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Memphis surrenders huge lead to North Texas, snatches it back in 45-42 barnburner

Seth Henigan sends 36-yard delivery to Joe Scates with 12 seconds left to seal bowl eligibility for the Tigers.

NCAA Football: Tulane at Memphis Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The Memphis Tigers and North Texas Mean Green both run through the entire gauntlet of emotions Saturday in Denton, TX.

A lopsided first half saw the Tigers secure a 31-7 second quarter lead on the road, appearing well on their way to remain in contention for their first AAC Championship Game appearance since 2019. But as North Texas demonstrated when roaring back from a 21-0 deficit to tie Tulane at 28 apiece last Saturday, the Mean Green are never truly out of a game.

The Tigers reverted to cruise control for the majority of the second half while North Texas manufactured its second consecutive 20+ point comeback. But instead of just merely tying it this time, the Mean Green captured a 42-38 lead with 47 seconds remaining. There was only problem with that triumphant go-ahead touchdown connection from Chandler Rogers to Ja’Mori Maclin — Memphis had 47 seconds remaining.

Memphis third-year starting quarterback Seth Henigan was ready for the moment, and he understood a field goal was no use on this critical drive. He remained poised in the pocket, only requiring two dropbacks to invade North Texas territory. Then a pair of short screens set Henigan up with a 3rd and 3 from the North Texas 36-yard line. It was time to swing for the fences.

Wide receiver Joseph Scates lined up on the boundary to the right of Henigan. He drew solo man coverage against Mean Green cornerback Tarik Luckett and gained an extra step on a deep post toward the end zone. When Henigan’s delivery neared, Scates gained position like a power forward boxing out for a rebound. He clutched the ball with two hands, and 12 ticks remained on the clock. Thanks to the Henigan to Scates connection, Memphis survived the roller coaster ride in Denton, edging North Texas 45-42 in the waning seconds.

While Henigan was crucial to the comeback, he also positioned Memphis for success in the first place. The junior tallied 330 yards on the most efficient showing of his career, completing 22-of-28 (78.6%) of passes in the victory — all without committing a turnover. His heroic dime to Scates was his lone touchdown strike, but he consistently guided the Tigers downfield the entire afternoon, as did running back Blake Watson.

In his first season since transferring from Old Dominion, Watson has proven to be an explosive play threat in a multifaceted manner. He entered Saturday second in the AAC in rushing yardage and second on Memphis in receptions. As a rusher against North Texas, Watson exploded for 169 yards to tie his season-high, highlighted by 64 and 65-yard touchdown runs within the first six minutes of action. As a receiver, he reached the century mark for the first time ever. Of those 100 yards, 63 came from a second quarter screen where he was tripped up at the 1-yard line. One play later, fellow running back Brandon Thomas punched it in to secure a 31-7 lead — as wide as the gap got for the Tigers.

But North Texas also brought a multidimensional offense to the table, ranking 14th nationally in yards per game with success through both the air and ground. That potential was finally unearthed in the second half with Chandler Rogers leading the show. Rogers fired a career-high 411 yards to go along with a career-high five touchdown passes. In his last seven contests including Saturday, Rogers has 19 touchdown passes and zero interceptions. And the high-volume efficiency continued. He completed 65.3 parent of passes on 49 attempts, exhibiting a completion percentage of 60 or higher for the seventh time in a row.

Roderic Burns was the recipient of Rogers’ first three touchdown passes, catching shots from 41, 4, and 35 yards out in a 102-yard performance. Then Ja’Mori Maclin snagged Rogers’ last two touchdowns, one with 4:19 left to slice the deficit to one score and another with 47 seconds remaining to hand North Texas its first and only lead of the game, which ended up being short-lived.

Memphis (6-2, 3-1 AAC) remains in prime position for AAC title game contention — something that would not have been the case had the team not responded to North Texas’ go-ahead touchdown. The Tigers’ lone conference loss came at the hands of Tulane. Should Memphis clear the remainder of its schedule, which is highlighted by a Nov. 18 home game against SMU, it likely clinches its first conference championship appearance in four years and its first under head coach Ryan Silverifeld.

North Texas (3-5, 1-3 AAC) did not secure a trajectory-altering win over the Tigers, but the Mean Green have unquestionably made in-season progress under first-year head coach Eric Morris. North Texas outplayed Memphis and Tulane by an aggregate score of 60-28 in its last two second halves. But after generating just 10 first half points in those games, solving slow starts is the emphasis for a program which has a daunting schedule on the docket. SMU and UTSA — two teams wielding 4-0 AAC records — are next up North Texas.