ORLANDO, Fla. – When you have hopes, the return on the investment of energy can sometimes be a deep hurt and such was the case for the University of Memphis Tigers football team in their quest to win the American Athletic Conference championship game in Orlando, Fla. on Saturday.
Winners of the Western Division, the Tigers (10-2) traveled to the University of Central Florida looking to derail the Knights’ bid for a 12-0 season. They returned to Memphis on the painful end of a 62-55, double-overtime thriller played in front of 41,433 onlookers that saw a classic.
With the specter of head coach Mike Norvell being wooed away to a higher-power school, the Tigers now are in next-goal mode, which means playing Iowa State’s Cyclones in the 59th AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
“Of course this hurts,” Norvell said. “We went out there and gave it our all. We left it all on the field. If this doesn’t hurt, you need to check yourself; you shouldn’t be playing football. …
“I love our football team. They are hurting. It is a hard time when you put so much into a game and into a season and to have it come a little short. We have had a great season. We have had a great run.”
The AAC title game was one in which both teams had difficulty stopping the other. The Tigers finished with 753 total yards and the Knights had 726 yards. Several career, single game and championship records were set ad or smashed.
The Knights managed to get double digits leads (10-0 and 24-14) twice in the first half. However, the Tigers’ defense got two interceptions by T. J. Carter and Tito Windham in the end zone to kill UCF drives.
The Tigers relied on their ground game to control the clock and used big passing plays to keep the Knights off balance. The second quarter was all Tigers, with the UofM outscoring UCF 27-7 to take a 7-point (31-24) halftime lead.
Tigers quarterback Riley Ferguson had two touchdown passes in the quarter, one for 13 yards to Tony Pollard and a 68-yarder to Anthony Miller. Ferguson had 146 total passing yards in the second quarter alone.
UCF quarterback Mckenzie Milton dominated the third quarter. He had 139 passing yards with 2 touchdowns and added another rushing touchdown to seemingly to put the game one ice for the Knighst. UCF took an 11-point lead into the final quarter 45-34.
The beleaguered Tigers’ defense muscled up in the fourth quarter and offense took advantage. Pollard had a touchdown run of 66 yards and Ferguson and Miller connected again for a 10-yard touchdown.
The Tigers had an opportunity to win the game in regulation. Riley Patterson attempted a 46-yard field goal, but it was blocked. The block was negated by a delay-of-game penalty by the Tigers. After the enforcement of the penalty, the Tigers’ freshman kicker missed a 51-yard attempt wide left with 28 seconds left in the game
The Tigers had the football first in overtime. Ferguson and Miller connected for another 10-yard touchdown and the extra point was good. The Tigers took a 55-48 lead but did not score again.
Ferguson finished with 471 passing yards with 4 touchdowns. Miller had 195 receiving yards with 3 touchdowns. Sean Dykes had 161 receiving yards on only three receptions.
The running combo of Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor Jr. was super-effective against the Knights. Henderson had 112 yards on 15 rushes and Taylor had 114 on 19 carries. Each scored touchdowns.
UCF’s Milton threw for 494 yards and five touchdowns but had three interceptions. Adrian Killins Jr. and Otis Anderson each scored a rushing touchdown in overtime. Anderson rushed for 119 rushing yards and a touchdown.
The Tigers’ last drive of the game ended in a turnover, as Darrell Henderson mishandled a pitch from Riley Ferguson. The Tigers had 127 yards in penalties on 14 accepted calls.
“It was a wonderful battle back and forth between two football teams. I am proud of my team,” Norvell said. “They showed the heart they have had displayed all year long.
“We had a couple of missed opportunities that you can’t have when you are playing a team like Central Florida. We turned the ball over a few times, we didn’t score when we were in the redzone. We had a couple of missed kicks; all of the things that show up when you have a one score game.”
Norvell took note of the performance of the Tigers’ defense in the fourth quarter.
“When you are down 14 in the fourth quarter you have to make sure you are able to get some stops and our defense came up big. Both defenses came up with critical stops at critical moments. It was an impressive battle. This football team has responded when it had to.”
“Two warriors,” Norvell said of Ferguson and Miller “They are two of the best men I have ever been around.”
Ferguson talked about his confidence in getting the ball to Miller.
“That just comes from practice and repetition. We compete against everyone we go against. If that means getting a few more after practice, then that is what is going to take. That is what we have done since I have been here. We have just got better and better.”
Sean Dykes made the most of his opportunity, turning in a 100-yard receiving day that the Tigers needed.
“We fought until we could not fight anymore,” Dykes said. “We put a lot into it and it hurts when you come up short.”