One play does not a game make, but it can significantly affect the course of the day and the outcome. Such was the case with a fourth-quarter safety that propelled the University of Memphis Tigers to a 15-10 winner over SEC foe Ole Miss on Saturday at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
In the last game in the Tigers-Rebels series for the foreseeable future, Memphis won a defensive slugfest in front of the largest crowd (4,107) at the Liberty Bowl in the last several years.
Bryce Huff, who rocketed into the Ole Miss backfield to sack quarterback Matt Coral for two points and possession of the ball, said his world mostly was a blur of celebration for a few moments immediately afterwards the play.
“I was thinking safety on the play,” Huff said in the press room following the season opener for both teams.
“I came off and did my step and beat the tight end and tackled the quarterback. I know they trust their quarterback and try to put it into his hands. I got up to him and brought him down and the whole team got filled with energy and I just went to celebrate with them.”
UofM head coach Mike Norvell did not hesitate to use the “great” word.
“This was a great victory,” he said. “To all of ‘Tiger Nation,’ to all of Memphis, thank you for showing up! That was an exciting atmosphere to play in today. We knew whoever could establish the running game would be successful.”
The Tigers rushed outrushed the Rebels 215 yards to 106. Patrick Taylor led Memphis with 128-yards. Kenny Gainwell, a red-shirt freshman from Yazoo City, Miss., racked 77 yards on 16 carries. Scottie Phillips ran 19 times for 62 years for the Rebels.
Noting the stellar play of the defense, Norvell said, “We have had some that have developed. They believe in what we are doing.”
The Tigers got onto the scoreboard first with a one-yard touchdown run by quarterback Brady White. The drive started on Memphis’ 26-yard line and the Tigers used a combination of run and pass plays to keep the defense off balance.
Memphis extended the lead to 13-0 with a one-yard run by Patrick Taylor. The drive was set up by a 21-yard punt return by Pop Williams. The extra point attempt hit the right upright and bounced back onto the field of play.
The Achilles heel of the Tigers for the last several years has been the defense. Now enters new defensive coordinator Adam Fuller. The Tigers allowed the Rebels just 42 total yards in the first half and surrendered only 173 total yards in the game. The defensive line for the Tigers was dominant the entire game.
The Rebels got onto the scoreboard with a 35-field goal by Luke Logan (13-3). With momentum from that drive, Ole Miss later maneuvered 55 yards and cut into the Tigers lead on a one-yard touchdown run by Phillips with 11:49 left in the game.
The Tigers’ offense was not able to immediately answer the scoring drive by the Rebels, but special teams play forced Ole Miss to start an ensuing drive from the two-yard line after a punt by Adam Williams. On the very next play from scrimmage, Huff beat the Ole Miss tight end and took the Rebels’ quarterback to the turf.
The play forced the Rebels to give the ball back to the Tigers with 6:21 left in the game. The Ole Miss offense never got another chance, with maintaining control of the clock the rest of the way. Gainwell made some critical runs to keep the drive alive.
The defense for the Tigers took a big hit early in the game when starting sophomore La’Andre Thomas was ejected in violation of the NCAA targeting rule. His replacement, red-shirt freshman Quindell Johnson, responded with a timely interception.
White did not have explosive quarterback-play numbers for the Tigers, passing for 172 passing yards, no touchdowns with one interception. However, when he needed to make a play, he did. Case in point: a shuffle pass to Gainwell on a fourth down to keep a drive alive.
And while it was the first game of the year, White said, “It give us a lot of confidence. This was a team win and (it) took multiple guys to step in at some point. I am super-blessed to be here.”
NEXT: The Tigers play the Southern Jaguars out of the SWAC at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium next Saturday. The game is set to kickoff at 11 am and can be seen on ESPN3 and locally on WMC-TV, channel 5.