No. 21 Memphis pours it on to win AAC West title
MEMPHIS — Memphis senior quarterback Riley Ferguson mentioned Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers when asked who he models himself after.
On Saturday, when the Tigers made history at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Ferguson looked like a combination of the two, with some of Michael Vick’s mobility tossed in for good measure.
Throwing for 320 yards and two touchdowns while adding a surprising three scores on the ground, Ferguson led No. 21 Memphis to its first conference division title, a 66-45 lightning-delayed rout of SMU.
It could have been expected that Ferguson would complete 21 of 27 passes against a porous Mustangs defense. But three scoring runs? Considering that he entered the game with five net yards in 30 rushes and three touchdowns for the year, probably not.
Yet there was Ferguson, displaying the feet on second half scores of 8, 12 and 2 yards that helped the Tigers (9-1, 6-1 American Athletic Conference) pull away from a 31-24 halftime lead.
“That was more like the B button on PlayStation,” joked the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Ferguson.
Ferguson, who originally started his college career at Tennessee but redshirted after suffering a leg injury in 2013, never played a down for the Volunteers. After a year at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College, Ferguson transferred to Memphis and threw for 3,698 yards and 32 touchdowns last year.
On Saturday, Ferguson passed the 3,000-yard mark for the second straight year. More importantly, he guided a perfectly balanced offense to 664 total yards, 33 first downs and their second-highest point total of the year, lifting the Tigers to American Athletic Conference West title.
They will play in the championship game on Dec. 2 against either No. 15 Central Florida or South Florida.
“This is something the program has wanted ever since it was created,” Ferguson said. “That we could do this for the program and the community is huge.”
While Ferguson was the headliner, Memphis had stars all over the field on offense. Running backs Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor rushed for 147 and 112 yards, respectively, with each scoring twice. Anthony Miller caught eight passes for 163 yards and two scores, and nine other players caught passes.
Four of the Tigers’ nine touchdowns came on plays of 24 yards or longer, including Henderson’s runs of 70 and 52 yards.
“Give credit to their offensive coordinator (Darrell Dickey) and (head) coach (Mike) Norvell,” SMU defensive end Justin Lawler said. “They kept running the same two plays over and over, and we couldn’t stop them.
“If you can break into a house doing the same thing, why would you not keep doing it?”
The Mustangs (6-5, 3-4 AAC) nearly matched Memphis score-for-score for three quarters, trailing just 45-38 after Xavier Jones plunged in from the 1 with 50 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
But with a thunderstorm forming that eventually delayed the game for 57 minutes, the Tigers finally put this one away. Ferguson and Miller hooked up for a 24-yard touchdown on the second play of the fourth quarter.
On its first snap after the lightning delay, Memphis handed to Henderson, who sprinted 52 yards off left tackle with 13:29 remaining for a 59-38 advantage. Ferguson’s third touchdown run with 8:24 remaining turned the game’s remainder into a celebration for the few thousand fans from a crowd of 35,329 that stuck around after the delay.
Second-year Tigers coach Mike Norvell, who may get offers from Power 5 programs like predecessor Justin Fuente did two seasons ago before replacing Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech, saluted his squad’s focus during the delay.
“To come out like they did after the delay and get the touchdown on the very first play just speaks volumes,” Norvell said. “To win a division championship and get one more opportunity with these guys to play together ... this community should celebrate what we have done tonight.”
SMU quarterback Ben Hicks hit 15 of 34 passes for 218 yards and four touchdowns, two going to Trey Quinn. Jones rolled up 175 yards and a pair of scores on 20 carries.
NOTES: Memphis WR Anthony Miller broke a school record late in the first quarter with his 209th career reception. ... Tigers CB Caelon Harden was disqualified from the game late in the first half after he was flagged for targeting SMU kickoff man Josh Williams during a kick return. ... SMU WR Trey Quinn became the first player in FBS since at least 2000 with 15 or more catches in three straight games after getting 49 against Connecticut, Houston and Cincinnati. Quinn had four receptions Saturday, giving him 100 for the year.