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Winning in Memphis, Third Time's A Charm

Posted on December 7, 2019 at 7:20 PM

  Article by Dan Tortora

  The stage was the same, but the setting was different.

  That is because the Memphis Tigers were playing in their third consecutive American Athletic (AAC) Football Championship Game, but unlike the past two, this one was at home in familiar digs at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tennessee.

  Their opponent was new as well, with the Cincinnati Bearcats advancing to their first-ever AAC Championship Game.

  The UCF Knights represented the American East Division the last two seasons, with both games being played on their grounds at Spectrum Stadium in Orlando, Florida.

  Memphis won the coin toss and did not disappoint coming right out of the gate, when they tried to catch the Cincinnati Bearcats off-guard with an onsides kick.

  Memphis did recover their own kick, but were flagged for interference and Cincinnati took possession at Memphis' 30-yard line to begin the contest.

  Graduate kicker Sam Crosa would connect from 32 yards out to give the Bearcats a 3-0 lead on their opening possession, but the Bearcats would get one better, when senior cornerback Chris Claybrooks was flagged for roughing the kicker, providing a new set of downs for the Bearcats.

  With new life inside of the Tigers' redzone, it would take the Bearcats just two plays, back-to-back runs by junior running back Michael Warren, II, to score, the scoring run from six yards out to give Cincinnati a 7-0 advantage just inside the 12:30 mark of the first half.

  Memphis would respond by getting all the way to Cincinnati's 11-yard line, but two incompletions on second- and third-down by junior quarterback Brady White would end the drive with three instead of seven, as junior kicker Riley Patterson sent a 29-yard attempt through the uprights to make it 7-3 Cincinnati at the 8:21 mark.

  On the Bearcats' second drive of the game, the Tigers forced 4th-&-12 when senior linebacker Austin Hall took sophomore quarterback Desmond Ridder down, forcing a punt with a little over five minutes to play in the opening quarter.

  Starting their second possession of the game from just outside of their own end zone, Memphis would have a quick three-and-out, courtesy of redshirt-freshman cornerback Arquon Bush knocking the ball away from senior wide receiver Antonio Gibson  in single-coverage.

  But, hold on.

  Cincinnati would run into the kicker and a punt from deep inside their own territory would, instead, become a new set of downs for Memphis.

  This Bearcats' blunder would prove costly when Gibson, who had the ball swatted away on the aforementioned try to keep the drive alive, would take a carry 65 yards up the gut, through traffic, and off to the races to give the Tigers their first advantage of the contest, 10-7, inside three minutes to go in the first quarter.

  On their third drive of the game, Ridder aired out to sophomore wide receiver Jayshon Jackson, who was wide open after outrunning multiple defenders. Ridder's pass fell effortlessly into Jackson's hands and there was nothing but daylight... but, Jackson dropped the gimme and the Bearcats had to punt it away.

  At the end of the first quarter, a glaring stat, aided by Gibson's 65-yard run, was the rushing-yard discrepancy, which favored Memphis 126 yards to 29 by Cincinnati. Memphis achieved over 100 yards on 11 carries, while Cincinnati amounted their 29 yards over seven carries.

  The Bearcats proved to continue to be their own worst enemy, with mulitple dropped passes followed by Ridder fumbling after a substantial run, with the Tigers recovering the ball at the 11-minute mark of the second quarter. Ridder's fumble was caused by Claybrooks who knocked the ball out of Ridder's hands after Ridder's 39-yard quarterback keeper that would have placed Cincinnati at the Memphis 22-yard line.

  Instead, the ball would move back into the hands of Memphis after being recovered by sophomore free saftey La'Andre Thomas.

  But the Bearcats would get out of this debacle without giving up any points, as the Tigers' drive ended on their own 15-yard line, with a punt.

  On Cincinnati's subsequent drive, Ridder would somehow elude a sack attempt and gain 14 yards for a first down with his feet, but yet another dropped catch attempt would continue the bleeding from self-inflicted wounds, and Cincinnati would punt it back to Memphis with 7:51 before halftime.

  Starting at their own 10-yard line, ahead 10-7, the drops would continue, as the Tigers would punt it right back after gaining minimal yards, following a drop by redshirt-freshman running back Kenneth Gainwell.

