Tigers will face 8th-ranked UCF on December 1st in a rematch of last year's scintillating AAC championship game.
Senior center Drew Kyser
Tiger coach Mike Norvell got emotional in describing the win for gathered media after the game, particularly in reflecting on the seniors who played their last home game, players who have brought a "hard-earned culture" to the U of M, one strong enough to overcome the kind of adversity a 65-33 midseason loss (at Missouri) brings a group. "The way this team has grown throughout the year . . . a lot of adversity," he emphasized. "They continued to work, to believe in each other. I'm grateful for their belief in our coaching staff. We've seen a lot of maturity. People remember what you do in November, and this team responded. This sets up another opportunity, against a great opponent, a classic game. We're gonna compete for a conference championship."
Houston played without its star quarterback D'Eriq King. The AAC's total-offense leader injured a knee in the Cougars' win over Tulane on November 15th. Clayton Tune filled in capably, tossing three touchdown passes, but he was twice sacked on fourth-down plays — by Bryce Huff
and Jonathan Wilson
— to extinguish Houston drives.
The Memphis game plan, according to Norvell and those most responsible, was to run the ball against a vulnerable Houston defense (ranked 118th in the country), one compromised by a recent injury to All-America lineman Ed Oliver. (Oliver did not play in the second half.) The Tigers ran the ball on 59 plays, compared with 33 passes, and accumulated 401 yards, enough to shatter the program's single-season rushing record (now 3,311 yards). Darrell Henderson
— one of three finalists for the Doak Walker Award — ran for 178 yards, Patrick Taylor
128, and Tony Pollard
83. Sixth-year senior Sam Craft
got in on the fun with a 28-yard touchdown run early in the the third quarter that erased a 21-17 Houston lead. Craft now has the distinction of scoring a touchdown in five seasons for the Tigers (2013-16 and 2018).
Taylor was afraid he would draw a penalty when he realized how far onto the field he ran to celebrate Craft's score, the Olive Branch native's first in more than two years. "The smile on my face was so big," said Taylor, who scored two touchdowns of his own and now has 15 for the season. "The game plan was to run the ball and the offensive line got it done," said Taylor. They got movement up front." Three of those linemen — center Drew Kyser
, and tackles Trevon Tate
and Roger Joseph
— are seniors, and all five have started every game this season for Memphis. "The whole season was a test of faith," added Taylor. "But we kept grinding."
Senior linebacker Curtis Akins
Tiger faith was tested in the second quarter when Memphis quarterback Brady White threw a pair of damaging interceptions. Cougar safety Gleson Sprewell intercepted both, returning the first 63 yards to give Houston a 21-17 lead and pulling in the second at the Cougar one-yard line when it appeared Memphis would regain the lead before halftime.
The score was deadlocked at 24 when Pollard skipped six yards untouched around the right side of the Memphis line for a touchdown with 2:41 left to play in the third quarter. The Cougars answered with a one-minute touchdown drive of their own, tying the score at 31 through three quarters.
The Memphis offense found itself facing fourth-and-one at the Tiger 44-yard line as time expired in the third quarter. According to Norvell, there was never a question about whether or not to go for the first down. Henderson took the hand-off from White and rambled through the right side of the Tiger line to retain possession. The drive culminated in a one-yard Taylor touchdown to give the Tigers all the points they needed.
"You think about the moment," said Norvell. "You think of who you are, who you have, and the belief in the guys up front. That was a special play. Our guys controlled the game from that point on."
In taking his season rushing total to 1,699 yards, Henderson establishes a new single-season record for the six-year-old AAC. His two touchdowns — one of them a 60-yard gallop down the left sideline in the fourth quarter — give Henderson 22 for the season, one shy of DeAngelo Williams's Tiger record.
But the individual numbers, however grand, take second fiddle to a major team goal attained. "I don't know if words can explain how sweet this one is," said Pollard, who added 116 receiving yards and a 37-yard kickoff return to his rushing total. "Early in the season, a lot of people counted us out, but things played out the right way and here we are. We never counted ourselves out."
"They're willing to respond when they're knocked down," said Norvell. "That's what makes up a champion."
Cornerback Tito Windham
was one of 13 Tiger seniors honored before kickoff. The AAC West Division trophy, presented after the game, served as a nice bookend for his final game at the Liberty Bowl. "We counted on each other," said Windham. "We believed in each other. That's a big family in that locker room. We had to get the details right."
And what does Windham think of facing UCF again for an AAC championship? "There's a lot you can gain from playing a team twice in a season. We'll be ready."