With eyes fixated on the program’s first-ever New Year’s Six appearance, the Memphis Tigers needed to take of business on the road in a stacked American West division, where road wins haven’t come easy this season.
It was an uphill battle with adversity in the first quarter for the Tigers, trailing 17-7. But Brady White’s stellar outing brought the Memphis offense in a rhythm and the defense shut out Houston for the final three quarters, clinching a 45-27 victory in the nation’s fourth largest city.
“These games are always a battle, and I thought our guys did a great job in how we responded,” Memphis head coach Mike Norvell said. “The response was pretty impressive. Guys like (wide receiver) Calvin Austin showed up in an incredible way, and I thought Brady was phenomenal again. We were able to have the balance that we wanted to throughout the game, offensively and defensively.”
White accounted for all six of the Tigers’ touchdowns in the 45-point explosion, Memphis’ fourth consecutive game crossing the 40 mark. White overcame a 2-play disaster in the first quarter (a 13-yard loss on a bad snap and a third down interception), and from then on, the junior quarterback was dynamite. He responded by throwing for 341 yards, surpassing 340 for the fourth time in five games while connecting with a variety of targets on five touchdown passes. White also ran for the go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter, a 14-yard scramble which positioned the Tigers in front 21-20.
“It was a mishap, and then, next play,” White said on the team’s positive response after the interception. “It was the first quarter and there’s a lot of ball left to be play. We knew what had to be done, we just came out the next series and responded. As long as we own the football and we execute the way we know how to, we know that we can’t be stopped.”
Three Memphis receivers accumulated over 80 yards. Damonte Coxie and Antonio Gibson shared a matching stat-line of four receptions and 93 yards as each corralled impressive touchdown grabs in the victory. But Saturday afternoon’s breakout star was Calvin Austin III, a Memphis-born, Memphis-raised walk-on receiver. After posting five receptions, 81 yards, and one touchdown on the Cougars’ defense, Austin was rewarded a scholarship by Norvell following the game — creating a thunderous celebration by his teammates in the locker room.
“Coach Norvell gave me a chance when other coaches wouldn’t and to see how the guys reacted — that’s my family right there,” Austin said on his scholarship announcement. “It was a lot of jumping, embracing... I put in a lot of work and they recognize it. You know you have a real team when you see how others work. They always motivated me, encouraged me, and everybody was happy in that moment.”
Memphis also received a considerable offensive boost with an average starting field position on kickoffs at the 32. Since Gibson is one of six FBS kick returners to average more than 30 yards per return, Houston opted for squib and pooch kicks that landed around the 30-yard line instead of risking the ball into Gibson’s hands.
“Our kickoff return has been a dominant unit for us this year,” Norvell said. “You see teams kicking sky-kicks, trying to squib the ball... Most of the time when a team kicks off, we’re at the 35, 40 yard line moving forward. It allows us to be very aggressive offensively.”
Before the Tigers clicked offensively, the Cougars threatened to pull the upset by executing on several huge plays. On the opening drive, quarterback Clayton Tune threw on the run to Marquez Stevenson, who blitzed through a defender on a 53-yard touchdown reception — his sixth touchdown of over 50 yards this season. Tune followed up his long touchdown pass with a career-best 68-yard sprint to the end zone on the following drive. Then, following White’s lone interception of the contest, Houston capitalized with a field goal to create a 17-7 lead a quarter way through.
Memphis’ defensive adjustments were no match for the Cougars though. After allowing 40 points in consecutive games, the Tigers averted another defensive disaster and kept Houston’s offense in check following the first quarter. Memphis came up with crucial stop after crucial stop until the postgame celebration commenced. In the game’s turning point in the third quarter, the Tigers sacked Tune and recovered a fumble which ultimately led to a Coxie touchdown reception. Also, increased discipline proved imperative to the defense’s in-game improvement. The unit did not commit a single penalty in the second half.
“We gave up a couple big plays,” Norvell said. “All in all, our defense played pretty well. You take away some of the big plays — which obviously do count — but their response was incredible. We had the turnover, and I thought that was a monumental moment in the game.”
While the defense kept Houston in check, Memphis scored 31 unanswered points from the 3:30 mark in the second quarter to the 11:16 mark in the fourth. Houston’s final touchdown occurred after the game had long been decided, when the Cougars blocked a Memphis punt and recovered in the end zone with under five minutes to go.
Dealing with a brutal schedule week after week, Houston falls to 3-7 with the loss, missing out on bowl eligibility for the first time since 2012. Memphis, the AAC West leader, attained nine wins for the fourth time since 2014 and likely controls its own destiny for the Cotton Bowl with a matchup against #17 Cincinnati still looming on the schedule. It’s evident by their energy on the field that the Tigers are having fun playing football as they attempt to finish what could be the most memorable season in program history.
“We’ve talked about College GameDay and stuff, understanding the circumstances of the season, not hyping it up, but appreciating it,” White said. “I’m so lucky and humbled to be a part of this team and go able to perform the way that we’re doing. To cherish every moment and build brothers for life, I never thought I’d be in Memphis. It’s been a crazy route and I appreciate being here.”