“As long as they keep kicking ’em to me, I’m gonna keep returning ’em.” Memphis sophomore Tony Pollard — a proud alum of Melrose High School — said this with a smile shortly after his Tigers completed their third victory of the season Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl. And why wouldn’t Pollard be smiling? His 100-yard kickoff return near the end of the third-quarter erased any momentum the Salukis thought they’d gained by closing the Tiger lead to three points (27-24). Pollard’s second touchdown on a kick return this season — and the fourth of his two-year college playing career — proved to be the difference in a game tighter than many of the 41,584 fans in the stadium would have preferred.
“That’s one of the biggest momentum swings you can have in a game,” said a relieved Tiger coach Mike Norvell. “Our entire return unit takes a lot of pride in that. When you see them get the chance to impact a game like that, it gives a huge boost to our team. There were actually a couple of returns I would have liked to see go better, but they came to the sideline, made corrections, went back out and executed.”
Entering the 2016 season, no player in Memphis Tiger history had returned as many as two kickoffs for touchdowns (and 20 years had passed since the last one). Pollard’s record of four now looks as unreachable as Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak. “Our guys did a good job of holding their blocks,” explained Pollard, “I bounced to the outside and I just saw green grass. In a game like this, it gave us an extra boost of confidence, got us over the hump.”
The Salukis presented a larger hump than your typical Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) program. SIU quarterback Sam Straub threw a pair of touchdowns as Tiger pass-rushers leveled him in the first half and the visitors enjoyed leads of 7-0, 14-7, and 21-17 at halftime. (A missed tackle along the right sideline allowed the third Saluki touchdown with just 36 seconds remaining in the second quarter.)
“We knew it was a 60-minute game,” said Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson. “We knew they were a good team, that we couldn’t take them lightly. It was about staying focused, playing better as a whole [in the second half].”
Ferguson led a four-play, 75-yard drive to open the second half, highlighted by a 55-yard pass completion to sophomore Pop Williams. Sophomore tailback Darrell Henderson scampered 14 yards for a touchdown to seize the lead back for Memphis, one the Tigers would not relinquish, thanks largely to Pollard’s heroics.
“We knew this was going to be another battle,” said Norvell. “They had a great game plan. All that matters is that you’re one point better. One of our goals this season was to go undefeated in nonconference games, and we’ve done that. Our guys fought hard. There are some things we have to clean up. I keep talking about penalties. We are going to fix the personal foul penalties. I don’t know how, but we’re going to fix it.”
Norvell continues to experiment with his placekickers. Spencer Smith — a Ray Guy Award candidate as one of the country’s best punters — connected on a pair of field goals (35 yards and 31 Yards) and freshman Riley Patterson converted a third (30 yards). The Tigers scored on each of their seven possessions in the red zone (inside the opponent’s 20-yard line).
Ferguson completed 22 of 36 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns. Henderson gained 71 yards on the ground and Patrick Taylor added 77 and a late touchdown to close the scoring. Wideout Anthony Miller was held to six catches for 47 yards but managed to move into second place on the Tigers’ all-time receiving yardage list. (He needs 599 more yards to surpass Duke Calhoun’s record.)
The victory improves Memphis to 3-0 for the second straight season, something no Tiger coach had accomplished since Zach Curlin in 1927 and 1928. Memphis opens conference play next Saturday in Orlando against UCF in a game that was rescheduled after being cancelled during Hurricane Irma’s assault on Florida. (The Knights beat Maryland Saturday to improve to 2-0.) Count on this: When the Tigers are set to receive the ball, Tony Pollard will be in position to receive the kickoff.
Source: Memphis Flyer