By Phil Stukenborg
Grind City Media Correspondent
MEMPHIS – In what has been a season of record-breaking achievements for the University of Memphis football program, something bigger awaits.
The most significant game since the Tigers began playing football in 1912 looms Saturday in Orlando as 16th-ranked Memphis (10-1) battles No. 12 UCF (11-0) in the American Athletic Conference championship game. The winner likely earns a spot in the Peach Bowl, a New Year’s Six game. For Memphis, it’s a prestigious invitation the likes of which the team has never received.
To take that step, the Tigers will have to make a return trip to Orlando, the site of their only loss in a rare 10-win season for the program, and beat a team that soundly defeated them 40-13 in late September. It will be a challenge. Perhaps even a daunting one.
UCF ranks first nationally in scoring (48.3 points per game), first in the AAC in scoring defense (22.5 ppg) and second in the AAC in total offense (523.5 yards per game). Quarterback McKenzie Milton ranks second nationally in passing efficiency.
In the first game – rescheduled from Sept. 8 because of an approaching hurricane – the Knights built a 23-7 halftime lead, stretched it to 40-7 in the fourth quarter and amassed more than 600 yards of total offense. The Tigers turned the ball over four times.
Memphis has won seven straight since the blowout and feels it is better positioned to handle the Knights, led by Scott Frost, a leading candidate to become the next Nebraska coach.
“I think our team has progressed and gotten better as the season has gone on,” said Tigers coach Mike Norvell, also being mentioned for several Power 5 conference opportunities. “We’ll find out Saturday.”
Memphis running backs Patrick Taylor (No. 6) and Darrell Henderson have combined to run for 1,775 yards this season as part of a rushing attack that has drastically improved since the Tigers faced UCF two months ago. Photo Credit: Alex Menendez/Getty Images
Defensively, the Tigers held two of their last three opponents to 14 or fewer points. Offensively, they’ve become one of the nation’s most prolific scoring teams. Memphis is averaging 47 points per game, which is second in the Football Bowl Subdivision behind only UCF. Quarterback Riley Ferguson and receiver Anthony Miller form one of the nation’s top duos. Ferguson has thrown for 3,500 yards and 32 touchdowns, while Miller has 1,212 receiving yards and 14 scoring grabs.
“Those two are dynamic players,” Frost said. “No question about it. They are two of the best players in our league and in the country.”
The Tigers’ run game has become formidable, too. Darrell Henderson leads with 1,084 rushing yards – the team’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2009 – and Patrick Taylor has 691 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“I think we’ve established a physicality about ourselves up front since we played UCF the first time,” said Tigers offensive lineman Gabe Kuhn. “We weren’t the team then we are now.”
The Tigers were dealing with multiple losses on defense early in the season, but have improved behind the emergence of several newcomers, including redshirt freshman linebacker Tim Hart. Hart has moved into the starting lineup and allowed the Tigers to use linebacker Genard Avery some at defensive end. Redshirt freshman defensive backs T.J. Carter and Josh Perry have proven to be playmakers, as has redshirt freshman nose tackle O’Bryan Goodson.
“They were playing some new guys and all those guys have gotten comfortable and are playing better now,” Frost said. “Every team evolves over the course of the season.”
But Frost has the Knights excelling everywhere: offense, defense, special teams. UCF is tied for the FBS lead in turnover margin (plus-15).
“You’ve seen them play through a lot of different circumstances,” Norvell said. “Last week (a come-from-behind 49-42 win over USF) was really impressive. It was back and forth and they were down late in the game but maintained composure. They play with a lot of heart and a lot of passion. I like to think they are very similar to us.”
Miller, who holds every major Memphis receiving record, is looking forward to the matchup that is also the first conference title game for the Tigers in school history. Miller, part of a senior class that set a record for most wins (37) in a four-year period, will be at the center of the game’s premier one-on-one battle when he goes against UCF standout defensive back Mike Hughes.
Hughes leads the AAC in passes defended (11 breakups, 4 interceptions) and is second to Memphis’ Tony Pollard in kick return average (34.9 yards per return). He was named the conference’s Special Teams Player of the Week after scoring the game-winning touchdown on a 95-yard kickoff return in the final minutes after USF tied the game at 42-42 last week. Hughes also had an interception in the game.
“I’m going to bring my (best) effort and I know he’s going to bring his,” Miller said of Hughes. “It’s going to be a really good matchup. I believe it’s going to be the best matchup you’ll see this weekend.”
UCF, which posted the first unbeaten regular season in school history, is averaging 43.5 points in four November games. Memphis, which posted 10 wins in the regular season for the first since 1938, is averaging 58 points in its past four games.
The respect is mutual across the board.
Memphis has improved since that last meeting on Sept. 30. But so, too, has UCF.
“Offensively, they are rolling,” Frost said of the Tigers. “They are scoring a lot of points on everybody. They are a team that has run the table on everybody except (us). And our game would have been close if not for some timely turnovers and breaks in our favor. It’s going to be a fun game to be a part of.”
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