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October 19, 2013

Comeback falls short

The Memphis Tigers endured another close loss, at least by the scoreboard's count, Saturday at the Liberty Bowl, falling 34-29 to the SMU Mustangs. The final tally on the scoreboard wasn't indicative of how the game really went.

There was a feeling around the program that this would be the Tigers (1-5, 0-3 AAC) second win on the season, but that quickly went away as the Mustangs scored on a 79-yard pass just 45 seconds into the game and completely dominated the first half.

By the time Memphis went into the locker room for the half, it was down 31-3.

""First of all, I would like to thank everyone who came out this morning," head coach Justin Fuente said. "I would like to apologize for the way we played in the first half. It was absolutely unacceptable. I would like to congratulate SMU and the way they came out prepared to play. They outplayed us."

The defense came in ranked 11th in the country, giving up just 305.2 yards per game. It looked more like the 2011 version than one of the best units in the country. SMU already had 282 yards of total offense by halftime, including going 4-4 in the red zone.

The lone Memphis score in the first half made history, though, to look on the bright side of things. In the first quarter, freshman kicker Jake Elliott was sent out to attempt a 52-yard field goal. He calmly reared back and nailed it with room to spare, giving him the second longest field goal in school history. It was one yard short of tying the record set by Stephen Gostkowski. It made Elliott 11-11 on the year before missing a 39-yarder on the next drive.

That was the highlight of the first two quarters for Memphis. The defense settled down after a shaky start, but the offensive struggles continued. Quarterback Paxton Lynch was accurate (14-19) passing the ball, however, he averaged just 5.9 yards per completion on 83 yards. The ground game didn't help either with 33 yards.

The Tigers drove into SMU territory on numerous occasions, but the offense seemingly shut down every time it got there. Memphis had a golden opportunity in the first quarter when Darius Ridgeway blocked a Mustang punt to give the Tigers the ball at the SMU 28. The offense couldn't move the ball and Elliott missed the field goal, squandering a great chance for points.

"It was kind of painful," said senior running back Brandon Hayes. "Both our offense and defense weren't executing. Our special teams were really keeping us in there, with that blocked punt, but we weren't able execute and score on that. We came out real flat, offensively as well as defensively. We weren't executing, we were doing stuff that wasn't in our character."

Remember that scoreboard? The Tigers finished with 29 points, so the second half was a different story. After the Mustangs hit a field goal the team's first drive of the second half to increase their lead to 34-3, Memphis began its comeback.

The comeback wasn't fueled by the offense, but rather the defense, which looked more like the No. 11 ranked unit in the country.

Pinned at its own seven-yard line, SMU back Traylon Shead took a handoff and was met by junior linebacker Ryan Coleman. He forced a fumble, scooped it up and ran it into the end zone to cut the deficit to 34-10 late in the third quarter. Coleman was in the right place again when teammate Reggis Ball forced JaBryce Taylor to fumble a Tom Hornsey punt at the 19. Coleman picked up the pigskin and sprinted for his second score of the day. A failed two-point conversion made it 34-16.

The defense wasn't done either. SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert took the Mustangs all the way down inside the Memphis 10-yard line on the ensuing drive. On second down from the Tigers nine-yard line, Gilbert threw an errant pass that was intercepted by Ball and ran back 93 yards for a touchdown. However, he was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for the way he dove in, negating the score and placing the ball at the 16. It didn't matter, as Hayes ran it in four plays later to bring the count to 34-23.

The remaining crowd went crazy when Lynch threw a long touchdown to junior wide receiver Joe Craig. It was called back though on a holding penalty. Still, Lynch kept his focus and took the Tigers to the Mustang 37. It looked as if Memphis might score and go for two to get within three, giving the defense a chance to make a stop so the offense could have one more shot to tie the game or win.

That didn't happen, as Lynch tossed a pick ending what could've been a miraculous comeback. Memphis ended the game scoring a meaningless touchdown.

Despite a bad first half, the Tigers showed a lot of heart and resiliency. The team could've easily folded, but kept playing hard and made it a game. Junior defensive end Martin Ifedi said that Fuente had a strong message at halftime.

"(He said) that this was going to define us ‐‐ whether we would give up or keep fighting, and we're going to keep fighting all season for the results we want."

Memphis will have more time to prepare for its next game at home against the Cincinnati Bearcats and put in a lot of work on both sides, mainly the offense, to iron out some wrinkles. The matchup will be on Wednesday, October 30 and will be televised nationally on ESPN2. Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m.


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