On a cloudy, humid Saturday in Memphis, we were treated to one of the best atmospheres that the Liberty Bowl has had to offer. A game that had everything: a comeback, pivotal fourth down stands, and most importantly...controversy.
There is so much to unwrap from this game, and it started on the first drive of the game when redshirt senior defensive Sanchez Blake Jr. picked up a fumble and returned it 49 yards for a touchdown. It was the first non-offensive touchdown for the Tigers of the season, and it got the crowd into it from the get-go. Mississippi State responded quickly by smothering the Tigers on both offense and defense. It is well-known in football that the Mike Leach “air raid” offense for Mississippi State lives and dies by throwing the ball. They use quick screen passes and short routes as running plays, handing it off it very sparingly. They rushed only sixteen times total in the game.
They nickel and dimed the Memphis defense up and down the field, led by QB Will Rogers, scoring seventeen straight points to go into halftime with a 17-7 lead. The Tigers could get very little going on offense with true freshman QB Seth Henigan seeing an SEC defense in only his third career start. For a kid that was playing in high school at this time last year, it looked as though he was going to get overwhelmed in the first half.
When Memphis got the ball to start the second half, they went for it on fourth down in their own territory that ended with Henigan throwing a pick to sophomore cornerback Emmanuel Forbes. It looked as though Forbes was going to walk in for a TD when Henigan came out of nowhere to tackle the cornerback. That became a crucial play as Mississippi State got zero points off that turnover due to a game-saving goal line stand by Memphis.
What happened the rest of the game can be attributed to objectively questionable officiating and Calvin Austin III simply being the best player on the field. The Tigers marched 98 yards down the field and capped it off with a 21 yard dime by Henigan to Austin in the corner of the end zone to make it 17-14.
The Tigers defense bent but didn’t break, holding the Bulldogs at bay. Halfway through the fourth quarter, Austin caught a quick screen pass and put on the burners for 25 yards to get to the endzone giving Memphis the lead. When Mississippi State was forced to punt, it looked like the Tigers were going to start inside their own ten yard line. However, the ball was never blown dead and Austin scooped it up, turned on his track speed and returned the punt 94 yards for a touchdown, giving the Tigers a 28-17 lead.
The play had a number of mistakes from the SEC officiating crew, all of which were addressed in a postgame on the conference's social media. The ball, in fact, was not dead as no player ever gained possession of it. However, the back judge intuitively waved his hands to stop the clock. That would make the play reviewable, which it never was. That review would have left the Tigers inside their own 10-yard line. The Tigers also hade two players wearing the number four on the field, which was not called and would have resulted in a five-yard penalty.
The rest of the game was left up to maintaining the lead. Recovering two onside kicks, two stops on two-point conversions, and a 51 yard field goal by Joe Doyle, left the Tigers to do the victory formation with a 31-29 win. It is a statement win for the Tigers as it shows that the fans and the team are good enough to compete with Power 5 competition. Time will tell how it shakes out, but this team looks like it could be something special.