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VOL. 10 | NO. 47 | Saturday, November 18, 2017

Tigers Defeat SMU, Mother Nature to Clinch AAC West Championship

By Don Wade

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The football gods decreed that the University of Memphis would have to wait a little longer. Of course they did. Hurricanes and tropical storms altered game schedules and caused harsh playing conditions early in the season. On Saturday, there was a lightning delay just as a berth in the American Athletic Conference title game was within reach.

But what’s one more unplanned timeout? After his team had defeated SMU 66-45 and won the AAC’s West Division crown, second-year coach Mike Norvell could smile about all they had been through.

“Just so very proud of this football team,” Norvell said. “They played relentless. I guess we did something to create Mother Nature not liking us very much.”

But here’s the thing: For even this, Norvell had game-planned.

“We practiced this in fall camp,” the coach said. “We had a lightning strike at one of our practices. The guys were prepared to come out and respond.”

Said wide receiver Anthony Miller, who added eight catches for 163 yards and two touchdowns to his record-setting totals: “When we face adversity, it’s nothing to us.”

On Saturday, as it has been the case in all but one game this season, the Tigers’ offense was much like a force of nature that could not be stopped. Until, that is, at 2 p.m., when the game was halted because lightning was within eight miles of the stadium. Thus began an NCAA-mandated delay of at least 30 minutes with the Tigers leading SMU 52-38 and 13:51 left in the fourth quarter.

The delay lasted 57 minutes and when play resumed wind gusts were hitting almost 40 mph. On the third play after the game resumed, Memphis running back Darrell Henderson hit SMU with a cool breeze of his own as he busted off a 52-yard touchdown run to go alongside the 70-yard TD run he had in the first half.

Up 59-38 with 13:29 left in the fourth quarter, the rest of the day was devoted to a happy countdown to the celebration. Once the clock hit zero, players ran over to the band near an end zone to dance and shout. Then there was a ceremony at mid-field, where Norvell hoisted the trophy overhead and it was passed around among the players crowded together.

A few feet away from that happy mob, Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen, the man who headed up the coach search for Norvell after Justin Fuente left for Virginia Tech, looked on. Back in the summer, Bowen had all but outright predicted this moment.

“I believed coach Norvell and these kids would play to the ultimate potential,” Bowen said, almost shouting to be heard above the band. “This is the start of what that could be.

“A windstorm, a rain delay … it’s been fabulous because they’ve earned every day of it and worked really hard to get to this point. This is a culmination of greatness and I’m honored to be a part of it.”

Quarterback Riley Ferguson was, as always, right in the middle of it, too. He threw for 320 yards with two TDs and one interception and rushed for 29 yards and three touchdowns, with his 12-yard TD after a Houdini-like move drawing rave reviews.

“The B button on PlayStation,” Ferguson said of his video game-like spin.

Already guaranteed a program-record fourth straight bowl game with a 9-1 record, 6-1 in the AAC, the No. 18 Tigers (and 21st in the College Football Playoff rankings) stayed on track for that ultimate goal of reaching a New Year’s Day Bowl game – most likely the Peach Bowl in Atlanta.

Next weekend, the Tigers finish up at home against a sub-.500 East Carolina team. Meanwhile, UCF (10-0, 7-0 will be at home against South Florida (9-1, 6-1) with the winner capturing the East Division championship. The AAC title game will be on Saturday, Dec. 2, and if UCF wins the East the game would be played in Orlando. If South Florida wins, there remains a chance – based on their respective College Football Playoff rankings – the game could be played in Memphis.

The Tigers’ lone loss came at UCF on Sept. 30, a 40-13 beatdown before Memphis went on this six-game winning streak. A return trip to UCF would offer a chance at redemption.

“We looking forward to it,” Miller said of that possibility. “UCF, they embarrassed us. That’s a bad taste we don’t want in our mouth anymore. So we’re ready for them.”

The Tigers have scored at least 42 points in five of the games in their winning streak and more than 50 points in three of them. Their defense will bend, bend, bend – and sometimes break – but their offense is actually the best defense against defeat. The Tigers have won on days when they have given up 45 points to UCLA, 38 points to Houston and 45 points to SMU.

On Saturday, they rolled up 664 yards – 333 on the ground (Henderson had 147 yards, Patrick Taylor 114 yards with two TDs) and 331 yards through the air. Perfect balance.

“It’s huge,” Norvell said. “You make teams have to defend everything.”

For this team, there is history that can’t be erased. Now and forever this Memphis team will be the 2017 AAC West Division champions.

“This team, they’ll always be remembered,” Norvell said. “That trophy will always sit on our shelf.

“But it’s not the ultimate goal,” said the coach who even prepares for lightning delays. “The journey’s not done.”

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