“We know the last six months have been screwed up,” said University of Memphis head football coach Ryan Silverfield as he painted a big-picture context for the Tigers’ improbable 50-49 comeback over the troublesome Central Florida Knights at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
Silverfield tethered that obvious reference to the coronavirus pandemic to his assessment of what it took for the Tigers to finally defeat the only team in the American Athletic Conference that they had not beaten in conference play.
“It speaks to the heart, character and belief of these guys,” said Memphis’ first-year head coach. “We are a family.”
With 10,544 fans officially allowed in the stadium because of COVID-19, the Tigers took down the team they had lost to 13 straight times. They did so after falling behind by 21 points in the second half and without two key starters – cornerback T.J. Carter (injury) and the team’s leading wide receiver Damonte Coxie, who no longer is a part of the team, Silverfield shared after the victory.
“I trust all my guys,” said Quarterback Brady White, who was named the Walter Camp Offensive Player of the Week. “I am super proud of all of the guys that stepped up. There are always guys ready for the moment. It is just a matter of who is going to step up.
“It is tough when your number one guy is not there. There is a new number one. I am a competitor I don’t care who is out there.”
White took what the Knights’ defense gave him, throwing for 486 yards and six touchdowns and running in a score.
In easily his best game as a Tiger, White also had a 44-yard punt and finished with 30 net yards rushing, taking off with timely runs when he didn’t see an open receiver.
And while he doesn’t seem to put much stock in personal stats, White now has 72 touchdowns at Memphis, passing Riley Ferguson for the second most in the program’s history. He is third in all-time passing yards with 8,372.
Next man up
Faced with Coxie’s departure, the Tigers had teammates pick up the slack. Former walk-on and Harding Academy graduate Calvin Austin III was at his career best, catching 9 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns. Awarded a scholarship late last season, he has shown game-by-game improvement.
Austin was not the only receiver to step up his game up. Tahj Washington, a red-shirt freshman from Marshall, Texas, helped the Tigers extend drives, catching 7 passes for 131 yards.
The Knights tried to get him off his game, said Austin.
“They were talking the whole game, but I had to block that out,” he said. “We had a mission to focus on. We were not trying to get caught up into the antics. We knew that they were going to be talking to try to get us out of our game. I just wanted to stay focused and do what I could to help the team.”
Also taking advantage of increased playing time, redshirt freshman Javon caught four passes for 88-yards and scored his first collegiate touchdown.
Short key players on offense and defense players and up against one of the best offensive units in the country, the Tigers stayed focused on winning even things were not going their way.
After receiving the opening kickoff and getting in position to score the first points of the game, Memphis running back Rodrigues Clark fumbled into the end zone and the Knights recovered.
Clark powered back, rushing for a season high 116 yards on 21 attempts. His running mate, Kylan Watkins from Whitehaven High School, also racked up impressive numbers, rushing for 65 yards, catching 8 passes for 67 yards and scoring on a reception.
Falling behind 35-14 minutes in the second half, the Tigers showed no signs of quit in overcoming the 21-point deficit. It was the largest comeback in the history of the program. The previous high was a 17-point rally against the Houston Cougars in 2017.
* The win would give the Tigers an advantage for hosting the AAC Championship, if it came down to those two teams at the end of the season.
* Former UofM star and NFL Hall of Famer Issac Bruce was honored by the Tigers. His number, 83, was painted on the field on the 25-yard lines. Named to the Hall of Fame this season, he is the first member of the Memphis program to secure the honor. The Tigers wanted to honor Bruce in person but the pandemic forced an alternate plan. The in-person salute will be set for a later date.
* Before the game, there was a remembrance for Tom III, who will be the last live tiger to appear at Memphis games as mascot. After Tom III died this summer, the decision was made to end the tradition of have a live tiger at the games.
NEXT: Memphis will host the Temple Owls at 11 a.m. on Saturday. Temple was the only team to defeat the Tigers during conference play last season.