In a game that the University of Memphis led by as many as 18 in as late as midway through the third quarter, it shouldn’t have come down to an offensive fourth-and-long for the Tigers.
But it did, and quarterback Taylor Reed’s last pass fell limp as the Tigers (2-8, 1-5 Conference USA) collapsed against the UAB Blazers, 41-35, Saturday in front of 17,868 at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
In the annual Battle of the Bones, it was Larry Porter’s future as the coach at Memphis that was potentially laid to rest.
“This is certainly a painful loss,” Porter said. “It’s hard to swallow. I just felt, going into this game, that we had a great game plan, and we did. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t good enough.”
The Tigers, whose 35 points were the most they‘ve scored in a game under Porter, allowed 601 yards of offense to the Blazers (2-8, 1-6 C-USA), who entered the game with the 114th-ranked scoring offense in the nation and have now lost three straight to UAB.
Memphis was outscored 31-7 in the second half and, perhaps more importantly, 24-0 in the final quarter.
“It wasn’t more of what they did. It was more of what we didn’t do as football players,” safety Akeem Davis said. “Each individual on the field has a job to do, and we as players didn’t step up and we didn’t do our job. … We, as a defensive unit and defensive individuals, didn’t step up the plate tonight.”
The Tigers led 35-17 with 3:43 left in the third quarter after running back Jerrell Rhodes scored on a 22-yard run. From there, the Blazers took complete control.
Blazers quarterback Jonathan Perry torched the Memphis secondary for 410 yards and four touchdowns, including a 42-yard pass to JaMarcus Nelson with 7:08 left in the game to pull the Blazers within two points, 35-33.
Perry efficiently engineered a 10-play, 77-yard game-winning drive that culminated with a 10-yard touchdown run from running back Greg Franklin.
“I thought he did a really good job of managing the game,” Porter said. “When it wasn’t there (through the air), he tucked it and ran. You have to applaud him for that.”
While UAB’s underclassman quarterback rose to the occasion late in the game, Reed, the Tigers’ true freshman quarterback, did just the opposite.
Reed played well in the early stages, but he was unable to establish any rhythm whatsoever in the fourth quarter. He was 1-for-11 in the final period and finished with 167 yards passing to go along with two scores.
“He’s got to step up and throw the ball,” Porter said. “I’m not making any excuses. … Going into the fourth quarter, we were well able to win the game and we just didn’t.”
Before halftime, Memphis exploited UAB’s run defense behind solid efforts from Billy Foster and Rhodes. Foster compiled 159 yards from scrimmage and scored on a 3-yard run with 6:07 n the first quarter to make the score 14-3 .
Rhodes, who has battled injury throughout the season, scored the second and third touchdowns of his career in the third quarter, from one and 22 yards out, respectively.
Rhodes‘ 22-yard touchdown, which made it a three-score game, would be the Tigers’ last points of the night.
The UAB defense, led by defensive coordinator and former Memphis coach Tommy West, gave up 384 yards of offense but buckled down in the fourth quarter, getting stop after stop by pressuring the Tigers‘ freshman quarterback.
With his defense finally giving him a chance, Perry threw an 18-yard pass to Nick Adams with 9:21 left in the fourth quarter to claw within eight points of the Tigers to ignite the Blazers’ epic late-game comeback.
“We, as a team, just have to find a way to close out,” Foster said. “We’ve got to find a way to finish, regardless of how many points we’re up by. Anything can happen on any given play, but you’ve got to find a way to finish.”
In his almost two seasons at Memphis, Porter is 2-19 against the Football Bowl Subdivision and 3-19 overall. Twelve of the Tigers’ losses in Porter’s tenure have come by 21 points or more, while six have come by at least 40 points.
“Everybody has to share the responsibility for this loss,” Porter said. “I don’t see it as one person or one guy — we all have to, including myself.”