With the Tigers in need of a boost, Tony Pollard turned in a 100-yard touchdown return with the help of some timely blocking. (Photo: Warren Roseborough)

by Terry Davis, Special to The New Tri-State Defender

The question entering the University of Memphis’ homecoming  football game against the Southern Illinois Salukis was simple: “Will there be a letdown?”

The answer was wrapped in 44-31 win in front of 41,584 at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on Saturday night. A week after upsetting the UCLA Bruins (then ranked No. 25), the Tigers got by a talented and upset-minded SIU team.

Salukis’ junior quarterback Sam Straub tested the Tigers defense, passing for 290 yards and four touchdowns. Straub’s favorite target was Iwema Cooper, who hauled in 9 receptions for 118 yards.

SIU punched first, hitting the UofM with a first-possession scoring drive that covered 78 yards and ended with Straub finding Copper for a 36-yard touchdown.

The Tigers got off to a slow start on offense, going three plays and out. The Tigers’ defense created a break, with an interception. The turnover opened the door for 7-7 tie when quarterback Riley Ferguson tossed a touchdown to star receiver Anthony Miller.

Struggling to find a consistent offensive offensive rhythm, the Tigers were in position to take a three-point lead into halftime after freshman kicker Spencer Smith booted his first college career field goal, giving Memphis a 17-14 lead with 1:31 left in the first half.

Straub responded by carving up the Tigers’ defense. The Salukis drove 65 yards in 55 seconds, with Straub connecting with Darrell James on a 35-yard touchdown, vaulting  the Salukis to a 21-17 halftime lead.

In the second half, the Tigers’ offense found more  success against the SIU defense. In the first 6 minutes of the half, the U of M amassed 153 yards compared to the 200 total yards they had in the entire first half. Darrell Henderson gave the Tigers a 24-21 advantage with a 14-yard touchdown run. Patterson added a 30-yard field goal to push the Tigers lead to 27-21.

“We settled down,” UofM head coach Mike Norvell said. “It is hard to get into a rhythm. We can’t go three and out. We have got to put a drive together in that first set. They had the ball for an extended time. We were able to establish the run in the second half and hit some plays.”

Tony Pollard – the Tigers’ not-so-secret weapon – did it again. After SIU kicked a field goal, Pollard returned the kickoff 100 yards, giving the Tigers’ their largest cushion of the game, 34-24.

“The kickoff return was a huge play. Tony Pollard and those guys take a great of pride in that unit. I thought we did a better job of executing,” Norvell said.

It was the second time this season that Pollard had turned a kickoff into a touchdown and the fourth time of his career.

“Just like the last one, I was expecting the kick,” Pollard said. “Based on the last few returns, their ends were squeezing it. So we decided to go to the (middle of the) field with it and it just popped right open. I was just wide open. When I saw the (penalty) flag I got scared, but luckily it was on the other team.”

Norvell said the Tigers expected the game twas going to be another battle.

“Hats off to Southern Illinois, they came in with a good game plan. Our guys have accomplished the first goal that we set in the offseason – to be undefeated in non-conference play. Our guys fought hard, but there are some things that we have got to cleaned up.”

Expressly, that means penalties, which has been an ongoing issue despite emphasis on fixing the probem

“It (talking about and addressing  the penalties) is not showing up on game days, so we are going to try to explore every option on how we emphasis that on a higher level,” Norvellsaid.

The Salukis would not quit. Straub connected with Jaylon Graham on a 1-yard pass with 4:51 left in the game to cut the Tiger’s lead down to 37-31. However, the Tigers kept their composure and drove 72 yards. More importantly, the UofM took 3 minutes and 25 seconds off the clock, scoring  on a 6-yard touchdown run by Patrick Taylor.

Next: The Tigers travel to Orlando, Fla. to play the University of Central Florida Knights on Saturday. The game was originally scheduled for two weeks ago and was postponed because of Hurricane Irma. The game will be the American Athletic Conference opener for both teams and is set for ESPN2 at 6 p.m.