In a hard-fought game that came down to a few plays, the University of Memphis Tigers lost the 59th AutoZone Liberty Bowl against Iowa State by one point.
“I am very proud of the way our team played,” said UofM head coach Mike Norvell. “Today we just came up a little short.”
The Tigers were making their first appearance in the Liberty Bowl, taking on the role of “visitors” against the Cyclones, who were making their first return to the Memphis-based game since playing in it five years ago.
The Tigers had their opportunities to win the game. In the fourth quarter, the Cyclones had driveen to the Tigers’ one-yard line and had it third and goal when running back David Montgomery fumbled before crossing the goal line. The UofM’s Johnathan Cook recovered the football and the Tigers, who trailed by one point (21-20) had 4:08 left to write the ending they played so hard for.
Quarterback Riley Ferguson and the Tigers managed to drive to the 40-yard line of the Cyclones and had a first and ten. They didn’t gain another yard and gave the football back to Iowa State with 1:52 left in the game. Ferguson, who finished with 296 passing yards and two touchdowns, was name the MVP on offense for the Tigers.
“They ran a couple of schemes that were a little different,” Ferguson said, referring to the Tigers’ last drive. “It was hard to get the ball out. At the same time, I have to find a way to make a play.”
Amid the disappointment, Ferguson reflected on his successful run as the Tigers quarterback.
“It has been a heck of a two years. I have been truly blessed to be the quarterback at the University of Memphis. I wouldn’t change anything. I love my brothers, my coaches and everyone involved. It is truly a special place. It is not the way I wanted to end it, but love everyone involved no matter what.”
Ferguson was sacked six times.
“The lack of the run game being established, allowed them to just tee off on us,” Norvell said. “They were able to get to us with a couple of games up front. They played well. There are a lot of things that showed up today that was uncustomary for us. We did not play well enough to win the game. …”
“When you are trying to throw against a team that is dropping eight, (that makes) it challenging. They have a great scheme. We knew it was going to be difficult. Hopefully we would have executed a little better.”
The Tigers and Cyclones played on crisp 40-degree day in front of 57,266. The temperature continued to drop as the game went on, but few left early.
Iowa State wasted no time giving their fans something to cheer about. Cyclones quarterback Kyle Kept found Hakeem Butler on a 52-yard touchdown reception on the sixth play of the game to give Iowa State the early 7-0 lead.
On the Cyclones’ second drive Allen Lazard made two critical catches on third down to keep the drive alive. The defense of the Tigers kept the Cyclones off of the scoreboard. On Iowa State’s fourth down punt attempt, the punter fumbled and the ball was recovered by the Tigers on the Iowa State 40-yard line.
Ferguson found Tony Pollard on the next play for a 30-yard reception for the Tigers. Ferguson found his favorite target, Anthony Miller, on a 10-yard slant reception for a touchdown to even the game at 7-7 with 6 minutes left in the first quarter.
The defense of the Tiger continued to give up big yards, but forced Iowa State to punt on the next few possessions. The Tigers were not able to capitalize on the defensive stops. Riley Patterson missed on a 38-yard field goal attempt. It was his third miss in the last five attempts, going back to his two misses in the American conference championship game.
Ferguson was sacked on back to back plays and the second one was on fourth down. The Cyclones took over at their own 45-yard line with 10:33 left in the half.
The Tigers Tito Windham intercepted apass by Kempt. However, the play was reviewed by the replay officials and was overturned. The Cyclones went for it on fourth down to keep the drive alive and Kempt completed a pass to Lazard to keep the drive alive. Joel Lanning, who normally plays linebacker, came in to play quarterback, scoring on a 2-yard run to give the Cyclones the lead again 14-7 with 4:28 left in the half.
The Tigers took possession with 1:16 left in the half after the Cyclones kicker Garrett Owens missed a 51-yard field goal attempt. The Tigers took over at their own 34-yard line and managed to get Patterson in position to get some confidence in his kicking game. He made a 34-yard field goal as time expired in the half to make it 14-10 Iowa State.
The Tigers didn’t waste any time scoring on the first drive in the second half. Ferguson found Mayhue on a 36-yard touchdown reception to give the Memphis its first lead of the game 17-14.
The Cyclones would answer with a touchdown catch by Lazard as he was falling out of the back of the end zone. Lazard was named the offensive MVP for the Cyclones and he was also named the Overall Most Valuable Player for the game. He set a Liberty Bowl record for total number of receptions with 10. He had 142 total receiving yards in the game, with one touchdown. The total yards was the sixth best in history of the bowl game.
The Cyclones’ scoring drive was kept alive by a Tigers’ penalty. Curtis Atkins had intercepted a pass by Kempt, but it was erased after Memphis defensive end Genard Avery was flagged with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. It was the second penalty that took away a big play by the Tigers.
Avery was named the Tigers’ MVP on defense with his two sacks and five total tackles. Asked about his four-year Memphis career, Avery said, “It has been a great experience. I love this program. Memphis and I had a great experience here.”
Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell said, “It was a great week for us. The opportunity to come here and build our football program on and off the football field. The National Civil Rights Museum was an opportunity for our team to grow and going to St. Jude was a powerful week.
“I want to congratulate Memphis on a great year. The passion that they played the game with today was outstanding. It was a great football game to be a part of.”