  Coming off of a mistake-laden first half by both teams in the catching game, junior wide receiver Malick Mbodj reeled one in in single-coverage with hands in his way for a 32-yard gain to the Tigers' 24-yard line.

  Three plays later, Ridder would keep it himself, roll off of contact and virtually walk it in for a 15-yard touchdown run that would place the lead back in the paws of the Bearcats with a little over 2:30 to go before the half. This comes on the drive that followed Ridder's fumble where he was charging toward the same left side of the end zone.

  On 3rd-&-2, Cincinnati would get some help from Memphis on a pass-interference penalty that would provide for them a new set of downs and move them to the Memphis 45-yard line. Claybrooks, who had aided Cincinnati accidentally when he ran into the kicker earlier in the first half, was responsible for the interference,

  He would work to make up for it later on in the drive when he hurried Ridder on third down, forcing him to throw it away, and the Bearcats to ultimately punt it away with 1:01 to go in the half.

  Three straight completions by White clawed the Tigers to the Bearcats' 40-yard line, but a sack by sophomore defensive end Myjai Sanders sent the Tigers back 12 yards.

  A last-second heave by White before halftime ended in an interception that gave Memphis fans a scare as sophomore safety Ja'Von Hicks returned it 70 yards before getting pushed out-of-bounds to end the first half of play 14-10, advantage Cincinnati.

  Leading the charge on the ground by 97 yards in the first quarter over the Bearcats, the Tigers would amount just two yards on the ground in the entire second quarter, while giving up 125 rushing yards to the Bearcats in the second quarter alone. As a result, Cincinnati went into the locker room with 154 rushing yards to Memphis' 128. Ridder led all players that had carried the ball on either side, with eight carries for 96 yards (12 yards per carry) and one rushing touchdown at halftime.

  Memphis opened the second half with a six-rush, one-pass drive that concluded with a one-yard keeper by White to get the lead back on their end, this time 17-14 with 11:59 left on the third-quarter clock.

  Cincinnati would respond with a nine-play drive where Ridder would go 3-for-3 and share the carries with Warren en route to their next score, when Warren went in from three yards out to grab the lead back at 21-17 with a little under 7:30 left in the third quarter.

  White would go 3-for-6 on Memphis' next drive, leaving Patterson with a 52-yard attemplt that he would boot through to close the gap to one, 21-20 Cincinnati, with just under four minutes remaining in the quarter.

  Claybrooks, who had made big plays and blunders alike in this contest, intercepted Ridder on the first play of the Bearcats' following possession, going for no gain as he went down at his own 37-yard line.

  In the third quarter, Cincinnati gained 35 yards on the ground and 45 through the air, while Memphis added 46 on the ground to their total as White woke up to the tune of 101 passing yards with the 15-minute period.

  The Tigers would take their late third-quarter drive into the fourth, ending the 11-play possession with a 50-yard field goal from Patterson, his second field goal of the day from at least 50 yards out. This one would give the lead to Memphis at 23-21 just 13 seconds into the final quarter, at the 14:47 mark.

  Both teams would punt away their next opportunities before the Bearcats took a 13-play drive for a score when Crosa cashed in from 33 yards away to gain the one-point lead, 24-23, taking 6:27 off the fourth-quarter clock on the possession.

  Memphis responded by taking a 10-play drive from their own five-yard line to paydirt, scoring on a pass from White to Gibson from six yards out, which Gibson darted his way in on.

  The Tigers would try for a two-point conversion, but the pass attempt would fall incomplete with blanket coverage by the Bearcats, making it 29-24 Tigers with 1:14 to play.

  Ridder responded with a 30-yard pass-play to sophomore wide receiver Alec Pierce and a 24-yard completion to senior wide receiver Rashad Medaris during their final drive of the game.

  Junior linebacker JJ Russell would hurry Ridder on third down, forcing Cincinnati into one final down.

  A false start would make it 4th-&-15 for the Bearcats and a holding penalty would follow, resulting in a turnover on downs with 26 seconds to go, clinching the first-ever American Athletic Championship win for the Memphis Tigers after their first two tries fell short to UCF.

  I guess home truly is where the heart is.

  Memphis moves on to 12-1 on the season, their first 12-win season in the history of the program, as Norvell continues to impress and his Tigers refused to be tamed.

Categories: American Athletic Conference, College Football, NCAA