Perhaps the greatest day in University of Memphis football history was clinched when Lee Corso put on a giant Mustang head. The colorful ESPN College GameDay
analyst teased a throng of Tiger fans on Beale Street this morning with the home team's mascot head, only to don the jet-black pony for his official prediction of Saturday night's winner. All a lubed and loaded Memphis football community needed was another ounce of motivation.
In front of 59,506 fans and a national, prime-time audience (courtesy of ABC), Memphis handed SMU (8-1) its first loss of the season, improved to 8-1 overall, and took over first place in the American Athletic Conference's West Division. Senior Antonio Gibson
established a new Tiger record with 386 all-purpose yards in the contest, scoring touchdowns via rush, pass, and kickoff return. But the Tiger win remained insecure until sophomore Preston Brady
— the team's reserve long-snapper and a product of Evangelical Christian School — recovered an onside kick with two minutes left to play (and SMU out of timeouts). With the nation's top three teams all idle (for the first time in 23 years), Memphis football seized this weekend's national spotlight and made it distinctly blue and gray.
"This stage, this moment, this opportunity," noted Tiger coach Mike Norvell in opening his postgame press conference. "They came out and played with everything they had against a really good football team. Momentum swings. Highs and lows. But there was a great response from the Memphis Tigers. Memphis had an opportunity to be showcased today. Much like this football team, it rose to the occasion. I'm so grateful and honored to be a Memphian. This is a very special city. The country got to see the passion, the love for this university. The electric atmosphere we had . . . it was a special day."
The 102 combined points surprised no one, these two teams both ranking among the nation's top ten in scoring. But the Mustangs and Tigers managed to accumulate 1,067 yards on 151 plays without committing a single turnover. The Tigers were bitten by 16 penalties (too many of them pass interference), and snuffed on four consecutive plays inside the Mustang 5-yard line on their first possession (after a replay review negated a Gibson touchdown). After that initial rejection, though, Memphis scored on eight consecutive possessions, four of them field goals by junior Riley Patterson
(one from 49 yards and another from 50). Tiger quarterback Brady White
was brilliant, completing 19 of 33 passes and tossing three touchdowns, one of them an NFL-ready connection with Damonte Coxie
from 24 yards late in the third quarter that called to mind another Brady, one who has spent some time with the New England Patriots.
"We knew this was our opportunity," said Norvell. "This was our moment. A lot of people were surprised. We were honored to be selected by GameDay
. I took the guys down to see it yesterday. It's a big thing. You want respect, you have to go take it. You have to earn it. They were ready to play. I was really proud of how they executed."
Memphis took its first lead (10-7) on a 30-yard Patterson field goal early in the second quarter. SMU regained the lead (14-10) on a two-yard run by Xavier Jones 3:30 into the second quarter, but the Tigers answered, first with another Patterson field goal (from 49 yards), then with Gibson's first touchdown, a 50-yard connection from Brady. Memphis never again relinquished the advantage, stretching its lead to 16 points (40-24), the highlight being Gibson's 97-yard kickoff return to open the third quarter. SMU scored two touchdowns inside the game's final nine minutes, but devoid of timeouts, wasn't able to gain possession for a final, game-changing drive.
"We're going to enjoy this, but we didn't play a perfect game," said Norvell. "Mistakes were made. Sixteen penalties . . . I'm not very happy about that. We need to get those things corrected. It's a new day, a new opportunity. But we'll enjoy tonight and tomorrow."
SMU quarterback Shane Buechele — a candidate for AAC Player of the Year — completed 34 of 54 passes for 456 yards and three touchdowns. James Proche caught 13 passes for 149 yards and Rashee Rice added 122 yards on seven grabs.
Freshman running back Kenneth Gainwell
was limited to less than 100 yards rushing for the first time in seven games (88 yards on 21 carries), though both Coxie (143 yards on seven catches) and Gibson (130 on six) surpassed 100 receiving.
White has now thrown 23 touchdown passes for the season with only four interceptions. "I'm so proud to be here," he said. "It's a big deal when we run out of the tunnel and see [the stadium] packed. It's like a kid in a candy store. We appreciate every Memphian who showed up and showed out. We were full of energy and excitement. With the stage we had, we knew a sense of urgency. It's a special platform. College GameDay
isn't going everywhere every week. We took advantage of it and put our best foot forward. We fed off the energy."
Now 4-1 in AAC play, the Tigers have an off week before playing their next two games on the road, starting at Houston (3-6) on November 16th. But don't tell Gibson it's time for these Tigers — climbing the national rankings — to take a breather. "A bye week really isn't a bye week for us," said Gibson. "We'll keep working for whoever we have next."