Memphis running back Kenneth Gainwell
had a quick initial response when asked about filling the void left by the injured Patrick Taylor — the third-leading rusher in Tiger history — on Saturday at the Liberty Bowl. The redshirt freshman did his share of that manning up by scoring three touchdowns in what proved to be a blowout win over Southern, a victory that improves the Tigers to 2-0 on the season. With 85 yards on the ground (including a 46-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter) and 38 receiving (including a 21-yard touchdown reception late in the third quarter), Gainwell personified the depth Memphis coach Mike Norvell is selling as the new strength of his program.
"I'd like to see some more energy," said Norvell. "We had a couple of guys out, forcing guys into roles where they had to play more. This has to be something we build off of. We ask [Gainwell] to do a lot. He's in that Tony Pollard-type hybrid role, in the slot, in the backfield. Today he did an exceptional job. He's developing into a heck of a player for us."
Southern struck first, with a 75-yard drive culminating in a seven-yard touchdown run by Jamar Washington less than two minutes into the game. Antonio Gibson
hauled in a 55-yard touchdown pass from Tiger quarterback Brady White
that gave Memphis a 10-7 lead with 9:38 left in the first quarter. Linebacker Keith Brown
picked up the ball after freshman Dreke Clark
blocked a Southern punt and returned it 27 yards for a touchdown and a 17-10 Tiger lead with less than a minute to play in the first quarter. The block was one of two the Tigers had in the game, the other courtesy of junior Colton Cochran
in the third quarter.
The Jaguars (0-2) enjoyed their own "scoop and score" late in the third quarter when Jordan Lewis broke through the Tiger line, sacked White from behind, and picked up the ensuing fumble before racing 74 yards untouched into the end zone. The touchdown reduced the Memphis lead again to 10 points (34-24), but Southern would not score again. (The Jaguars punted on all four of their second-half possessions.)
Gainwell scored on a one-yard run on the Tigers' first possession after the turnover and then put the game away with his touchdown catch two minutes later. Clark finished the scoring with a 10-yard run midway through the fourth quarter.
"We showed up in every phase," stressed Norvell in saluting new special teams coordinator Pete Lembo. "Our punt-pressure team was incredible. Coach Lembo and our guys put us in a great position."
In addition to Taylor's absence, nose tackle O'Bryan Goodson sat out with an injury. Nonetheless, the Tigers held Southern to 258 total yards and only 15 of them came after halftime. "We have to build that depth," emphasized Norvell. "We have to build that defensive line as a group. When that happens, good things will follow."
White completed 17 of 21 passes for 337 yards and two touchdowns. Junior Damonte Coxie
caught six of his passes for 112 yards.
On the defensive side, Memphis tallied seven tackles behind the line of scrimmage with Tim Hart
and J.J. Russell
each picking up a sack.
"No matter who we play, we come with our best," said senior linebacker Austin Hall
, who delivered three solo tackles. "You always have to make in-game adjustments. Offenses change. We started slow, but once we got going, we had a handle on what they were doing. A lot of guys have stepped up this year and it shows, guys making plays."
The Tigers play their first road game of the season next Saturday when they visit South Alabama. They won't return to the Liberty Bowl until Thursday, September 26th, when Navy comes to town for the American Athletic Conference opener. (The Tigers have a bye week following the South Alabama game.)