by Clay Bailey
(AP) — Nothing from last week or a championship showdown next week was going to distract No. 17 Memphis.
And they sent that message to East Carolina almost immediately on Saturday.
“We only had one focus, coming out and finishing our run,” University of Memphis coach Mike Norvell said.
The Tigers dominated the Pirates 70-13 in preparation for next Saturday’s American Athletic Conference championship game against No. 13 Central Florida in Orlando.
Memphis (10-1, 7-1 American Athletic Conference, No. 20 CFP) capped their first undefeated home season at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium since it opened in 1965.
Memphis won its sixth straight, the lone loss of the season coming Sept. 30 against UCF.
None of that or last week’s 66-45 over SMU to clinch the conference’s West Division seemed to steer the Tigers’ focus from the task in front of them.
“Today is a symbolic day for our program, to be able to get our 10th win, the continued progression moving forward,” Norvell said. “We have a special group of young men sitting in that locker room. They believe in each other, they will each other and they’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do.”
The tone was set on Memphis’s first possession. Riley Ferguson, who finished with 299 yards passing, connected with Anthony Miller in the flat and Miller took off, weaving his way down the field, splitting defenders and racing for an 89-yard touchdown pass. Ferguson threw three TD passes.
Memphis scored on its first six offensive possessions in the half and added a pick-six of 32 yards by safety Jonathan Cook.
That put Memphis up 49-0 at the half.
“This probably was the best team we’ve played to this point, and it’s going to be an interesting championship game,” Pirate coach Scottie Montgomery said. “That’s a championship team we just watched.”
East Carolina scored twice after halftime on passes from Gardner Minshew, but even the first score resulted in problems. The extra point after Minshew’s 33-yard scoring pass to Jimmy Williams was blocked.
Then on the ensuing kickoff, Memphis’ Tony Pollard returned it 100 yards, giving Memphis a 63-6 lead.
“In this league, there’s going to be teams with speed, and then there’s the rest of the group,” Montgomery said. “I think we can play with a lot of the teams that are not these speed teams, but (speed teams) expose you..Today, was a really, really clear sight of that.”
East Carolina: The Pirates, who were looking to build on last week’s win over Cincinnati, never got anything going in the game. Not only did they fall behind early, but their offense was stagnant, finishing the first half with only 27 yards rushing and 193 overall. In two seasons at ECU, coach Scottie Montgomery is 6-18.
Memphis: The Tigers are not only playing for an AAC title next week, but they could earn a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl by beating UCF. They lost a chance to host the title game when UCF beat USF on Friday.
Most coaches have learned to kick the ball away from Pollard, who leads the nation in kickoff return yards, entering the game with a 40.7 average. And East Carolina made only one mistake Saturday. Caleb Pratt kicked it deep in the end zone – 5 or 6 yards deep – but that wasn’t deep enough. Pollard took off and returned the kick – officially – 100 yards.
“This week (Norvell) gave me the green light,” Pollard said. “He said if I’m able to catch it and come forward, then I can come out with it. And I took advantage of it.”
Pollard’s average is now 44.1.
Memphis: The Tigers lost 40-13 to UCF in September.
“I’m going to enjoy this a little tonight, but I’m going to watch film on UCF,” Ferguson said. “This is the big one coming up.”