It wasn't pretty, but it was a win. And victory is always sweet.
The Memphis Tiger football team got to christen their tradition of singing the school's fight song after a victory, coming back from a 10-0 halftime deficit to secure a hard-fought 14-10 win over the Rice Owls on a night when tickets sold were announced as 17,831 but the wet Liberty Bowl seemed a bit emptier.
None of that mattered to the Tigers, who were desperate for a victory after four consecutive losses to begin the Justin Fuente era. This game was a much-needed shot in the arm.
"College ball is college ball. This is D-I. You need wins to build confidence," admitted senior offensive lineman Jordan Devey, who played three different positions on the offensive line tonight. "For the young guys, this is gonna help them to believe that what we're doing is actually going to produce the results that we want, which are wins."
Junior transfer quarterback Jacob Karam, who led the Tiger pep band as they played the fight song, got the idea from seeing another (now-NFL) QB once do something similar.
"I saw Mark Sanchez do that one time and it's always been a dream to get up there and do that in a game," he explained. "I thought this was a perfect opportunity."
Before conducting the band, Karam conducted an offense that was particulalrly efficient in the second half. After struggling to an anemic 97 yards total offense in the first half, only 57 on the ground, the Tigers rushed for 107 yards in the 2nd half (54 in the 4th quarter) and scored the only two offensive touchdowns of the night in the 3rd period.
The game began on a great note for Memphis, which held Rice to a three-and-out on the Owls' first possession, forcing a punt.
However, the offense then dug a deep hole, as Jai Steib fumbled the Tigers' first offensive play and Rice Gaines scooped it up, rumbling 12 yards for a quick Owl lead, 7-0.
Karam was philosophical about the disastrous offensive start.
"It's kind of the pattern of the season," he noted. "We've worked so hard, had two weeks to prepare, here we are, eveybody's excited. And first play, that (Steib's fumble) happened. I mean, it's just football. When adversity happens, we've got to overcome it, and our guys did a great job of just shaking it off."
Memphis head coach Justin Fuente, who secured the first win of his head coaching career, was non-commital on exactly what all he told his team at that point in the game.
"Well, I said a lot of things," he began with a smile. "I'll tell you some of 'em. You know, 'Guys, let's go! We're alright, you know. Let's quit fiddlin' around, let's go back to fundamentals.' It's the same thing when we had the ball late in the game. It's gonna come down to don't get lost in the moment; stay with your base, and stay with your fundamentals."
Rice scratched out three more points to take a 10-0 lead into the half. Memphis cut the deficit to just 3, 10-7, on a leaping Keiwone Malone 5-yard TD reception with 7:50 to go in the third.
Sophomore transfer Eric Mathews, who was shuttled in and out of the game multiple times, threw what turned out to be the game-winning throw on his very first pass attempt as a Tiger.
After fumbling the shotgun snap and almost losing it between his legs, he composed himself and calmly found redshirt freshman (and converted tight end) Alan Cross for an 11-yard score. The toss gave Memphis their first lead of the game and the ultimate margin of victory, 14-10.
With the game in the balance, Memphis drained almost 5 minutes off the clock with an 8-play, 38-yard possession; forced a Rice punt with 2:24 left in the game, following an Owl possession that lasted just 1:31; and then ran the clock out with 4 more rushing plays, including redemption for Steib with a crucial first down at the 43 second mark.
Game over, and Memphis charges into the lead in Conference USA's East division with a 1-0 mark. The last time Memphis won their first conference game was way back in 2000 when they conquered Army, 26-16, in West Point (yes, Army was in C-USA that year).
Next up for Memphis (1-4 overall, 1-0 C-USA) is a 3:30 game next week on the road against East Carolina (3-2, 2-0 conference), who will be coming off a bye week. Rice (1-5, 0-3) is at home in a non-league game versus the University of Texas-San Antonio.