When Memphis beat SMU at the Liberty Bowl four weeks ago, it felt like the biggest win in the history of the football program. Turns out, that game will go into the books as the Tigers' second-biggest win this month
Friday afternoon at the Liberty Bowl, the 17th-ranked Tigers used some offensive trickery — and capitalized on a late Bearcat infraction — to clinch a third straight American Athletic Conference West Division title, reach 11 wins in a season for the first time, and notch the 500th win in program history. Now 11-1, the Tigers will host Cincinnati (10-2) again next Saturday (December 7th) in the American Athletic Conference championship game.
Mike Norvell opened his postgame press conference by acknowledging the achievement(s) today, but noting there is more ahead for his fourth Memphis team: "The stage. All that was in front of us. To win our third consecutive West Division title. That's pretty remarkable. Not many programs can do that, especially as talented as the conference and division were this year. Now we get a chance to host the conference championship. It's going to be a great opportunity for all involved. It's a team with tremendous heart, tremendous character. Our guys have prepared at an extremely high level all season. We're looking forward to the opportunity next week."
Merely minutes after joining his classmates in a pregame Senior Day salute, Chris Claybrooks
took the opening kickoff 94 yards to give the Tigers a 7-0 lead. It was an opening punch that brought the crowd of 36,472 to a volume normally heard late in the fourth quarter of home victories. And but the first of the memorable plays that swung this game in the Tigers' favor.
After Cincinnati closed the lead to 7-3 with a 30-yard field goal by Sam Crosa, Memphis marched 77 yards and put another touchdown on the board, this time on a nine-yard pass from Brady White to senior Kedarian Jones
. When Riley Patterson
split the uprights from 34 yards five minutes later, the Tigers had a 17-3 lead before the first quarter expired.
But the Bearcats dominated the second quarter as much as Memphis did the first. Quarterback Ben Bryant — starting in place of Desmond Ridder, who's nursing a shoulder injury — led touchdown drives that chewed up 4:59 and 6:31 to tie the game at 17 with just under three minutes to play in the first half. An acrobatic catch-and-run by Damonte Coxie
set up the Tigers' final score before halftime, a 28-yard Patterson field goal that put Memphis up 20-17 at the break.
Neither team scored in the third quarter despite the Tigers twice forcing Cincinnati turnovers. Each team failed to convert on a fourth-and-short attempt, leaving the margin at three points entering the final period.
With the ball at the Cincinnati 46-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Norvell called a play he'd added to the Tigers' arsenal merely two weeks ago, one Coxie only knows by its signal from the sideline. White took the snap, handed the ball to Patrick Taylor
who, as he crossed toward the right sideline, shoveled the ball to Jones (crossing the opposite way), who then flipped it backward to White. White saw Coxie downfield, heaved the ball toward his favorite target, and saw Coxie come down with the reception just inside the end zone.
"You never know how the defense is going to play [on a call like that]," said White. "We repped it a lot. Coxie is the first look, but we were expecting other options to be open. I saw that he had a good jump on his man. I put it up for my guy, and he made a good play."
"Coach told us we were gonna get a lot of one-on-one, and we gotta win 'em," said Coxie. "I saw that [the cornerback] was playing me outside, and I knew the play. Brady told me earlier that he was gonna come to me. He gave me a chance, and I made a play for him." Coxie finished the game 145 yards on six catches and is now just 21 yards shy of 1,000 for the season.
The Bearcats scored on their ensuing possession, a 12-yard touchdown run by Bryant closing the Memphis lead to 27-24. Cincinnati regained possession on an interception of White (by Ahmad Gardner), but the Tiger defense held, with a key sack by Joseph Dorceus
forcing a punt. (The Memphis defense accumulated 15 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, including five sacks of Bryant.)
The game's decisive play occurred with five minutes left on the clock, when Bearcat defensive end Myjai Sanders drew a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct after a third-down incompletion appeared to end a Tiger drive in Cincinnati territory. Moments later, Antonio Gibson
— another honored senior — took a hand-off and scampered 29 yards into the end zone for the final points of the game.
"You can't be a great team if you just have a good side of the ball, or a few good players," said Norvell. "You gotta work together, and put yourselves in a position to be successful. We started the season with a game that ended 15-10. The last five [games], we've scored over 40 points. All phases had to show up and show out for us to beat a top-20 team."
White completed 15 of 26 passes for 233 yards and the two touchdown passes (giving him 32 for the season, second only to Riley Ferguson's 38 in 2017). Kenneth Gainwell
led the Tigers' ground attack, rushing for 87 yards on 15 carries. The Tigers prevailed despite Cincinnati holding a possession edge of nearly nine minutes.
When asked about facing the same team two weeks in a row, Norvell emphasized his program's self-reflection in game-planning: "Our message has never been about our opponent. It's about ourselves." Added White, "It comes down to executing our game plan. It's very unique. I think it's cool. We'll be ready to go."
"We've never talked about championships," said Norvell. "Our objective is to get one-percent better every day. We want to celebrate [the division title], but we're not done yet. I believe in the football team we have. We want to lift a trophy next week, and we have to correct some mistakes."
Kickoff for the AAC championship game — the first ever held in Memphis — is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. You'll forgive longtime Tiger followers for calling it the biggest game in program history. Again.