The 18th-ranked Memphis Tigers inched one step closer to a New Year's Six bowl game with a 34-24 victory over the 19th-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats on Friday.
Chris Claybrooks got the Tigers off to a fast start by opening the game with a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Quarterback Brady White led the offense with 233 yards and two touchdowns.
Ben Bryant threw for 229 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions for the Bearcats in his first career start. He was filling in for an injured Desmond Ridder (shoulder), who started the first 11 games.
Memphis (11-1) clinched the AAC West title with the victory, while Cincinnati (10-2) previously clinched the AAC East.
QB Ben Bryant: 20/32, 229 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions; 11 carries, one touchdown
RB Michael Warren II: 21 carries, 122 yards, one touchdown
TE Josiah Deguara: four catches, 46 yards
QB Brady White: 15/26, 233 yards, two touchdowns, one interception
RB Kenneth Gainwell: 15 carries, 87 yards
WR Damonte Coxie: six catches, 145 yards, one touchdown
WR Kedarian Jones: two catches, 53 yards, one touchdown
Strong Start Powers Tigers to Victory
Memphis has had little trouble putting points up on the scoreboard this season, entering Friday averaging 42.2 points per game. It had been held below 30 just once in its last 10 games.
Right out of the gates, the Tigers came out ready to play.
Claybrooks set the tone for the game by taking the opening kickoff 94 yards to the house—and the Tigers were just getting started. White proceeded to lead Memphis to scores on each of its first two offensive drives, with the Cincinnati defense allowing both a 32-yard run and a 44-yard pass in the opening quarter.
Those big plays led to a touchdown and a field goal on the Tigers' first two offensive drives, resulting in a 17-3 lead in the first.
Cincinnati managed to battle back and tie the score in the second. The Bearcats held the Tigers to a total of three points over the middle two quarters, but ultimately, White made just enough plays to get the job done.
Bold Gamble Proves Costly for Bearcats
Trailing 20-17 late in the third quarter, Cincinnati had a chance to even the score by way of a 34-yard field goal. Luke Fickell instead opted to roll the dice and go for it on 4th-and-1.
It did not work out, as Warren was stuffed short of the sticks. That opened the door for Memphis to put the game away.
White responded by leading an 83-yard drive that put the Tigers back up by two possessions with just more than 13 minutes to play. At that point, Cincinnati had its work cut out for itself.
The Bearcats had an opportunity to get the football back down three with less than five minutes to play. However, an unsportsmanlike penalty on defensive end Myjai Sanders following an incompletion on 3rd-and-10 extended a Memphis drive. The Tigers took advantage of the mistake, driving down the field for a game-sealing touchdown.
Cincinnati entered Friday's showdown having lost just once this season, which came on the road against the current No. 1 team in the nation (Ohio State) on Sept. 7. The Bearcats had been far from dominant during their nine-game winning streak, though, with three of their past four victories coming by three points or less.
Facing their first ranked opponent in nearly two months, the Bearcats' luck finally ran out as the mistakes piled up.
Memphis will host Cincinnati in the AAC championship game on Dec. 7.