With the University of Memphis up by 14 points with 48 seconds left in the first half of the 2023 homecoming game, some on-the-field turbulence in the form a blocked punt could have been read as a signal for celebrating Memphis fans to buckle up for a bumpy second-half ride.
The Bulls from the University of South Florida recovered the punt on the Tigers’ 9-yard line. Seconds later, a touchdown pass cut the Tigers’ lead to seven points (35-28) and injected a bit of nervous energy into some of Memphis’ faithful just ahead of the halftime merriment at Simmons Bank Liberty Bowl Stadium.
The second half was a 24-22 dogfight that ended with Memphis sending its homecoming crowd away with a 59-50 victory. The 7-and-2 Tigers now are 4-and-1 in the American Athletic Conference (AAC), having scored 149 points over the last three games – the team’s most over a three-game span since racking up 191 points in a three-game span in 2017.
“I am proud of the effort. We found a way to win the game on homecoming,” said Memphis head coach Ryan Silverfield. “To all of our alumni out there, that was for you guys. Conference games are hard, but we found a way. I am pleased with the offensive effort. Defensively, we had our struggles.”
The Tigers have three regular-season games left. If they win out, there is a high probability of a berth in the AAC championship game.
“One week at a time,” said Roc Taylor, who hauled in an 18-yard touchdown pass from Memphis quarterback Seth Henigan, one of four thrown by Henigan in the first half. He also rushed for a score before the break.
“We are going to prepare for the next team. You can’t take no team lightly. You can be beaten by anybody. That is what I learned since I have been here.”
Next up for the Tigers is a road trip to Charlotte, North Carolina to face the Charlotte 49ers. Kickoff is set for 2 p.m. CST. The game can be seen on ESPN+.
The second half got dicey for the Tigers. The Bulls scored on the opening drive, knotting the score at 35 before Memphis kicker Tanner Gillis put the Tigers back ahead. South Florida responded with a 9-yard touchdown, grabbing a 42-38 lead.
The Tigers used big plays to get back on top. regain the lead. Blake Watson, the star transfer running back from Old Dominion, scored from 34 yards out.
With Henigan forced out of the game by an injury (he did not return), Memphis backup quarterback Tevin Carter hit Taylor on an 85-yard catch and run that extended the Tigers’ lead to 10 (52-42) with 12:54 left.
The Memphis defense, which had been torched by the Bulls all day, then mustered some great defensive stands, twice stopping the Bulls twice deep in their own territory. After the second defensive stop, hard-running Brandon Thomas gave Memphis more cushion on a 9-yard touchdown. The Tigers led 59-42 with 3:42 left in the game.
An eight-yard touchdown pass followed by a two-point conversion by the Bulls made the score 59-50. Taylor recovered the onside kick for the Tigers, shutting the door for good on the Bulls.
Henigan totaled 349 passing yards before his injury. Carter finished 2 for 2 with 92 yards. Taylor had 159 receiving yards and Demeer Blankumsee had 142 yards. Watson rushed for 64 rushing yards.
Defensively, Cameron Smith had a career-high 10 tackles. The Tigers forced two turnovers. Simeon Blair intercepted a pass and Chandler Martin, who made 8 tackles had a fumble recovery.
“I don’t want to talk about the fumble,” said Martin. “I played running back in high school and I thought I was going to crib it. I stumbled and my feet clicked together and I fell after that.”
Silverfield said the Tigers have to find a way to bottle up the level of defense played in the fourth quarter.
“We show that we can be one of the best defenses in the country. We also show inconsistencies; we have to find a way to be more consistent. We have guys on defense that are so hungry to get better. We will find a way to get better.”
Henigan, who suffered an upper-body injury (and not a head injury), is expected to be ready for the next game.
“He is playing at a very high level,” said Silverfield. “He is playing efficiently. He is a leader. We have to continue to play our best football as the season goes on. We are finding improvements.”
Carter’s effort was tremendous, he said.
“We challenge every one of our players. Tevin has always prepared himself like a true professional. He works really hard at it. He loves this city and this team. When his number was called, he went out there and performed.”
Asked what flashed to mind when Henigan went down. Carter said, “That’s my boy and I was concerned about that. I knew I was up and I was ready when my number was called. I trusted in Roc (Taylor), I gave it to him and he did what he do.”
After every win, the player of the game takes a sledgehammer and breaks up a large piece of rock. The honor went to Henigan, who deferred and allowed Carter to swing away.