Memphis establishes presence in early New Year's Six picture with win over UCLA

Dr. Saturday
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaaf/players/227452/" data-ylk="slk:Riley Ferguson">Riley Ferguson</a> calls a play against UCLA in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Riley Ferguson calls a play against UCLA in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Memphis is going to give USF a run for its money in the American Athletic Conference.

Entering the season, many thought (us included) USF wouldn’t have much resistance in its own league en route to a clear march to a New Year’s Six bowl. Memphis, with its high-powered offense, had other ideas.

Memphis welcomed Josh Rosen and UCLA to Memorial Stadium on Saturday and knocked off the Bruins in a 48-45 shootout. The Tigers defense struggled containing the high-powered Bruins offense all afternoon, but buckled down emphatically when it mattered in the fourth quarter.

Memphis held a narrow lead for much of the game, but Rosen and the Bruins finally surged ahead 45-41 with a 99-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth. Memphis, with standout QB Riley Ferguson, quickly responded and went ahead on Ferguson’s sixth touchdown pass of the game, the decisive three-yard strike to Phil Mayhue with 9:56 to play.

From there, UCLA had two tries to retake the lead. Rosen quickly led the Bruins back into Memphis territory, but threw a costly interception, his second of the game, at the 19-yard line with the Tigers’ blitz right in his face.

It’s hard to tell if that was a miscommunication with a receiver with it looking like Rosen anticipated a curl route. Nonetheless, the interception and big return by Terrell Carter gave Memphis a chance to put the game out of reach.

What followed were a few curious decisions by Tigers coach Mike Norvell. While taking nearly four minutes off the clock, Memphis advanced to the UCLA 16 with just over three minutes to go. Facing third-and-five, Norvell decided to run the ball (instead of letting Ferguson make a decision) and Patrick Taylor was stopped after no gain. Norvell considered going for it on fourth down, but brought out the field-goal unit — even after a missed extra point earlier in the game.

But there would be no kick. Instead, Memphis tried a fake with freshman kicker Riley Patterson throwing the ball. It ended poorly and gave UCLA another chance with 2:47 to play.

Aside from a pair of ill-advised interceptions, Rosen picked apart the Tigers secondary all game, but there would be no dramatic comeback this time. On a play near midfield, Rosen felt pressure and chucked one toward Theo Howard. The pass — which Rosen should have thrown away — looked like a surefire interception, so Howard understandably interfered with the Memphis defensive back. That 15-yard penalty proved costly.

With 25 yards to go for a first down, Memphis kept bringing the heat. Rosen threw two incomplete passes but got 20 yards back on a nice effort from Jalen Starks on third down. The Bruins had a fourth-and-five in Memphis territory, but Rosen took a big hit and his pass fell incomplete, sealing a big win for the Tigers.

It was only the second game of the year for Memphis, the first a rain-soaked win over UL-Monroe, so it was hard to know what this Memphis team could bring to the table. With Ferguson (398 yards, 6 TDs) at quarterback and Anthony Miller — nine catches, 185 yards, two TDs — nabbing everything thrown his way, the Memphis offense is going to be a problem for opponents all year long.

The defense is certainly a cause for concern. Rosen threw for 463 yards and four touchdowns, but the Tigers were able to figure things out late in the ballgame by bringing pressure and making coverage adjustments. That could carry over into the AAC schedule, where the Tigers won’t face an offense anywhere near as explosive as the Bruins.

The AAC looks like the best Group of Five conference (with the Mountain West not far behind), so its champion will have as good a chance as any to earn a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. USF is 3-0 so far, but has not played anywhere near what many expected so far against lackluster competition. It’s obviously really early in the season, but the Tigers and Bulls could be on a collision course to the AAC title game (with much more on the line).

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Sam Cooper is a writer for the Yahoo Sports blogs. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!

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