The Memphis Tigers were on the verge of 5-1.
All Memphis needed to move to the doorstep of bowl eligibility was secure a 19-point fourth quarter lead. Up until the night of October 7, no team squandered an advantage that large in 2022. But the Tigers did against Houston, and one month later, they remain in search of victory number five.
Memphis (4-5, 2-4 AAC) dropped its fourth consecutive game Saturday, making this losing streak its longest since 2013, its first year in the American Conference. While the Tigers put up a valiant effort against a UCF (7-2, 4-1 AAC) squad ranked No. 25 in the AP Poll and College Football Playoff standings, the Knights ultimately emerged in the Liberty Bowl, 35-28. Now a game below .500, Memphis must defeat two of its three remaining opponents — Tulsa, North Alabama (FCS), SMU — to secure bowl eligibility for an AAC-best ninth consecutive season.
UCF scored an instant touchdown to secure a 7-0 lead, but Memphis responded in poised fashion with a scoring drive of its own. Each of the Knights’ first three touchdowns elicited a Tiger response, and although Memphis remained within seven points for the majority of the contest, it was a wire-to-wire victory for UCF.
The game entered the fourth quarter tied at 21-21. but UCF gained a 28-21 advantage early in the period on a Mikey Keene touchdown pass to Kobe Hudson. Except this time, Memphis’ offensive response was met with resistance. Upon reaching midfield, quarterback Seth Henigan tossed an interception to Knights strong safety Divaad Wilson. While UCF didn’t instantly capitalize on the turnover, it won the field position battle by pinning Memphis inside its own 10-yard line.
A three-and-out for the Tigers offense provided UCF advantageous position to score one final touchdown, and that’s exactly what Keene and the offense did. Keene found Javon Baker in the back corner of the end zone for his third touchdown pass of the night, extending the margin to 35-21. While Henigan guided the troops back to the end zone on a 6-play drive which consumed 100 seconds of clock, Memphis never re-gained possession down one score.
Memphis’ fourth quarter interception proved extremely costly, and that’s been one theme of the Tigers’ four-game skid. The team hasn’t won the turnover battle in any of these defeats, ending up on the wrong side of a 9-2 turnover margin since the start of October. Memphis, which launched the season with a 4-1 record, didn’t lose a single turnover battle in its first five games, creating a 12-3 advantage in the category to start 2022.
There has been a noticeable rise in interceptions, and Henigan has thrown six in his last three outings after impressively just accumulating one in Memphis’ first six games. Outside of this aspect, the true sophomore quarterback remains lethal on offense and ignites the Tigers with the offensive firepower necessary to win these games. Henigan is averaging 334 passing yards per game in his last three starts on a respectable 67.5 percent completion rate — performing at a high-level on a weekly basis. He has also elevated his rushing numbers this season, attaining a season-high 69 yards with his mobility in the loss to UCF.
But one issue, which has especially amplified as of late, is that Henigan is the most effective rusher. Memphis operates best when its running backs are carrying the load offensively, and this was the case for many years. The Tigers enjoyed the luxury of Darrell Henderson, Tony Pollard, Patrick Taylor, and Kenneth Gainwell manning the backfield for years, but in the present day, they still remain in search of a successor to these heralded names.
Brandon Thomas led the charge for the running backs with 33 rushing yards. The last time a Memphis running back attained over 60 yards in a game was when Thomas notched 84 in a Sept. 24 win over North Texas. That also marks the highest single-game rushing output by any Tiger this year. For a team that averages a middle-of-the-pack 63rd most rushing attempts in the FBS, it is essential Memphis exchanges these opportunities into more prosperous results, and that’s one facet that has contributed to this losing skid.
Thomas has demonstrated the potential to take over games this year, posting back-to-back 147 and 191 yard games to begin the 2021 campaign, and those are the type of numbers Memphis longs for during the final quarter of the regular season.
Also, in what has become a trend in Memphis, even during the Tigers’ most successful years, is a lack of defensive fortitude to match the offensive firepower. The Tigers rank 33rd in scoring offense and 110th in scoring defense, demonstrating varying levels of execution between the units. Memphis’ rushing defense has been relatively stout throughout the season, but UCF provided a real wake-up call by posting 204 yards on the ground Saturday — 151 from RJ Harvey and 67 from Isaiah Bowser.
But the pass defense, which has been more shaky all year, continues to plague the Tigers. Currently situated at 119th in the category, Memphis allowed UCF to complete an efficient 23-of-29 passes (79.3%) at the Liberty Bowl, allowing the Knights to remain multidimensional on offense with their backup quarterback in the lineup. With explosive passing offenses such as Tulsa and SMU on the docket, this is the key area the Tigers must emphasize in order to keep the bowl eligibility streak alive.
For a program which has encountered as much success as Memphis in the past decade, the season outlook after a four-game losing streak seems bleak. But not all is lost. The Tigers still operate with plenty of talent on the roster, and that starts with Henigan, who has witnessed a palpable leap in his game as a sophomore. Henigan also has a versatile set of effective weapons at his disposal, including tight end Caden Prieskorn (the team’s receptions, yards, and touchdowns leader) and wide receivers Eddie Lewis and Joseph Scates.
With an FCS opponent still on the table, Memphis likely needs one win over Tulsa or SMU. Last season, in Ryan Silverfield’s second year at the helm, the team upended Tulane in the regular season finale to clinch bowl eligibility, so this isn’t unfamiliar territory for the program. If any tangible improvements can be made to the shortcomings visible during this recent losing stretch, the Tigers can salvage what’s left of the season and remain in the picture when bowl bids are announced.