No. 25 Memphis rallies from 17-0 deficit to beat Houston
HOUSTON — When the chips were down early — and late — for No. 25 Memphis against Houston, the Tigers pulled together and went back to the things that had led to five wins in six games heading into Thursday.
It all came down to belief and focus and, most of all, execution.
Just when it looked like the Tigers’ early mistakes had done them in, Riley Ferguson hit Sean Dykes with a 21-yard touchdown pass with 1:28 to play to lift Memphis to a come-from-behind 42-38 victory over Houston on Thursday at TCECU Stadium in a dynamite American Athletic Conference showdown.
Memphis (6-1, 3-1 AAC) trailed 17-0 at halftime and scored touchdowns on all five of its possessions in the second half, and added a kickoff return for another score. Running back Patrick Taylor Jr. scored four touchdowns for the Tigers.
“Offensively, to go from being shut out in the first half, not playing our best ball, a lot of mistakes — everything that could probably go wrong in the first half did,” Memphis coach Mike Norvell said. “But, I came into the locker room and there was something about their eyes. No panic. They came out and absolutely responded.
“We didn’t change schematically - didn’t change one thing. There were emotional swings, momentum swings. We were trying to stay focused on doing our job because the next play could make all the difference in the game, and our guys did that.”
The Tigers’ victory allowed it to clinch bowl eligibility for a fourth consecutive season. Memphis has never played in bowl games in four straight years.
Ferguson completed 33 of his 53 passes for 471 yards and an interception to go with his game-winning hookup to Dykes. Anthony Miller caught 10 of those throws for 178 yards.
Houston outgained the Tigers 554-501 and outrushed Memphis 239-30 but two late turnovers after the Tigers’ final score ultimately doomed the Cougars, who lost their second straight game.
The loss snapped a six-game win streak against Top 25 teams for Houston (4-3, 2-2), which was the nation’s second longest active streak against ranked opponents.
Kyle Postma led Houston with 315 yards passing but fumbled and threw an interception in the final 1:28.
“We played hard and they played hard, too, and it came down to finishing and securing of the ball at the end of the game,” Postma said. “We need to go back to practice and apply everything we learned from this game and the last loss and move forward and get better.”
After two turnovers in the first half helped Houston to a lead at intermission, the game turned into a track meet in the second half, as both teams used big plays to open up things.
“When we get down, we get back up every time. We are going to keep fighting every time,” Memphis cornerback TJ Carter said. “I feel like we shoot ourselves in the foot a lot, and we make games closer than they ought to be.”
Houston’s running back tandem of Dillon Birden (a career-high 106 yards on 21 carries and a 1-yard touchdown run) and Duke Catalon (three TDs, from 4, 1 and 1 yards, respectively) scored at the end of sustained drives, as the Cougars owned a 31-14 lead with 1:31 to play in the third quarter.
When the Cougars punched, Memphis counterpunched. The Tigers got scoring runs of 2 and 9 yards from Taylor sandwiched around a 93-yard kickoff return touchdown by Tony Pollard that brought them back to within 31-21. It was Pollard’s third kickoff return for a touchdown this season; he had two in 2016.
Then Memphis forced a fumble from Postma on a sack by Tito Windham, and Taylor cashed in the turnover with a 1-yard TD run that brought the Tigers to within 31-28 with 11:04 to play.
That’s when Postma found Steven Dunbar in the end zone for their 8-yard scoring play with 6:44 to play to push the Cougars’ lead to 38-28.
But Taylor answered with his fourth scoring run of the game, this one from 6 yards out, to cut the Houston advantage back to 38-35.
“A lot of the deep shots Memphis was taking in the first half they weren’t connecting on,” Houston coach Major Applewhite said. “They threw the ball and caught the ball very well in the second half. We have to play well in crunch time and to do that we have to understand our assignments and the situation and what’s on the line.”
NOTES: Houston used all three of its first-half timeouts to ice Memphis kicker Riley Patterson on the freshman’s career-long 52-yard field-goal attempt on the final play of the first half. Patterson kicked the ball just after all three plays were stopped; he made the first two then missed the third and the one that counted wide left. ... Since 2000, Memphis has a 6-2 record in short-week games (five or fewer days). ... Houston’s 22 combined victories in 2015 and 2016 marked the best two-season total in program history, topping the 21 wins from 2014-15. ... Memphis, which finished fifth in the nation with 29 takeaways last season, is off to a good start in that category in 2017, ranking third in the FBS with 17 through six games. The Tigers had three more takeaways Thursday.