Memphis’ defense had a clear motivation when UCLA came down with an interception in the end zone late in the fourth quarter.
That mindset was not knocking off the no. 25 ranked team in the country at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on Saturday, however.
The fuel that sparked the Tigers’ defensive effort was largely due to the will to win for linebacker JJ Russell. Russell, a freshman from Grenada, Mississippi, was trucked during a kickoff return after Memphis grabbed a 20-17 lead in the second quarter off a Riley Ferguson 42-yard pass to Tony Pollard.
Russell laid on the field motionless and when ESPN turned to a commercial break, he still was having the attention of the medical staff. He eventually had to be carted off the field and did not return to Saturday’s action.
When the spotlight was shown on the defense in the second half, they did what they had to do to protect Memphis’ precious lead. The Tigers’ forced UCLA to commit two out of their three turnovers in the second half, with Memphis not being able to capitalize off the turnovers immediately.
With UCLA coming up with a turnover to give a final drive, the Bruins were put in the position to break Memphis’ hearts. Despite UCLA being put back 15 yards with a pass interference, the defense knew quarterback Josh Rosen could still do the damage, completing 34-for-56 passes and finishing the game with 463 passing yards with four touchdowns.
Rosen completed a 20-yard pass to Jalen Starks on third down that put the Bruins closer to the first down marker. Needing just one more stop, Memphis sealed the deal by forcing an incomplete pass and giving Memphis a crucial victory for Russell over a Top 25 team.
UCLA only took the lead once in the second half, jumping out in front off a 22-yard pass from Rosen to Austin Roberts. Two minutes later, Memphis grabbed the lead for good off a three-yard pass from Riley Ferguson to Phil Mayhue. The Tigers did not give up the lead for the remaining nine minutes and 56 seconds.
Ferguson led the Tiger offense with six touchdown passes, completing 23-for-38 passes and coming up with 398 passing yards. The Matthews, North Carolina native used five different receivers to score and seven overall to obtain yards.
Memphis’ receiving was highlighted by Anthony Miller, who had 185 yards off nine receptions with two touchdowns. Joey Magnifico added six receptions for 83 yards with a touchdowns while Patrick Taylor and Pollard had over 40 receiving yards each and added a score.
The 2-0 Tigers play Southern Illinois at home on Sept. 23 at 7 p.m. central before opening up conference play in the American at UCF on Sept. 30.