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VOL. 132 | NO. 239 | Monday, December 4, 2017

The Press Box

Tigers Lose AAC Title Game but Gain Berth in AutoZone Liberty Bowl

By Don Wade

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During the worst of times for the Memphis football program, back before hardly anyone in this town had heard of Mike Norvell, Anthony Miller or Riley Ferguson, losing never felt like it did Saturday in the American Athletic Conference championship game.

Because after a while, there’s no pain in losing another game you just assume you’re going to lose. There’s no pain in another lost season that you saw coming back in August.

During the worst of times, losing doesn’t sting anymore. It’s just a dull ache that is always with you.

Memphis's Tony Pollard (1) celebrates his touchdown with teammate wide receiver Anthony Miller, left, during the first half of the American Athletic Conference championship NCAA college football game against Central Florida, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

This was different. The Tigers fell 55-48 to UCF in double-overtime and did not get to hoist that gleaming trophy that goes to the league champions.

To come as close as they did, they had to overcome a 10-point deficit in the first quarter and then claw and scratch their way out of a 14-point hole in the fourth quarter playing in their opponent’s home stadium.

Needing a touchdown in the second overtime to keep the game going, Ferguson tried to hit Miller on a slant route in the end zone. But the Tigers quarterback was under pressure and the throw didn’t get there and was intercepted.

That’s how it ended. The pain up close and personal. The dream of a conference championship and a New Year’s Day bowl being on their fingertips until it wasn’t.

“Of course it hurts,” Ferguson said. “We went out there and gave it our all. We left it all on the field and it hurts. If it doesn’t hurt, like coach said, you need to check yourself because you shouldn’t be playing football.”

And that, strangely enough, is proof of what this historic Memphis football team has achieved. They brought a hurts-so-good feeling back to University of Memphis athletics. It wasn’t quite the-please-hand-me-the-anesthetic heart-ripper that was the NCAA championship game loss to Kansas – also an overtime defeat – but it was still painful.

Mistakes that won’t be forgotten from Saturday: An epidemic of delay-of-game penalties on the offense, 14 penalties for 127 yards (the Achilles’ heel of this season), and missed field goals (albeit of 46 and 51 yards) by a freshman.

Too much to overcome against a Central Florida team that is now 12-0.

The Memphis football program, of course, ascended first under Fuente after the wreckage of the Larry Porter years. Norvell came in afterward and hasn’t just kept it going but taken the program to a still-higher level.

Sure, wideout Anthony Miller will play on Sundays for somebody in the NFL. But he walked on from Christian Brothers High School under Fuente and flourished under Norvell, himself once a receiver at Central Arkansas.

Ferguson found his way here via Tennessee and a junior college. When Saturday’s championship game kicked off, the Tigers were No. 20 in the College Football Playoff rankings and the No. 2 scoring offense in the land. The No. 1 offense: the UCF Knights.

Yet, Memphis outgained the Knights 753 yards to 726 yards. Ferguson went toe-to-toe with AAC Offensive Player of the Year in UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton. Ferguson passed for 471 yards and four touchdowns and the one interception. Milton threw for 494 yards with five TDs and had three picks.

Miller reeled in 14 catches for 195 yards and three scores. Two Memphis running backs – Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor – each went over 100 yards rushing and a third, Tony Pollard, had the 66-yard TD run in the fourth quarter that put the Tigers back in the game.

Even the defense, which gave up all those points and yards and lost safeties Jonathan Cook and Josh Perry to injury during the game, made enough plays when they had to that Memphis had a chance. One stat hidden in all that offense: The Tigers held UCF to three points in the fourth quarter.

Now there will be almost a month to rejuvenate before the Tigers play in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl for the first time in the game’s 59-year history. They will have home field advantage when they play Iowa State from the Big 12 on Dec. 30 and what an advantage it might be: The Tigers went 7-0 at home this season, their only losses in a 10-2 season coming in Orlando, Fla., to UCF.

They beat Top-25-ranked UCLA and Navy at home this season and they spotted Houston a 17-0 lead on the road and then beat the Cougars 42-38. So, they have some very good wins.

 “They showed the heart they have and displayed all year long,” Norvell said shortly after his team come up just short to UCF. “We’ve got a great season … it’s showing the progression (of the program).

“The resiliency that our football team shows, we take pride in that.  We take pride in who we represent – that great community there in Memphis that supports our program.”

And today, that community is hurting just a little. If they weren’t, they shouldn’t be football fans.

But just ahead is a chance for some healing, to end the season with one more victory. Right here, on the home field.

“Anytime you lose a game like that, especially in a conference championship, it’s gonna be a heartbreaking loss,” senior offensive lineman Gabe Kuhn said Sunday after he and several other Tigers posed for a picture with the AutoZone Liberty Bowl trophy. “We’ve never been undefeated before in the Liberty Bowl, so to add one more win to a good season would be great for us.”

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