One week ago, SMU was sitting on a pedestal at No. 19 in the country, thriving as one of college football’s nine unbeatens. After dropping a heartbreaker to Houston by allowing a kick return touchdown in the final seconds, Sonny Dykes’ team had a prime opportunity to bounce back and possibly invade the College Football Playoff rankings.
Memphis entered Saturday with four losses in its previous five outings, but the Tigers didn’t mind rebounding from a disastrous stretch to play the spoiler role. After a much-needed bye week which allowed the team to return starting quarterback Seth Henigan, Memphis upended SMU in 28-25 fashion at the Liberty Bowl on Saturday afternoon. The Tigers are now 19-1 in their last 20 contests held at their home venue.
SMU and Memphis typically generate some of college football’s most electric offenses, but this matchup featured a defensive-minded bout in the early going. Until under two minutes remained in the first half, the Mustangs and Tigers were knotted at 0-0, thanks to miscues such as fumbles and missed field goals.
SMU struck first on a fortunate bounce. A slant intended for Danny Gray was deflected by the Tigers at the line of scrimmage, but the star received swooped in and ran the back into the end zone for a 48-yard touchdown. Memphis instantly responded with a two minute drill and Henigan found a wide open Eddie Lewis in the end zone for a 2-yard score on the goal line with 16 seconds remaining in the half.
In the second half, the Tigers defense emerged to complete the upset. Memphis forced four punts on SMU’s first four drives of the second half — and three of them were three-and-outs. On those four possessions, the Mustangs compiled a total of just seven yards. But a key play during that sequence which put Memphis in control involved a punt by the Tigers. SMU muffed a punt in its own territory, allowing Henigan and company the short field needed to capitalize.
Henigan delivered a 27-yard touchdown pass to Javon Ivory in the third quarter to provide the Tigers a 21-10 advantage. Operating with the double-digit lead in the early fourth quarter, head coach Ryan Silverfield brought out the trickery on 4th and 2 with a bizarre play design. In a bunch formation, Henigan lined up under center yet the ball was shotgun-snapped to running back Rodrigues Clark. The halfback delivered a 40-yard dime to tight end Sean Dykes who recorded his sixth touchdown reception of the year.
Memphis held a 28-10 lead, but the Mustangs’ seventh ranked scoring offense finally woke up. Quarterback Tanner Mordecai led the AP Poll No. 23 Mustangs back into the contest with a pair of quick fourth quarter touchdowns. Trailing 28-25, SMU’s defense produced the clutch stop it needed at midfield to receive an opportunity to win or tie with 2:19 remaining. Those hopes were thwarted four plays later. Mordecai’s pass from the Memphis 43 was intercepted by SMU’s leading tackler Delano Robinson, effectively sealing the upset victory for the Tigers.
The presence of Henigan worked wonders for a Memphis offense which scored seven in its last outing, which he missed due to injury. The true freshman posted 392 passing yards and two touchdowns on the SMU defense, compensating for a Tigers’ rushing attack which accumulated 36 yards on 34 attempts. Henigan distributed the wealth to 11 different receivers but none made an impact like surefire All-AAC wide receiver Calvin Austin III, who tallied 88 yards on eight receptions.
With the victory, Memphis is one win away from attaining bowl eligibility for the eighth consecutive season. Despite four blemishes on their résumé, Silverfield’s team has quality wins over a Mississippi State squad ranked No. 17 by the College Football Playoff committee and over an SMU team that was ranked in the AP Poll prior to Saturday’s contest.
Meanwhile, the Mustangs can expect to lose their ranking as their AAC title game plans suffer a major letdown. SMU’s most logical path to its first appearance in the event requires winning out combined with undefeated Cincinnati dropping its first regular season game since 2019.