A special week came to a storybook ending for the University of Memphis on Saturday, when the Tigers outlasted the Southern Methodist University Mustangs 54-48 before a sold-out Liberty Bowl crowd – the largest crowd ever for an American Athletic Conference game.
Of course, the week started with news that Memphis would host ESPN’s College GameDay on Beale Street, and thousands packed Beale for the pregame show, some as early as 5:30 a.m. And Saturday night, the national spotlight remained on Memphis with ABC televising the game nationwide.
There was a single word that Memphis head coach Mike Norvell used to describe the sellout crowd.
“Special,” he said. “”This community means a lot to me. Memphis had a chance to be showcased today. Much like this football team, it rose to the occasion.
“I’m so grateful and honored to be a Memphian,” he added. “The country got a chance to see the passion and the love for this university.”
Antonio Gibson has been producing for the Tigers over the past few weeks and had his best day ever as a Tiger against SMU. Gibson compiled the most all-purpose yards in the history for the Tigers – 97 rushing yards, 130 receiving yards and 159 kickoff returns yards. Oh yeah, and he scored a touchdown in each area.
“Antonio has really come on throughout this season,” Norvell said. “Last year, he did some special things for us on special teams. The confidence in him started to build in spring practice. Every opportunity he got he made something happen.”
It’s the first time an FBS player has scored rushing, receiving and kickoff touchdown since 2008. Gibson was named the Walter Camp National Player of the Week for his performance.
“I always tell players you have to force me to make sure you are getting showcased,” Norvell said.
Gibson’s favorite play?
“The kickoff return,” he said. “I have been waiting a long time for that one.”
Gibson was acknowledged on the jumbotron for achieving the record for all-purpose yards.
“The first thing I thought about was my mom and my sister,” he said. “It was a tough year for last year, but I always fought through it. They were always there for me.”
Brady White has silenced his critics over the past several weeks, throwing for 350 yards and three touchdowns against SMU. It’s White’s third 300-yard passing game in the past four games. White’s favorite target Damonte Coxie had a monster game, scoring two touchdowns and finishing with 143 yards on seven receptions.
“It was fun. The (offensive line) did a great job protecting upfront,” White said. “I trusted my preparation. I was able to give some guys the opportunity to make some big plays.”
SMU came in with a game plan to contain Kenneth Gainwell and succeeded – sort of. Gainwell was held to 88 net rushing yards and one touchdown. Gainwell has rushed for 1,067 yards this season, the first freshman to do so.
Once again, special teams played a big part in the win. The kickoff return team constantly placed the offense with a short field. The Tigers has 220 kickoff return yards. SMU was forced to kick it short to prevent big returns. One kickoff return by Joey Magnifico was called back because a block in the back penalty.
Kicker Riley Patterson was perfect on the day, connecting on four kicks of 30, 49, 34 and 50 yards. Patterson also had four kickoffs that were not returned. Adam Williams only had two punts and had a 51-yard punt to flip the field for the Tigers.
Memphis will have a little extra time to enjoy the win over SMU. The Tigers will not play again until November 16, when they travel to take on the Houston Cougars. Gametime and TV broadcasts are to be announced.
“The atmosphere here today was incredible. I had the opportunity to go down to Beale Street and I got goosebumps the second I got out of the car” Norvell said, “when we got off of the bus and to hear Tiger Nation roar on the Tiger Walk was special.”