On the heels of having their home opener dampened by tropical storm Harvey and their second game postponed because of Hurricane Irma, the Memphis Tigers came home and created their own perfect storm.
On a warm afternoon with no rain anywhere in sight, coach Mike Norvell and his feisty band of Tigers outscored the 25th ranked UCLA Bruins, 48-45, in a thriller before a crowd of 46,291 enthusiastic fans.
Rosen threw for more yards (463) but Ferguson completed more touchdown passes (6 to 4) and even more importantly got the W for the home team. Ferguson downplayed the one-on-one battle and insists he was not upset by the media's obsession with “Chosen Rosen”.
“I didn't pay attention to that,” he said. “This was about Memphis football.”
The Tigers struck quickly and drew first blood. After forcing a UCLA punt, sophomore running back Darrell Henderson rumbled 80 yards on Memphis' first offensive play of the afternoon, setting up a 2-yard Joey Magnifico touchdown catch. It was Memphis 7, UCLA 0.
The Bruins roared back with a quick touchdown of their own, part of a run of 17 unanswered points.
The Tigers headed into the second quarter with just four yards passing and faced a 17-7 deficit midway through the second period.
Undaunted, Memphis swung momentum back their way with a pair of huge plays in the passing game, a 47-yard screen play pass and run for a score, before Ferguson connected with Tony Pollard for 42 yards to take a 20-17 lead.
The Tigers would have led 21-17 but missed their first extra point in nearly 5 years, breaking a string of 214 consecutive XP conversions.
UCLA answered with a 1-yard TD scamper by Rosen before Riley connected with Anthony Miller for 33 yards just 42 seconds before halftime to head into the locker room with a 27-24 advantage.
On the play right before the score, Miller stretched out at full extension for a spectacular 41-yard reception to keep the scoring drive alive.
Ferguson-to-Miller struck pay dirt once again early in the third, this time for 12 yards and a score. Memphis had stretched the lead to their largest of the day, 34-24.
UCLA hit another huge play of their own, a 65-yard TD reception by senior wide receiver Darren Andrews, to cut the deficit back to three, 34-31.
The Tiger defense turned the tide of the contest when redshirt freshman linebacker Tim Hart, a Memphis University School alumnus, chugged 60 yards with an interception return. Memphis once again enjoyed their largest lead of the game, 10 points, this time 41-31.
The Bruins refused to go down quietly, reaching the end zone on a 21-yard Jordan Lasley catch and a 22-yard reception by tight end Austin Roberts. With 11:51 to go in the contest, it looked like UCLA could pull it out, taking their first lead since the second quarter, 45-41.
It only took 1:49 for the Tigers to forge their way back into the lead, ripping off 81 yards in just 4 plays culminating in a 3-yard scoring catch by senior wideout Phil Mayhue.
Memphis would make the 48-45 lead stand for the last 9 minutes and 56 seconds of the contest.
A key moment in the game came with the Tigers facing a critical fourth down and two at the UCLA 40 with less than 4 minutes remaining in the game. Coach Norvell called timeout before sending Ferguson and company back to the field to go for the first down.
A 5-yard Anthony Miller catch-and-run earned the first down before the drive stalled, but Memphis took precious time off the clock in the process.
Norvell never wavered on his decision to go for the first down.
“I knew we wanted to go for it but we needed to kind of talk over our options,” Norvell recalled. “Throwing it to Number 3 (Miller) seems to work out pretty well sometimes.”
Though the Tigers would be wise to avoid the dreaded “hangover effect” of such a huge win, this is a win for the program to remember.
“We try to be better today than we were yesterday. If you come to practice next week, you'll see how we emphasize that,” Norvell said. “I told our team, 'One win does not define the season, but one win can be remembered.' This was a huge win for our program.”
It was a huge day for not only Norvell and the Tiger football program, but for the entire city of Memphis.
“This was huge, not just for the kids in that locker room. This was about the city of Memphis. When we had our Tiger Walk and I could feel the excitement of the fans, I said, 'Get ready boys, this could be special.'”
On the field, it was a great day for native Memphians.
Senior wide receiver Miller (Christian Brothers) had another huge effort: 9 catches for 185 yards and a pair of scores. Sophomore tight end Joey Magnifico (St. Benedict) caught 6 balls for 83 yards and a score. Hart had the interception return for a score and Tony Pollard (Melrose) tallied 67 yards on 3 kick returns.
Memphis moves to 2-0 on the season and hosts Southern Illinois next Saturday night at 7 p.m. The Bruins dropped to 2-1 with a grueling trip to rival Stanford next week on ESPN.