It was the final regular-season game for 18 seniors for the No. 18 University of Memphis when they hosted the No. 19 Cincinnati Bearcats. The special season for the Tigers continues with a 34-24 win over the Bearcats in front of 36,472.
With the win, the Tigers have the first 11-win season in the program history as well as 500 total wins. The program that was on the brink of extinction before Fuente’s arrival is now one of the premier non-Power 5 teams in the nation.
It is also an end of the Justin Fuente era. Four of the seniors played for the former coach – three of whom were walkons.
The seniors got things started early for the Tigers. Defensive back Chris Claybrooks returned the opening kickoff of the game 94 yards for a touchdown.
“We felt pretty good on our kickoff return plan and we were unsure if they were going to kick it to us, but we felt if they did, we’d have a chance at it,” said Memphis head coach Mike Norvell about the opening kickoff. “To start the game off like that was pretty special. All of our seniors really, it’s been a process.”
Another senior, Kedarian Jones, got the first offensive touchdown on a nine-yard touchdown pass from Brady White 14-3.
“You look at every other senior that has come in since I’ve been here – Bryce Huff, Patrick Taylor, Jonathan Wilson – guys that have come in as true freshmen or played a significant amount as true freshmen,” Norvell said. “It’s a special day.”
The Bearcats entered the game as the No. 4 team in total defense (365.2 yards allowed per game) and No. 1 in points allowed (19.9). As for the Tigers, they boasted the third-best team in total offense (488.2) and No. 3 in scoring offense (42.2 yards).
Cincinnati had to go to a backup quarterback Ben Bryant for his first-ever start, because the normal starting quarterback was injured. The Bearcats used a balanced attack against the Tigers. Bryant threw for 229 yards, two interceptions and one touchdown to Leonard Taylor. Bryant himself also rushed for a touchdown.
The rushing for Cincinnati was led by Michael Warren with 122 yards and a touchdown on four carries. The Bearcats had 178 total rushing yards.
Memphis’ rushing attack was led by redshirt freshman Kenny Gainwell with 87 yards and wide receiver Antonio Gibson’s 75 yards and a touchdown. White was consistent again with 233 yards, one interception and two passing touchdowns. White’s other passing touchdown went to Damonte Coxie, who led all receivers with 145 yards on six receptions.
The Tigers took a 20-17 lead into halftime. In the second half the defense of the Tigers took over. Senior Bryce Huff led the way with two sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. The Tigers had 10 total tackles for loss in the game. Jacobi Francis and Sanchez Blake each had an interception.
After a White interception, the defense of the Tigers forced a three and out, forcing Cincinnati to punt the football back to the Tigers. The Tigers allowed 407 total yards but did not allow Cincinnati score on crucial possessions.
The fourth quarter featured multiple touchdowns, the most exciting of which came on a trick play by the Tigers. Memphis did a double-reverse by Patrick Taylor who tossed the football back to White who found Coxie in the endzone for a 46-yard touchdown. Gibson’s 29-yard touchdown run with 3:16 put the icing on the cake for the Tigers.
The win came at a very big expense for the Tigers. Junior defensive back TJ Carter left the game very early with an ankle injury. He was taken to the back and did not return to the game. He returned to the sideline in warmups, with a boot on his foot and with crutches. His status is unknown for the rest of the season.
White entered the season with his doubters, but has been very effective this season.
“I think it’s the connection I’ve had with my teammates, and that’s primarily off the field,” White said. “You’re going to practice a ton and you’re going to rep a ton, but I just made it a point of emphasis to get to know my teammates more.”
Coxie echoed the sentiment of brotherhood.
“I’m having a lot of fun. Coach Norvell says the relationship we have in the locker room isn’t one of teammates, it’s more of a brotherhood,” Coxie said. “We take pride in the family. When you go out there, you ball for your brothers. It means more when you’re playing for your brothers.”
The Tigers will compete in their third consecutive American Athletic Conference Championship game. But it will be the first time they don’t have to travel and it will be against a familar foe: The same Cincinnati Bearcats.
Kickoff is Saturday, December 7 at 2:30 p.m. at the Liberty Bowl Stadium. Tickets can be purchased at www.gotigersgo.com\tickets.