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Memphis downs Iowa State 36-26 to win first Liberty Bowl ever, finish 10-3

The Tigers earn 10 wins for the first time in the Ryan Silverfield era after triumphing on their homefield.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl - Memphis v Iowa State Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

The Memphis Tigers are accustomed to running out of the tunnel at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium for roughly half of their football games.

However, Memphis typically abandons that venue once the month of November subsides, waiting until the following August or September to utilize it again. But for the second time in program history, the Tigers participated in the Liberty Bowl — which is held at their home stadium.

In front of a home crowd of nearly 50,000, the Tigers accomplished something they’ve never done before — win a bowl game at their home stadium. In a rematch of the 2017 Liberty Bowl, Memphis edged Iowa State 36-26 in a wire-to-wire victory, putting on the finishing touches to a successful 10-3 season. The Tigers celebrated with their third bowl trophy under head coach Ryan Silverfield, who registered his first 10-win season in his four years at the helm.

Over the past decade, Memphis made a national brand for itself from explosive offenses. The Tigers wasted no time in showcasing this year’s high-octane unit, scoring 19 unanswered points in the first quarter to start the game. Less than 80 seconds into the game, quarterback Seth Henigan found DeMeer Blankumsee for a 70-yard touchdown bomb, and the explosive plays kept coming for the de facto home team. Henigan increased the lead to 13-0 on a QB keeper, and then he hit Joe Scates for a 51-yard air mail to manufacture a 19-0 lead over the Cyclones.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 28 Memphis at North Texas
Memphis QB Seth Henigan won Liberty Bowl MVP after throwing for 364 yards and four touchdowns.
Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Iowa State staged a mini comeback, scoring 13 unanswered points in the second quarter to slice the margin to one score, but one unorthodox Memphis play swung the momentum in favor of the Tigers for the remainder of the game. In a play which was run against Memphis in the 2016 Boca Raton Bowl vs. WKU, the Tigers attempted a fake kneeldown prior to halftime, gaining 21 yards on the trick play. That play call allowed Memphis to pierce into Iowa State territory where kicker Tanner Gillis sunk a career-long 49-yard field goal, providing the Tigers a multi-score lead — which they held for the entire second half.

Memphis scored two touchdowns in the early going of the third quarter to amplify its lead to 36-13. The second of the two touchdowns was one of the key highlights of the game, as running back Sutton Smith evaded three defenders on a third down screen, breezing past the Cyclones en route to a 48-yard score.

While Memphis seemed in full control up 23 in the second half, Iowa State still possessed the offensive firepower to make things interesting. The Cyclones converted a 3rd and 26 deep in their own territory when all hope seemed lost, and two plays later, they wound up with a touchdown connection from Rocco Becht to Easton Dean. The Tigers squandered another key opportunity by shanking a short field goal, and Iowa State capitalized with another touchdown. However, the Cyclones didn’t trim the lead to one-score after failing their two-point attempt — keeping Memphis ahead by multiple scores for the remainder of the contest.

Memphis entered the Liberty Bowl with the 6th-ranked scoring offense in the FBS at 39.7 points per game. While the unit pulled its weight with 19 first quarter points and a banner day from Henigan — who produced 364 passing yards and four touchdowns in an MVP showing — the Tigers also received contributions from another department which separated them from the Cyclones. Memphis’ defense struggled at times this year, ranking 100th and below in both pass defense and run defense. But the Tigers’ defensive line performed to its peak Friday, dominating the line of scrimmage to the tune of two sacks, eight tackles for loss, three QB hurries, and heaps of pressure which didn’t appear in the stat sheet.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl - Memphis v Iowa State
Memphis limited Iowa State to 0 rushing yards thanks to a dominant showing by OLB Chandler Martin, who racked up 5 tackles for loss in the win.
Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

The line of scrimmage dominance was evident. Iowa State finished with zero rushing yards as running back Abu Sama only attained four yards on 12 attempts, while Becht was held to zero with the two sacks factoring into the equation. First Team All-AAC outside linebacker Chandler Martin was instrumental in the run-stopping realm with seven solo tackles, five tackles for loss, and one sack in a stellar performance.

Other standouts for the Tigers besides Henigan and Martin included running back Blake Watson, who produced 107 yards on 15 carries and wide receiver Roc Taylor who hauled in eight catches for 102 yards on a victorious afternoon in Memphis.

Iowa State (7-6, 6-3 Big 12) finishes with its second consecutive bowl loss, also falling in the 2021 Cheez-It Bowl. However, the Cyclones exceeded expectations in 2023, outperforming their preseason rank and improving upon last year’s 4-8 record under head coach Matt Campbell. Even after dropping the Liberty Bowl, with six winning seasons in seven years, Iowa State is in the midst of its most successful stretch since the 1910s.

Memphis (10-3, 6-2 AAC) earns double-digit wins for the first time since 2019 — one year prior to Silverfield’s takeover. The Tigers earned an opportunity to finish ranked in the final AP Poll with another quality non-conference win, also upending Mountain West champion Boise State in late September. Memphis now has four 10+ win seasons since 2014 — under three different head coaches — after registering zero from 1960 to 2013. And for the first time in program history, they can celebrate a bowl victory on their home turf, winning the Liberty Bowl in a more-than-familiar environment.