Newly promoted University of Memphis co-defensive coordinator Mike DuBose walked off the field, and his grandchildren leapt into his open arms.
Several Tigers threw pieces of game attire into the Liberty Bowl crowd as they jogged to the locker room after the game.
On this night, there was finally reason for the downtrodden Tigers to celebrate.
Behind true freshman quarterback Taylor Reed’s 332 yards passing, the Tigers defeated Austin Peay, 27-6, in front of 18,808 at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, their first win in almost a full calendar year.
“We’re going to take this win,” U of M defensive back Akeem Davis said. “We’re going to embrace it, hold on to it. We’re going to celebrate tonight, and we’re going to let it soak in tomorrow.”
For the Tigers, Saturday’s win ends a brutal 11-game skid that dates back to 2010. They had not won a game since Sept. 18, 2010, a 24-17 win over Middle Tennessee State.
The victory also comes just days after Jay Hopson was relieved of his duties as defensive coordinator.
On the heels of the promotions of defensive line coach DuBose and linebackers coach Galen Scott to co-defensive coordinators, the U of M secondary limited the big plays that had plagued them in the Tigers’ first two games.
“That’s what it’s all about, eliminating the big play and making the opponent sustain drives,” said Davis, who logged 10 solo tackles. “When you make them sustain drives, they have a higher likelihood to screw up and throw an interception. That’s exactly what they did.”
The defense forced Austin Peay quarterback Jake Ryan to throw two interceptions and allowed just 368 yards of offense, almost half of what the Tigers had allowed on average before Saturday.
“Under the circumstances, for them to pick up and almost hold an opponent scoreless the whole game. … I’m excited about them,” Porter said. “All in all, this victory was needed. It’s much easier to correct errors off a victory as opposed to a loss.”
The Governors missed two field goals in the first quarter, which allowed the Tigers to strike first when Reed threw a 42-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Tannar Rehrer with 8:14 left in the second quarter.
The U of M went into the half with a 10-0 lead after Paulo Henriques kicked a 30-yard field goal with 25 seconds left in the second quarter. It was the first time this season the Tigers (1-2) took a lead into halftime.
“When you go into halftime with a lead, you’ve got a little cushion,” Davis said. “Coach DuBose, they told us to keep up the intensity and stay focused.”
Austin Peay’s lone score came late in the third quarter when Ryan hit his running back Ryan White over the middle for a 13-yard touchdown. The Governors’ extra point attempt failed after a mishandled snap.
“My mind is more so on the mistakes we made and how to correct those as opposed to the victory,” Porter said. “We’ve still got a lot of football left in this season, and this team must grow in order for us to have a chance at victory.”
In last week’s 47-3 loss to Arkansas State, the Tigers gained just 82 yards rushing and 169 yards overall. This week, the U of M offense, with a more comfortable Reed behind center, amassed 445 total yards.
With 13:33 left in the third quarter, Reed completed a pass to tight end Andrew Ene-Ita across midfield. While fighting for extra yardage, Ene-Ita lost possession of the football, which bounced generously toward Austin Peay’s end zone.
Redshirt freshman receiver Kevin Wright sprinted to the live ball, scooped it up at the 22-yard line, and dashed into the Governors’ end zone to make the score 17-0.
So many times throughout the Tigers’ winless streak, fluke plays like those didn’t go their way. On Saturday night, red shirt senior running back Billy Foster said, the trend was reversed.
“The football gods shined on us and we took full advantage of it,” said Foster, whose 93-yard touchdown off a screen pass from Reed put the Tigers up 27-6 with 2:10 left in the game. “We thank them every day.”
Foster finished with 188 total yards; 70 rushing, 118 receiving.
After the Tigers’ loss to the Red Wolves last week, the public outcry around the U of M football program became impossible to ignore. There were calls for athletic director R.C. Johnson’s resignation and Porter’s job.
Now that the Tigers have finally earned a victory, Rehrer said he’s hoping the turmoil going on around him and his teammates disappears.
“With the adversity that’s been going on through this whole thing, I just wanted to get a win and get people off their backs, people off our backs and just get the fans and the community more involved,” Rehrer said. “Next week’s homecoming. That’s to get the alum and get the old Tiger players back out here and give them a good show.
“People pay to come watch the game, let’s put a show on for them.”
The Tigers take on SMU next Saturday at the Liberty Bowl. Kickoff is slated for 11 a.m.