History was waiting to be made when the “underdog” Memphis Tigers settled into a familiar place to battle the Iowa State Cyclones in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium.
They got the job done (36-26), becoming only the fifth team in the history of the University of Memphis football program to achieve a 10-win season. Finishing with a 10-3 record, the Tigers – playing on their home field – defied the betting odds that had them as 10.5-point underdogs before Friday’s kickoff.
“The coaching staff preached about having a 10-win season all week … to be a top-five team in Tiger history,” said quarterback Seth Henigan, the game’s Most Valuable Player and the Tiger’s Offensive Player of the game.
“That is what we were playing for. There was a lot to play for in this game.”
Memphis head coach Ryan Silverfield, who said it was surreal to walk off the field victorious, capped his 25th year of coaching.
“I am proud of a 10-win season … to go through so many trials and tribulations and to continue to persevere. It is an honor to be amongst these guys. It is an exciting time. I am grateful for the support from our Tiger fans.”
The two football programs fielded teams in the 2017 Liberty Bowl, which the Cyclones won 21-20. It was clear from the jump that the Tigers were dialed in for a different outcome. They had a 19-0 lead in a first-quarter performance that featured Henigan finding DeMeer Blankumsee for a 70-yard touchdown, scampering for an 11-yard touchdown and hooking up with Joe Scates for a 51-yard score.
The Cyclones stormed back with 13 unanswered points. Freshman quarterback Rocco Becht tossed a 29-yard touchdown to junior Jayden Higgins and Chase Contreraz connected on two field goals.
A two-minute drive by the Tigers netted a career-long 49-yard field goal for Tanner Gillis and Memphis took a 22-13 lead into halftime.
Henigan continued his MVP performance in the third quarter, throwing a 5-yard touchdown to junior tight end Anthony Landphere and 48-yarder to running back Sutton Smith.
With the Tigers ahead 36-13, the Cyclones pushed back. Becht located tight end Easton Dean for a 15-yard touchdown and with 9:55 left in the game he connected with junior wide receiver Jaylin Noel for 15-yard score. After a failed two-point attempt, Memphis led 36-26.
The Tigers responded with just what the game situation called for – a time-consuming, 17-play, 73-yard drive. When a fourth-down passed sailed out of bounds, the Cyclones were staring at a game clock with only 46 seconds left on it.
The Memphis defense held Iowa State to zero rushing yards for the game. Chandler Martin was named the Defensive Player of the game for the Tigers.
“Coming in we were a 10.5-point underdog,” said Martin. “We had a chip on our shoulder. We were very intentional in practice this week. Everyone wanted to win.”
Henigan, who broke Memphis’ all-time passing record with 364 passing yards and whose 3,880 yards ranks him third all-time for a single season, heaped praise on the defense.
“Our defense played well against us all week,” he said. “Zero rushing yards on any level, especially in a bowl game, is great. Kudos to our defense.”
Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell voiced his respect for Henigan. “They put a lot on the plate for him to call the game. You could see it all season long. He made big plays. He made some big plays in critical moments.”
Becht, who had 466 yards and three touchdowns, was named the Cyclones’ Offensive Player of the game. Higgins had 9 receptions for 214 yards and one touchdown. Noel had 6 receptions for 79 yards and a touchdown. Bo Freedom was named the Iowa State Defensive Player of the Game.
For the Tigers, Roc Taylor had 8 receptions for 102 yards. Scates finished with 75 receiving yards on 3 receptions. Blake Watson closed out his one-year career at Memphis with 107 rushing yards on 15 carries.
Silverfield – reflecting on the season’s battles – said, “Seeing all the smiles of the players and their families (was) great. They are all in and that is what makes it so much fun.”