Dallas, TX- Tuesday’s First Responder Bowl was a battle of two 6-6 teams with different routes to their .500 bowl-eligible year. It was the eighth meeting all-time between the two schools, but it was their first tussle in 45 years. It was also back-to-back games for the Memphis Tigers at Gerald J Ford Stadium coming off their season-ending loss to the SMU Mustangs thirty-one days ago. It was a season for Memphis where four of their six losses came by one score (and loss by ten at ranked Tulane). It was a brutal end for Utah State to a turnaround season, starting 1-4 and making a bowl game by winning five of their last seven.
“To go from 1-4 to 6-6 takes a lot of grit. There was a level in there in the middle of the season where there was a lot there,” Aggies head coach Blake Anderson said.
Both teams traded opening possessions where they picked up two first downs and punted, followed by going three-and-out each. Then on the Tigers’ third possession, they moved the ball down the field thanks to an eighteen-yard run by Gabriel Rogers and a twenty-eight-yard pass from Denton, Texas native Seth Henigan to Eddie Lewis, setting Memphis up in the red zone. However, Utah State’s defense was stout inside the ten and forced the Tigers to settle for a twenty-eight-yard Chris Howard field goal, marking the only points in Tuesday’s opening quarter. Utah State moved the ball at the end of the quarter but stalled shallowly in Memphis territory. As a result, the Aggies had to settle on a career-long 53-yard field goal by Connor Coles to even the game up at three early in the second.
Following the Utah State score, Memphis marched down the field for seventy-two yards on eight plays (five of which were ten yards to more) that capped off on an Eddie Lewis receiving score from Henigan. The last two plays of the drive went for 27 yards in Utah State territory, breaking the barrier where both teams combined for 35 yards in the first 17 plays on the opponent side of the field. The Lewis catch put the Tigers up 10-3. After the Aggies were denied a fourth down conversion at midfield, the Tigers returned to work.
“Regardless of if I was over there or not, I take a lot of responsibility to help the guys out,” Utah State linebacker AJ Vongphachanh told me when I asked what he took away from Tuesday’s game. “I felt that I could have done more, put myself in [a] better position,” I have to see where I can get better and improve on.”
Memphis went on a five-play and fifty-yard drive ending on another Henigan to Lewis touchdown combination (twenty-two yards for the second score). Utah State followed by going three-and-out punting back to the Tigers at midfield, where Memphis thanked the Aggies on another touchdown drive to close the half. Caden Prieskorn caught a quick slant for the third Tigers touchdown of the second quarter. The Denton Ryan alum, Seth Henigan, had 217 yards, fifteen completions, and three touchdowns at halftime, where Memphis outlasted Utah State 24-3, dominating the second quarter (Memphis outgained Utah State 179-36 in the second).
“We got our legs back underneath us,” Silverfield told me. “With a month of downtime, there’s no way to prepare for [Utah State’s] high-tempo offense. Even our offensive line was like, man, it feels good to hit again. I think we finally settled down [and] we’re playing football at a great pace. That helped us [and] everybody took a deep breath. But that second quarter was the sticking point for us to be able to get over the hump and give us a chance to win the game.”
Utah State took the opening second-half kickoff, trying to shift the momentum. Still, after the Aggies picked up one first down, quarterback Cooper Legas turned it over on a double-covered interception by Sylvonta Oliver at midfield.
“We knew that their offense was a fast-tempo team, so we practiced tempo a lot.” Tigers’ defensive back Quindell Johnson said how the Memphis defense handled Utah State’s high-power offense. “We came out and did a great job sticking with the game plan. We came out with a great attitude.”
However, Memphis couldn’t move the ball after the turnover and went three-and-out for the first time since their second possession. On the next Tigers’ chance, the drive ended with Utah State’s first takeaway over the afternoon as Henigan fumbled on the Daniel Grzesiak sack and recovered by the Fort Worth native Byron Vaughns. Unfortunately for the Aggies, they couldn’t convert the turnover into points and punted themselves on the following possession.
“They did what we thought they would do,” Utah State running back Calvin Tyler Jr. told me why Memphis’ defense was successful today. “They started twisting in the second half. We knew they would be physical. We just have to execute. They were a better team today. We knew they would be tough. Things happened, and they didn’t go our way.”
Utah State showed a little life on their first possession of the fourth. Spring, Texas native Bishop Davenport nearly threw a pick six, but the pass deflected to Terrell Vaughn for a first down, followed by a forty-four-yard touchdown pass to Brian Cobbs. It was a drive that went 92 yards on five plays for a team with 154 yards on 47 plays before the drive began. Davenport entered the game late in the third for Legas and completed his first five passes for sixty-nine yards and a touchdown. Utah State tried an onside kick after the touchdown, but Memphis pounced on it.
The Tigers capped off the day with two Jevyon Ducker touchdowns to seal the fate of Utah State, with Memphis routing the Aggies 38-10. Ducker finished the day with thirteen carries, eighty-three yards, and two touchdowns.
“All of our offensive skill players played well today,” Memphis quarterback Seth Henigan said. “Whatever team wanted it more was going to win the game. We had a bunch of players make plays.”
Memphis snapped a three-game losing streak in the Dallas Fort Worth area with their win Tuesday (they lost the Cotton Bowl in 2019 to Penn State and went 0-2 at SMU). Meanwhile, Utah State finished below .500 in an entire twelve/thirteen-game season since 2017.