If Mike Norvell coached his final game for the Memphis Tigers Saturday afternoon at the Liberty Bowl, it can be said he took the program to the mountaintop. In beating the 21st-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats (for the second week in a row), Norvell's 16th-ranked Tigers won the American Athletic Conference championship, reached 12 wins for the first time in program history, and secured a berth in the prestigious Cotton Bowl, one of the acclaimed New Year's Six and a postseason event once considered to be in a different stratosphere from the U of M program.
With his team down, 24-23, senior playmaker Antonio Gibson
took a screen pass from Tiger quarterback Brady White
and ran six yards into the end zone with 1:14 left on the game clock for the seventh and final lead change of the championship tilt, the third straight to feature Memphis but the first won by the team in blue and gray. The play clinched most valuable player honors for Gibson, who also scored on a 65-yard touchdown run. Gibson accumulated a total of 234 yards via rushing, receiving, and kick returns.
With an ESPN report claiming he'll be named the new head coach at Florida State Sunday, Norvell focused his postgame remarks on his current team's distinct achievement, and those who made it possible. "We knew this was a game that would come down to responses," said Norvell. "How we responded to adversity, how we responded to success at times. But that's the character and heart of these kids. They worked extremely hard to put themselves in this position. To find a way to finish on top . . . that's something I'll never forget. It's a special group. They love each other. They've allowed us to coach them, and they get better each and every day."
Known for creative play-calling, Norvell had his team try an onside kick to open the game, and it backfired when a Tiger player was penalized for interference. The Bearcats took over at the Memphis 30-yard line and appeared to settle for a 32-yard field-goal attempt, but the Tigers were again penalized, this time for roughing the kicker. Moments later, Michael Warren carried the ball into the end zone for an early 7-0 Cincinnati lead.
All-AAC kicker Riley Patterson connected on a 29-yard field goal on the Tigers' first possession, one of three he'd convert in the game. After retaining possession following a roughing-the-punter penalty, the Tigers took the lead for the first time, courtesy Gibson's 65-yard jaunt. They'd fall behind three more times, but in the operative word for the day, respond
• Down 14-10 early in the third quarter, White carried the ball himself for the final yard of a 75-yard drive, the key play coming on a 45-yard catch/run by Damonte Coxie
. (Coxie caught nine passes for 165 yards and became only the second Memphis receiver to post two 1,000-yard seasons.)
• After falling behind 21-17, Patterson drilled lengthy field goals on consecutive Tiger possessions, first from 52 yards and then from 50 to put Memphis back in front, 23-21.
• The Bearcats took a 24-23 lead with 4:23 to play on a 33-yard field goal by Sam Crosa, which set up the Tigers' final game-winning drive, one of 75 yards covered almost entirely by Gibson and freshman running back Kenneth Gainwell
(who caught a 26-yard pass from White).
"These guys never blinked, they never wavered," said Norvell. "To be able to lift that trophy . . . I'll never forget it. That's what makes the city of Memphis so incredible, what makes this job so incredible. You represent something that's special. For anybody on the outside, who's never lived in Memphis, you just don't understand. It's an incredible place."
"I know the history of the program, and it wasn't always the greatest," said Gibson. "We got to that top-notch stage, but we didn't finish it off. The mindset that [Coach Norvell] brings, the intensity he brings every day — on and off the field — what he expects from us, I appreciate that."
Confident all season in the talent surrounding him, White said the game-winning drive felt much like the myriad other scoring drives he's been a part of for 13 games now. "We were excited to have another opportunity," he said. "Our defense had played awesome. It was our turn to get the ball. I wasn't perfect tonight. There were a lot of miscues. But on that last drive, we knew we'd execute, without a doubt. Our offensive line did a great job in both run and pass blocking. We got it into the end zone, and our defense was able to finish strong. It was a dream come true." White finished the game with 253 yards passing, completing 18 of 40 throws with a touchdown and an interception.
The Bearcats reached the Tiger 26-yard line on their final drive, but without timeouts, were forced to attempt downfield passes after spiking the ball on first down. Three straight attempts by quarterback Desmond Ridder fell incomplete. Ridder finished the game 16 of 36 for 233 yards with an interception (by Chris Claybrooks
Norvell touched on the culture of a football program that not that long ago centered debates about whether it should even continue. "You take personal experience, and how they build and grow from it is so critical," he said. "This is one of the toughest programs in the country to come and play football. They get challenged: academically, socially. We try to make it as hard as possible. That's life; there are things you'll have to overcome. They inspire me every day to be the best version of myself."
The Tigers will learn their opponent in the Cotton Bowl (December 28th in Dallas) Sunday when the four teams in the College Football Playoff are made public. Asked if he will coach Memphis in that game, Norvell said, "That's the plan," but hesitantly. Florida State has scheduled a press conference for noon Sunday.