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Memphis ends 13-game skid to UCF in battle of offensive heavyweights, 50-49

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Teams combine for 1,501 yards of total offense in Memphis’ 21-point comeback victory.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

A long-awaited celebration ensued in the Liberty Bowl on Saturday night, a night that was 30 years in the making. Since UCF joined the FBS in 1996, Memphis was 0-13 against the Knights. The Tigers hadn’t triumphed over their AAC rival since 1990, but when UCF kicker Daniel Obarski’s field goal soared left of the uprights with 19 seconds left, Memphis players reveled in a win the program had chased for decades.

Memphis overcame a 21-point deficit at the Liberty Bowl to upend UCF, 50-49. In an offensive masterpiece which featured 99 points and 1,501 total yards of offense, the Tigers’ victory was ultimately decided by the opposing special teams unit, which missed a 40-yard field goal in crunch time. But Memphis wouldn’t have been in striking distance if not for a career performance from sixth-year senior quarterback Brady White. The three-year starter delivered 486 passing yards and six touchdowns through the air in the bounce-back victory, accounting for a seventh touchdown as a rusher.

Even in a monstrous performance by White, UCF matched Memphis in quality of quarterback play. Sophomore Dillon Gabriel countered with 601 passing yards, 49 rushing yards, and six total touchdowns in an offensive clinic between the last two AAC champions.

The preposterous passing numbers between the quarterbacks weren’t the only aspect of this contest which made it feel like a real-life NCAA 14 game. Both teams attempted three 2-point attempts and five fourth down attempts. For Memphis, fourth down execution was a game-changer. The Tigers converted all five tries and approached each attempt with impressive play-calling. Those conversions included a 4th and 10 with 10:38 left and a 4th and goal with 9:16 left — both while down 14 points. Later, trailing 49-44, Memphis’ most pivotal play of the game was from 4th and 3 at its own 43-yard line with 1:24 on the clock. Ryan Silverfield elected to call his trustworthy shovel pass which worked on a 2-point try earlier.

Not only did wide receiver Tahj Washington convert the three yards on the shovel — he sprinted 52 yards to the UCF 5-yard line to set up the game-winning touchdown. Three plays later, White found former walk-on wide receiver Calvin Austin III in the end zone for the go-ahead score with 1:08 remaining. Austin, who was placed on scholarship last November, stepped up in Damonte Coxie’s absence with a 9-catch, 151-yard day for the Tigers.

For the second week in a row, Memphis came back from down 21. Against SMU on Oct. 3, the Tigers managed to tie the game at 27 after an early 24-3 deficit, but a fumble on the final drive ruined Memphis’ comeback bid. This Saturday after the first UCF’s opening possession of the second half, the Tigers fell into a 35-14 hole. Memphis’ offense responded with a 3-minute, 75-yard drive, but the team needed a stop to turn the tide to prevent another 21-point deficit. That stop came in the form of UCF’s only turnover of the afternoon — a fumble by running back Otis Anderson at the 4-yard line, on the cusp of another Knights’ touchdown.

Memphis’ ability to capitalize on its lone takeaway swung the 21-point separation into 6 in an instant, thanks to Silverfield’s spontaneous 2-point conversion. Stifling the UCF offense was another problem, as the Knights consistently connected on home run plays to pick apart the Memphis secondary. Gabriel threw touchdowns of 43, 85, and 93 yards in his career-high passing performance, the latter being the longest throw in UCF history.

With Memphis’ offense rolling in the second half, the Tigers needed two more stops to gain the upper hand in the matchup. Those stops would come to fruition, resulting in UCF’s only two punts in the game. Defensive tackle O’Bryan Goodson sacked Gabriel to force a three-and-out at the end of the third quarter, and immediately before the game-winning drive, an incompletion from Gabriel to Jacob Harris on 3rd and long injected life into the Tigers. Memphis exchanged the stop into its first and only lead, an advantage which would never be relinquished.

Even with two forced punts in the second half, the Tigers’ 703 yards of offense were almost not sufficient to pull out the win. Facing an up-tempo UCF squad that posted 798 offensive yards, Memphis allowed the Knights to collect 55 yards in three plays on the final drive. But the kicking game had not been in UCF’s favor Saturday. The Knights went for five fourth downs in Memphis territory and three 2-point attempts which kept kicker Daniel Obarski sidelined for most of the contest. Obarski, whose career-long was 33 yards, stepped up to the plate after a long day of rest and shanked the 40-yarder with 19 seconds left.

The miss confirmed another heartbreaker for UCF. The Knights blew a lead of 18 points or greater for the second consecutive game. The Knights especially struggle mounting comebacks when trailing in fourth quarters, finishing 0-5 in such games since 2019. To make things worse for Josh Heupel’s team, four of those five losses featured a double-digit second half lead.

While the Knights try to rebound in the Bounce House against Tulane next week, Memphis will likely re-enter the AP Poll after a quality win over UCF. Even after snapping the streak against the Knights, the Tigers will have vengeance on their mind for another week. In the 2019 Cotton Bowl season, Temple was the only AAC opponent to defeat Memphis and the Owls pay a visit to the Liberty Bowl next Saturday. Silverfield’s team hopes to build on the statement win over UCF and keep the momentum flowing in a quest for another conference championship.