With their sideline studded with alumni stars, the University of Memphis Tigers rolled onto the field for their homecoming game and staggered off under the weight of a fourth straight loss.
The No. 25-ranked University of Central Florida Knights (7-2, 4-1 American Athletic Conference) added to Memphis’ downward spiral with a 35-28 win in front of 28,048 at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Former players looking on from close quarters included NFL Hall of Famer Isaac Bruce and former Memphis standout receivers Anthony Miller and Calvin Austin III. Also roaming the sidelines was the Memphis Grizzlies’ deep threat, shooting guard Desmond Bane.
“Our former players have been fantastic,” the Tigers’ head coach, Ryan Silverfield. “I got two text messages from Issac Bruce and Desmond asking would it be OK if we came to hang out. You have a Hall of Famer in Bruce that wants to come out and support the team.”
Miller, who also played his way into the NFL, talked to the team the night before the game.
“I appreciate those guys that bleed blue that come out and support this team,” said Silverfield. “It is nice to have the support from those teams and to want us to do more.”
The Tigers (4-5, 2-4 AAC) did not do enough to unburden Memphis of its three-game skid. The now four-game losing streak is the first for the program since 2013.
The Knights scored first, going 78 yards on an opening drive capped by a 22-yard touchdown by running back R.J. Harvey.
Memphis quickly answered with a 70-yard drive punctuated by a 7-yard touchdown run by Brandon Thomas.
Later, with a chance to take the lead on a 20-yard field goal, the Tigers instead chose to go for it on fourth down and were stopped.
Memphis created another chance to forge ahead when Davion Roos picked off UCF quarterback Mikey Keene. That opportunity was lost when the Knights’ Joe Scates tipped a pass hauled in by UCF defensive back Devonte Brown.
After the Tigers and Knights exchanged touchdowns, UCF’s Keene hooked up with Kobe Hudson for a score that propelled the Knights into halftime with a 21-14 lead.
In the third quarter, the Tigers tied the game on a one-yard touchdown run by Joe Ducker. The Knights picked up their pace with two touchdowns that gave them a 14-point lead (35-21) with 5:58 left in the game.
UCF’s second touchdown in that stretch came after the Tigers decided to go for a first down on fourth and 17 from the Knights’ 42-yard line. The drive was halted by a controversial targeting penalty.
“It was my decision. It was a failed execution,” said Silverfield. “I thought we had a lot of momentum at that time and the targeting penalty took a lot of wind out of our sail.
“If you get a touchback (on a punt), you would only gain 19 yards. I have a lot of faith in our quarterback to get it done. We had to find a way. It was a long field goal. I thought it was best for our team at that time.”
Memphis quarterback Seth Henigan passed for 284 passing yards and a touchdown during a game that he also threw two interceptions and led the Tigers in rushing with 69 yards, including a touchdown.
Henigan, who is not known for showing his emotions on the field, did so after the touchdown.
“Sometimes my teammates need something to get them juiced up,” he said. “I don’t show emotions in practice either. I was excited in that moment and I wanted to amp up the team and the crowd.”
On the loss, Henigan said, “I said in the past to take things day by day and week by week. It hurts right now. A loss is a loss. We have to execute better and not turn the ball over.”
The Tigers’ pursuit of a streak-breaking win continues Thursday win they host Tulsa (3-6, 1-4).
“We still have a lot to play for, we have to learn from this,” said Silverfield. “We have to focus on improving and get better on Thursday night.”
The game is set for 6:30 p.m. and can be viewed on ESPN.