VOL. 133 | NO. 1 | Monday, January 1, 2018
So Close ... Tigers Fall 21-20 in AutoZone Liberty Bowl
By Don Wade
The last drive and the last hope ended with record-setting Memphis Tigers quarterback Riley Ferguson flinging a fourth-and-10 pass toward wideout Phil Mayhue on the sideline. They didn’t connect.
On a day when Iowa State tied the AutoZone Liberty Bowl record with six sacks in a 21-20 victory, Ferguson’s final pass came under duress.
In fact, after completing so many passes and surging past 4,000 passing yards for the season, Ferguson’s last four throws fell incomplete. And incomplete is the way the end of the season must have felt to Ferguson and all of this University of Memphis football team. The win and the exclamation point they wanted, maybe even anticipated, just didn’t come.
“I gotta find a way to make that throw to Phil whether I got pressure in my face or not,” Ferguson said.
So, the dream of being the first team in program history to win 11 games was not realized. The Tigers finished 10-3.
The goal of going undefeated at home was not met, the Tigers finishing with a 7-1 record at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
“You always remember what you did last,” Mayhue said had said a couple of days earlier. “So this bowl game is our chance to leave our mark.”
No, they didn’t win. But yes, they left their mark.
“You saw the passion they played the game with, it was outstanding,” Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said of the Tigers.
Ferguson and linebacker Genard Avery were honored as the Tigers’ most valuable offensive and defensive players in the bowl game. Avery had two sacks among his five tackles and senior safety Jonathan Cook led the team with nice tackles and had a fumble recovery. They all would have loved to have traded places with Cyclones receiver Allen Lazard and linebacker/occasional quarterback Joel Lanning.
By the Numbers
18: Miller’s TD catches this season, tied for most in the country.
21.5: Career sacks for Avery, third in program history.
96/1,462: Catches and yards for Miller this season, both program records.
592: Memphis points for the year, also a program record.
4,257: Ferguson’s passing yards for the season, a program record.
57,266: The attendance and a sellout.
For Lazard, who was the game’s MVP after catching a bowl-tying-record 10 passes for 142 yards and a touchdown, and Lanning showed up at post-game press conference wearing T-shirts that read “AutoZone Liberty Bowl Champions.”
After Memphis had turned the ball over on downs with 1:56 left in the game, Lanning lined up at quarterback and on second down rushed nine yards for a first down that salted the game away. But he was more excited by the defensive stand the Cyclones made on the Tigers’ last possession when they had a first down at the Iowa State 40-yard line; ISU forced four incomplete passes in a row.
“That last drive was pretty special for our defense,” Lanning said.
The Tigers came in averaging 47.7 points per game this season, second in the country. If they had come anywhere near that, they probably would have left the Cyclones in the dust.
But the Cyclones (8-5) do their regular-season work in the Big 12, a conference full of high-flying offenses. They upset two Top-5 teams this year. They had seen strong-armed quarterbacks and fleet receivers all season.
For most of the day, ISU controlled the line of scrimmage. Patrick Taylor ripped off a couple of nice runs on one drive and finished with 68 yards on 17 carries. But overall, Memphis ran the ball 26 times for just 53 yards because of all the sacks (the Tigers a 2.0 rush-per-attempt average). Running back Darrell Henderson was unavailable because of a leg injury.
Meantime, the Cyclones constantly double-teamed Ferguson’s favorite target, senior wide receiver Anthony Miller. He finished with four catches for 55 yards and a TD, but was essentially neutralized. Ferguson completed 21 of 33 passes for 286 yards and Mayhue had five receptions for 85 yards and the two hooked up on the longest play of the Tigers’ day: a 36-yard TD pass.
But mostly, it felt like the Memphis offense was going uphill because the run wasn’t there and Iowa State was able to get pressure with three rushers at times and drop extra men into coverage.
“That hindered our tempo,” said Tigers coach Mike Norvell.
And not having Henderson …
“Darrell’s a great back, a 1,000-yard back,” Norvell said. “It definitely affected us.”
The game was not without controversy. Memphis appeared to have intercepted a pass at the goal line in the third quarter but Avery was called for roughing the passer. Replays showed the contact to be minimal.
The Cyclones then scored when Lazard caught a tipped pass from quarterback Kyle Kempt for a 5-yard touchdown. That gave Iowa State a 21-17 lead with 4:28 left in the third quarter.
A Memphis field goal from Riley Patterson with 2:16 left in the third quarter cut the lead to one, at 21-20.
Iowa State had the ball at the Memphis 1-yard line late in the fourth quarter when running back David Montgomery fumbled as he reached the goal line – or just after crossing the goal line – and Cook recovered for a touchback with 4:06 left in the game.
Iowa State challenged the call on the field, but the ruling stood. It was the Cyclones’ first lost fumble of the season.
The Tigers ran out of downs with 1:56 mark left in the game when Ferguson overthrew Mayhue on 4th and 10 at the ISU 40-yard line.
Kempt hit on 24 of 38 passes for 314 yards for two TDs and receiver Hakeem Butler also had a big day with 111 yards and a score on five receptions. Lazard, who is 6-foot-5, explained his success against the Tigers’ secondary with but a few words: “They’re a lot smaller than me.”
Meanwhile, Avery choked up talking about this last game as a Tiger.
“I just wanna say I love this program,” he said.
Norvell, who signed a new long-term contract after the regular season, was grateful to his seniors and remained upbeat about what’s ahead for this team that won the American Athletic Conference West Division title and was nationally ranked eight straight weeks – one of many program records set this season.
“They left their mark and changed expectations,” Norvell said of all the seniors. “The brightest days are ahead. All the pieces are in place to continue to grow.”