The first-ever Miami Beach Bowl at Marlins Park might slip by unnoticed by some college football fans looking ahead to the holidays and the glitz and glamour of the New Year’s Six bowls, but for Memphis, the 55-48 double overtime bowl win over BYU on Monday represents a huge milestone in a rebuild that went faster than anyone could have expected it to.
Still the lasting image of Tuesday’s shootout was not the joy of a hard-fought victory for the Tigers but an ugly brawl that broke out after DaShaugn Terry intercepted BYU quarterback Christian Stewart to seal Memphis’ win.
Memphis head coach Justin Fuente wasn’t pleased with how it went down.
“That’s not who we are,” Fuente said in the ESPN postgame interview, later adding, “We’ve got to learn how to handle success too and act the right way.”
The brawl aside, by just about every measure of success, Fuente engineered one of the best turnarounds in college football this season.
The Tigers won 10 games for the first time in program history a year after going 3-9. In the four years prior to the 2014 season, Memphis won 10 games combined. Two of the Tigers’ three losses were to ranked teams in UCLA and Ole Miss, and Memphis captured its first conference championship since 1971. This was the first bowl win for the Tigers since the 2005 Motor City Bowl when DeAngelo Williams was still at Memphis.
Fuente was recognized for his efforts and named a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award, which was ultimately given to TCU’s Gary Patterson.
Fuente's performance in his third year was enough to earn the former TCU offensive coordinator a raise and an extension. According to SI.com's Pete Thamel, Fuente's deal runs for five years starting at $1.4 million and goes up each year. It also includes “an addition of $150,000 to the salary pool for assistant coaches.”
SB Nation’s Bill Connelly wrote about what Fuente was trying to accomplish in his “Blueprint For A Rebuild,” in which Fuente stressed using the Memphis location as a positive in building a program.
"We're located close to and easily accessible to good football locations,” Fuente told Connelly. “Mississippi’s been very good to us, and we have a bunch of guys with ties in Texas, which isn't very far away. Texas kids understand the offseason part of it; it's so strong there. It's pretty easy to access several states with our location. We've tried to draw a big circle. But I think, first and foremost, you have to do a great job servicing the city we live in, doing a great job with the coaches in Memphis, evaluating those kids and getting them to stay in town. There's a lot of talent in the city.”
Monday’s game began with a flurry of scoring as the first quarter saw 31 points scored while Memphis grabbed a 17-14 lead. Even the home run sculpture in center field at the Marlins’ stadium got in on the act, going off on a Paxton Lynch touchdown early in the second quarter that stretched Memphis’ lead at the time to 24-14.
BYU bounced right back with 14 straight points, taking advantage of Tigers turnovers to take a 28-24 lead at the break. Memphis allowed just 17.1 points per game coming into the bowl game and clamped down in the second half until a costly interception from Lynch with 12:50 remaining in the game gave BYU good field position.
Stewart connected with Devin Mahina for 41 yards to get the ball down to the Memphis six-yard line. The Cougars got a field goal and then forced a fumble on the ensuing Memphis kickoff return. Paul Lasike broke into the end zone to tie the score at 38 just a couple plays later with 10:52 to play. Bronco Mendenhall’s team was playing in its 10th straight bowl game, while Memphis understandably looked to be in unfamiliar territory in its first postseason play since the 2008 St. Petersburg Bowl under Tommy West. After Lynch threw his third interception and Zach Stout took the pick 18 yards for a touchdown with 7:48 to play, the Cougars’ comeback seemed complete.
But Memphis rallied after it appeared to have given away the game, scoring on a five-yard touchdown pass from Lynch to Keiwone Malone with 45 seconds remaining. That eventually sent the game to overtime. BYU got a field goal after what was nearly a ridiculous touchdown catch, and Memphis sent it to double overtime with a 55-yard field goal from Jake Elliott.
The Tigers scored a touchdown from Lynch to Roderick Proctor to begin the second overtime, and the Tigers sealed it with Terry’s interception on the next possession. They overcame five turnovers to seal their 10-win season.
The Cougars started the season 4-0 with wins over Texas, Houston and Virginia and seemed to have a possible Heisman candidate in quarterback Taysom Hill. But Hill was lost for the season after breaking his leg in a 35-20 loss to Utah State on Oct. 3. There was still more than half a season to play, and the Cougars managed to pull out of a midseason tailspin in which they lost four straight to win their final four games and finish 8-4.
It’d be easy to give BYU a mulligan for this season without its best player, but senior Christian Stewart filled in admirably all things considered, throwing for 2,621 yards and 25 touchdowns, including three in the Miami Beach Bowl, to just eight interceptions.
The Cougars are still left wondering what could have been had Hill stayed healthy this season, but they’ll get their shot when he comes back next season. As for Memphis, a special year got a well-deserved exclamation point in Miami and then an ugly blemish as neither team looks good coming out of the brawl. For both teams, it’s possible the best is yet to come on the field.