This offseason featured one significant change to the college football rulebook.
The clock would no longer temporarily stop after every first down. This measure would only be utilized in the final two minutes of each half. The resulting consequences were predictable — fewer plays, fewer possessions, fewer points.
Only one FBS game crossed the century mark this year, when Ole Miss defeated LSU, 55-49, back on Sept. 30. For comparison sake, 10 games that featured an FBS team reached 100 points in 2021 and eight games earned that designation in 2022.
But on Saturday at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium, a record was officially shattered for this new era of clock rules. Memphis outpaced South Florida in the wildest shootout of 2023, edging the Bulls 59-50. The 109 points scored are now the most in 2023, stretching the limits of what can be attained with fewer plays and possessions. South Florida is the first FBS team to score 50 points and lose since Arkansas in the 2022 Liberty Bowl, which coincidentally transpired in the same stadium.
Memphis’ shootout victory comes fresh off the heels of another one. In the prior week, the Tigers upended North Texas 45-42 in a thriller which featured two touchdowns in the final 50 seconds of action. A similar game unfolded for Memphis, which scored 40+ for the third consecutive week, led by the efforts of quarterback Seth Henigan. Henigan set a new season-high with 349 yards in his 15th 300-yard showing in three seasons. But the junior also completed a feat he hadn’t attained since his second collegiate game by throwing for four touchdowns. Henigan added 42 yards and a fifth touchdown as a runner, putting his fingerprints all over the offensive showdown.
However, the quarterback wasn’t able to finish what he started. Henigan checked out in the fourth quarter after suffering an apparent shoulder injury. The degree of the injury and the timetable to return are unknown, but Memphis saw a promising finish from the backup. On Tevin Carter’s first snap of the day, he targeted Roc Taylor toward the sideline on an RPO, and Taylor shed a defender to run for an 85-yard touchdown — Memphis’ longest play of 2023. Taylor’s explosive play catapulted the Tigers into a 52-42 with 12:54 left, keeping South Florida out of one-possession reach for the remainder of the contest.
Unfortunately for Memphis, Henigan wasn’t the only star offensive player to exit the game in the fourth quarter. Running back Blake Watson — the AAC’s second-leading rusher — also suffered a similar fate in the final stanza. After posting 64 rushing yards and a long third quarter touchdown run, Watson left with an injury. Brandon Thomas provided the finishing efforts for the Tigers in the backfield, sealing the victory with an 8-yard touchdown with 3:20 to go.
There was more to this game than the Memphis offense. South Florida’s offense provided enough firepower to wind up on the victorious end in most games, although it was not the case Saturday. Dual-threat quarterback Byrum Brown impressed in multifaceted fashion. The redshirt freshman posted 357 yards with his arm and 100 with his legs — totaling the 300-yard mark as a passer for the third time this year and the 100-yard mark as a rusher for the third time this year. Brown remained elusive and avoided taking a single sack in one of his greatest performances to date.
But what separated the two offenses was the turnover battle. Brown fumbled on South Florida’s third snap of the game and Memphis’ leading tackler Chandler Martin recovered. Martin’s opportune takeaway provided Memphis a 14-0 lead less than four minutes in, and while South Florida eventually gained the edge on the scoreboard in the third quarter, the Bulls never exacted revenge with a takeaway of their own. However, they threw an end zone interception in the late third quarter when trailing 45-42, and that pick prevented South Florida from ever claiming another lead.
The game produced a fascinating box score, as Memphis and South Florida inflicted similar yardage outputs on the opposing defenses. The Tigers picked up 580, while the Bulls earned 583. The third down conversion rates were strikingly similar, the teams both committed seven penalties, and the time of possession was rather even. But again, turnovers proved to be the ultimate separator, handing Memphis its seventh win of the season and pushing the Bulls into sub-.500 territory.
South Florida (4-5, 2-3 AAC) remains in play for bowl eligibility with Temple, UTSA, and Charlotte looming on the schedule. The Bulls haven’t enjoyed a winning season or bowl eligibility since 2018, but the opportunities still exist for year one in the Alex Golesh era.
Memphis (7-2, 4-1 AAC) clinched its 10th consecutive .500+ season, dating back to the program’s second year in the AAC. The Tigers are still significant players in the realm of conference title contention. Charlotte, SMU, and Temple are the opponents Ryan Silverfield’s team must overcome to return to the heralded AAC Championship Game for the first time since 2019.