In a game heavily overshadowed by the rumors of Mike Norvell and future coaching jobs, Memphis won the American Athletic Conference Football Championship 29-24 against the Cincinnati Bearcats after making their third straight appearance at an AAC title game.
These two teams faced off week ago and neither team could break away this time. However Memphis got the job done and secured a conference title and have led the race for a New Year's Six game.
When Coach Mike Norvell was asked what it meant to him to win the American Championship game the third time, he answered "It means everything."
"To be able to host a conference championship in front of our city and our fan base, and to be able to lift that trophy at the end, I’ll never forget it." Norvell said.
The Cincinnati Bearcats opened their first drive with a touchdown after starting their drive 30 yards away from the end zone. Memphis began their first drive 75 yards away. Despite the impressive movement down the field, the Tigers ran dry and kicked a field goal.
Memphis took their first lead when Antonio Gibson escaped a pocket of defenders and took off for a 65-yard touchdown run.
Gibson would be established as the most valuable player of the game with 130 rushing yards, one rushing touchdown, 32 receiving yards and the only receiving touchdown for Memphis.
"I felt like every time I touched the ball, I was going to make something happen," Gibson said. " I put it in my head that we were going to leave with that trophy, so going down and scoring on that last drive was instilled in my head, nobody was going to stop me."
Cincinnati led at halftime 14-10, and Memphis struggled to contain the Bearcats. The Tigers halftime score was their lowest throughout the entire season. The second worst was the Ole Miss halftime score when the Tigers led the Rebels 13-0. Third place is tied at 14-points with the Navy and Temple.
"That’s all we talked about at halftime," Norvell. "You go out there and play the game how it’s supposed to be played, stay true to ourselves. These guys are finishers."
Desmond Ridder powered down the field for 41 yards and fumbled the ball after Chris Claybrooks punched the ball free. Memphis recovered the loose ball at their own 12-yard line for the first turnover of the game.
Despite two near interceptions of Brady White and a near punt return fumble, Memphis remained lucky. White would later end the first half completing only eight of 23 passes. Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder similarly made nine of 22 attempts. Both offenses were pressured well in the first half.
White produced on the first drive of the second half with a 45-yard completion ,and a quarterback scramble for a touchdown to take the lead. The Bearcats took the lead back on the next drive, and the Tigers seemed to be right back in the hole.
Riley Patterson would later salvage a Memphis drive by making a 52-yard field to narrow the Cincinnati lead to one point.
Claybrooks later intercepted a deep throw by Riddler late in the third quarter, and it allowed Memphis to return to offense with chance to take the lead again.
The Tigers continued to press through the Bearcats defense, and it showed to be far more successful in the second half. Patterson completed a 50-yard field goal. Memphis then led 23-21.
Cincinnati was plagued with 11 penalties for 70 yards, and meanwhile Memphis kept their penalties down to four flags for 40 yards. Both special teams made errors that resulted in automatic first downs as both teams collided with the opposition's kicker.
Memphis took over possession at their own 27 with a two-point lead. However Cincinnati resurfaced and performed well enough to force the Tigers to punt. The Bearcats took the lead back with a 33-yard field goal and led 24-23 with 4:23 remaining in the game.
Memphis led their final drive of the game, and they devoured the clock. It led to Gibson running in for a touchdown with 1:14 left in the game. Memphis failed the two-point conversion and led 29-24.
Cincinnati dashed down the field, but Memphis found a way to pressure Ridder which led to the Bearcats turning the ball over on downs.
Memphis is expected to punch tickets to Dallas as a 12-win team. The Cotton Bowl would be the biggest bowl game in program history.
"It’s been pretty special to see us end the regular season and the conference season the way we did tonight," Norvell said. "To be able to lift that trophy and have an opportunity to go to the Cotton Bowl, it’s what you dream about."