Less than four minutes of game clock separated a program-shaking disaster from a hearty sigh of relief. Things were looking dire for the reigning AAC champions when South Florida sunk a field goal with 4:36 remaining at the Liberty Bowl to secure a 13-point lead.
But this Memphis squad is resilient. This same team erased a 21-point deficit to tie SMU in the second half at the beginning of October. Two weeks later, the Tigers roared back from 21 in the second half to upend UCF. That determination was on full display once again, as Memphis (4-2, 3-2 AAC) scored 14 unanswered points in the final 3:30 to defeat South Florida (1-6, 0-5 AAC), 34-33.
In a response to South Florida’s late field goal, veteran quarterback Brady White captained a do-or-die drive where he completed four consecutive passes for 63 yards. To cap things off, he connected with tight end Sean Dykes for a 10-yard touchdown. The Memphis defense fought with passion at the line of scrimmage, forcing a South Florida punt.
Once White received an opportunity at the game-winning drive, South Florida’s upset bid was all but over. White initiated the drive with a 14-yard scramble and then completed six consecutive passes for 62 yards. With roughly one minute to go, he fired the deciding touchdown to Calvin Austin III in the left corner of the end zone — the same connection in the spot that Memphis used to take down South Florida’s rival UCF just three weeks prior.
White’s drives were scripted so efficiently that the Tigers left over a minute of clock time for South Florida to retake the lead. But with an inspired, fiery Memphis defense on the other side, quarterback Noah Johnson’s run on 4th and 7 was stopped one yard short.
A collective exhale could be heard across the city of Memphis.
Facing the only AAC team without a conference victory, the Tigers twisted themselves into a concerning situation. From the 14:18 mark of the second quarter until one minute remained, Memphis never held a lead over the visiting Bulls. South Florida outscored Memphis 24-3 in a bizarre second quarter which featured three touchdowns of over 50 yards.
The chaos ensued with a 51-yard pick six in the Bulls’ favor to hand South Florida a 13-6 lead. The Tigers fought back and tied the score with a 65-yard pass from White to Austin, but one play later, South Florida recaptured the lead. Noah Johnson found a wide-open Kelley Joiner down the seam and Joiner waltzed into the end zone for a 75-yard score.
Memphis entered its home locker room down 27-13 at halftime. It appeared Ryan Silverfield’s team was set to turn things around when structuring a 10-play, 59-yard drive on its first opportunity of the second half, but South Florida’s defense wasn’t letting Memphis walk all over it. The Bulls were phenomenal at stopping the run, limiting the Tigers to fewer than three yards per carry on 33 rushes. South Florida exhibited a stingy pass defense too by pressuring White and forcing breakups in the secondary. At the 4:00 mark in the fourth quarter, White completed just 19 of 37 attempts.
However, White finished in heroic fashion by completing 11 of his final 13 passes for 135 yards, totaling 437 passing yards on the afternoon. It was White’s third 400-yard explosion in his past seven games as the Tigers’ quarterback.
An important development in Memphis’ offense was the re-emergence of tight end Sean Dykes. The senior Houston native hauled in 22 passes for 279 yards and four touchdowns in his first three games of 2020. In the two contests prior to facing South Florida, Dykes was the recipient of three passes and accumulated nine yards. His statement resurgence Saturday featured seven receptions, a season-high 147 yards, and a pair of touchdowns.
Dykes wasn’t the only 100-yard receiver on Memphis’ offense. Junior wideout Calvin Austin III continued his breakout season by posting All-AAC-esque numbers. With five receptions, 102 yards, and two touchdowns, the former walk-on strung together his fourth-straight 100-yard performance in 2020. More importantly, Austin corralled his second go-ahead touchdown in the final 70 seconds of a game this year and is proving to be Memphis’ reliable go-to in crunch time.
While the team blew a 13-point lead in the final four minutes, Saturday’s showing in Memphis was South Florida’s finest in 2020. Going toe-to-toe with the 2019 AAC champions, the Bulls now have the confidence they need going forward to compete against the conference’s elite.
South Florida didn’t commit a single turnover and quarterback Noah Johnson looked comfortable in his starting debut. Johnson completed 20/29 passes for 217 yards and two touchdowns. The Bulls’ received a solid boost from their defense and special teams too. They scored a key momentum-swinging touchdown on a pick six and finished a perfect 4/4 in the kicking game, courtesy of Spencer Shrader. It was the program-building performance South Florida longed for in year one of the Jeff Scott era. The Bulls aim to replicate their strong showing again on the road next week in a trip to Houston.
Memphis averted a disastrous 2-game losing streak with the comeback. What would have been the Tigers’ first multi-game losing streak since 2018 now turns into an opportunity to launch a new win streak. Memphis hits the road next Saturday to battle Navy and its signature triple option offense.