Grit and perseverance drive championship-caliber teams toward their title aspirations. Against Temple, the University of Memphis Tigers football team showed they have a grip on those building blocks.
The Tigers (4-1, 2-0 American Athletic Conference) added the Temple Owls (2-3, 0-1) to a string of victories since falling to the Southeastern Conference Bulldogs of Mississippi State in the season’s opener.
“This game showed the grit and perseverance of your Memphis Tigers,” said Ryan Silverfield, Memphis’ head football coach. “I am proud of the way they battled and find ways to win football games.”
Temple entered Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium as a heavy underdog, with oddsmakers installing Memphis as 20-point favorite. The Tigers did not manage to score any points in the first half and went into the break trailing the Owls 3-0.
It could have been worst.
In the first quarter, Temple quarterback E.J. Warner, the son of NFL Hall of Famer Kurt Warner, found Jose Barbon on a 78-yard reception. The Owls had the ball on the 7-yard line but the Memphis defense held them out of the end zone, including a stop on fourth down.
The Tigers also had some red-zone misery. Trailing 3-0, Memphis had a fourth and one from the 12-yard line but the Tigers were stopped short on a run up the middle.
The defense gave the Tigers another chance. After a bad punt by the Owls, the Tigers scored on a two-yard run by Brandon Thomas with 1:36 left in the third quarter.
Memphis upped the score to 17-3 when tight end Caden Prieskorn scored on a four-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Seth Henigan. After Xavier Cullens intercepted his second pass in as many games, Thomas scored again with 4:15 remaining to make the score 24-3.
Tyler Murray grabbed another Memphis interception with 3:01 left in the game. When Cincir Evans got a third interception for the Tigers with 57 seconds left, Memphis’ offense ended the game in victory formation.
Silverfield expounded on Memphis’ players being able to close out games so far this season
“The credit is to the belief from the players. No matter what occurs in the game or practice, every single week is a new season,” said Silverfield. “Every time I stand in front of our guys, I know they believe. These guys believe and have bought in.
“I think (Xavier) Cullens is one of those guys that has bought in. That is the biggest difference with last year’s team. The work ethic I have seen this season is one of the best I have seen in the last (several) years.”
Cullens noted the mounting confidence of the defense.
“We know we are a great defense, although it seems like the offense is always bailing us out,” said Cullens, who credited Quindell Johnson for tipping the ball that Cullens hauled in for an interception. “We still understand that we are going to play hard and finish games regardless of what happens.”
While the locker-room vibe felt good after the game, Cullens said, “… but we left too many big plays on the field.”
As for getting better each week, Cullens said, “It feels good. It will feel better if we continue to do it.”
The key, he said, is to “prepare hard each week and don’t get comfortable with what we are doing now.”
Temple was held to 52 net rushing yards. Cullens led the way with 9 total tackles; Greg Rubin was second with 8. It was the first time since 2016 that the Tigers have held an opponent to three points.
Memphis next will host Houston (2-3, 0-1) on Friday. The Cougars were expected to compete for the AAC Championship but have fallen short of their aspirations going into the game against the Tigers.