While Black Friday is usually a time celebrated by shoppers, it was a day to rejoice for the Memphis Tigers and their fans after they secured their spot in a third straight American Athletic Conference Championship game.
They did this by defeating the Cincinnati Bearcats 34-24 in Memphis. This brings their current win streak against the Bearcats to four.
This game started with a bang for the Tigers who scored on a 94-yard opening kickoff that sent Liberty Bowl Stadium into an uproar. The play was made by senior cornerback, Chris Claybrooks who had been honored shortly before the start of the game as a part of Senior Day.
That play helped to ignite the team who got out to a 17-3 lead after the first quarter.
The defense did a good job of “bending but not breaking” after allowing Cincy 128 yards but holding them to just a field goal.
The Bearcats began to get more going in the second half where they scored 14 points, but it still was not enough to match Memphis’ production.
Bearcats’ backup quarterback, Ben Bryant, stepped in for the injured Desmond Ridder and played well. He scored his first touchdown in the second quarter on a 4-yard pass to Leonard Taylor, which capped off a 12-play drive to start off the quarter.
The Tigers’ offense did not get back into scoring position until their final drive of the second quarter where with 2:54 left on the clock, they drove down field to score a 28-yard field goal courtesy of Riley Patterson.
What helped them to get into such good field position was a 54-yard pass to wide receiver, Damonte Coxie that brought the ball to Cincinnati’s 10-yard line.
Despite the Tigers’ having the 20-17 lead going into the half, Cincinnati was outgaining them 232-227. A big reason for this was because their balanced offensive attack.
They had thrown the ball 19 times and ran the ball 24 times, outrushing the Tigers by 23 yards.
Following halftime, both teams had to punt on their first drives, but Memphis was able to swing momentum to their side after they intercepted Bryant’s pass. Cornerback, Jacobi Francis made the play.
The offense did not capitalize on the turnover, but the defense was not deterred. They forced a fumble on the following drive after senior defensive linemen, Jonathan Wilson had strip sack that was recovered by JJ Russell.
This time, the offense did manage to make it into the red zone, but they wound up turning the ball over on downs.
Cincinnati did not make the same mistake three times and after a big run by running back Michael Warren, they were on Memphis’ side of the field, but were also stopped on fourth down which resulted in turnover on downs.
That led to neither team scoring in the third quarter and both teams searching for something to give them the edge.
In the fourth quarter, both offenses came back to life, but the biggest play was arguably made by Brady White.
He completed a 46-yard bomb to Damonte Coxie on a trick play to give the Tigers their first score of the half and extended their lead, 27-17. Coxie would go on to lead the game with 145 receiving yards and a touchdown on six receptions.
On Cincinnati’s next drive, they avoided what would have been a third turnover on their last four drives after Bryce Huff forced a strip-sack, but the defender who tried to defend it was out of bounds, which gave the possession back to the Bearcats. Huff dominated for much of the game and had eight tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles.
On their next play, they had a 51-yard pass completion and then two plays later, Bryant scored a touchdown on a 12-yard scramble that made the score 27-24.
White showed that he could run as well and on 3rd and 7, he managed to scramble for 12 yards which would have led to a Memphis first down, but after a holding call by the defense, it pushed the Tigers further downfield. Unfortunately, White threw an interception that ended the drive.
The Bearcats were unable to capitalize on the turnover after the Tigers’ front seven stuffed them on two consecutive plays and then deflected their pass on third down.
Following that drive, Memphis managed to score yet another touchdown, this time a 29-yard run by Antonio Gibson to help further their lead. Then after an interception by Sanchez Blake on the Bearcats’ next drive, it was clear that the Tigers had not only sealed the game but sealed the AAC West Crown.
Of winning a third straight West title, Mike Norvell told the media that he was proud of his team, but there was still work to be done.
“Any time you get to hoist a trophy it should be celebrated,” Norvell said. “But I’ve said it all throughout this year, we enjoy the success and the recognition that you get from what you’ve earned. But on the flip side, we haven’t accomplished our ultimate objective.”
In next Saturday's conference championship, the Tigers will get their chance to play Cincinnati yet again at the Liberty bowl, but this time it was going to be for the AAC Championship.