On fourth-and-2 near midfield with three minutes left in Saturday’s game between the University of Memphis and Ole Miss, Tigers coach Mike Norvell had a decision to make. Leading by five points, Norvell’s options were to punt the ball with hopes of pinning the Rebels inside the 10-yard line or to go for it. Norvell quickly asked new defensive coordinator Adam Fuller his opinion.
“He said `Go win it’,” Norvell said.
Emboldened by Fuller’s enthusiastic response, Norvell called for a shovel pass, which quarterback Brady White deftly tossed to running back Kenneth Gainwell. Gainwell cut inside for a four-yard gain and a first down at the Ole Miss 43 and the Tigers ran out the remainder of the clock for a 15-10 victory before 44,107 at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
“Those are decisions throughout a game you have to be willing to make,” Norvell said. “I thought we had a chance to hit it.” White, who passed for 172 yards and rushed for a touchdown, said the offense was “very confident” in the shovel pass.
“I was ready to go (with it),” White said. “I was standing out there waiting for it (to be called). I went through my pre-snap reads and saw we were going to get a pretty good look at it.” The key play followed a safety by Memphis linebacker Bryce Huff with 6:27 to go when Huff tackled Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral in the end zone to extend the Tigers’ lead to five points.
Ole Miss never gained possession again. “To end a game with a six-minute drive is something I’ll remember for a long, long time,” Norvell said. Patrick Taylor, like White, had a 1-yard touchdown run. He also rushed for 128 yards on 27 carries, followed by Gainwell, who finished with 77 yards on 16 attempts. But much of the credit for the season-opening victory belonged to a Memphis defense that limited Ole Miss to 173 yards, including only 80 rushing.
Midway through the second half, the Rebels had negative rushing yardage. Ole Miss finished with only 13 first downs and were 1-of-10 on third-down conversions. “As long as everybody does their job, we’re going to be straight,” said Huff, who finished with a sack and two tackles for loss. “I think (today’s effort) shows us what we are capable of and how much better we can be and how much our coaches are going to push us to get better.”
Leading 13-0 at the half, the Tigers opened the second half as if they were going to deliver a knockout blow. On the third play of the half, Taylor, lined up in the Wildcat formation, took the direct snap and ran 47 yards for a touchdown. The TD was negated, however, after a challenge by Ole Miss confirmed Taylor’s elbow had touched the ground at the Rebels 44.
The drive ended on an interception. Ole Miss surpassed 100 total yards – and got its first score – late in the third quarter. A 36-yard pass from Corral to Elijah Moore gave the Rebels a first down at the Memphis 23. Four plays later, Luke Logan booted a 35-yard field goal to trim the Tigers’ lead to 13-3. Early in the fourth quarter, the Rebels converted on fourth-and-2 from the Memphis 35, a key play in a drive that resulted in Ole Miss’ first touchdown: a 1-yard run by Scottie Phillips.
The TD made it Memphis 13, Ole Miss 10 with 11:49 to go. The Tigers used their special teams, and defense, to extend their lead to 15-0 with 6:27 left. After an Adam Williams punt was downed at the Ole Miss 2, Huff broke through untouched to tackle Corral in the end zone. Neither team was able to generate much offense in the opening half. With five minutes remaining in the second quarter, the Rebels did not have a rushing yard and only 43 total yards.
Memphis got its first touchdown of the half on 1-yard keeper by White. The 13-play drive was aided by two third-down conversions via Ole Miss penalties and a conventional conversion by Taylor on an 11-yard run on third-and-11 from the Rebel 41. The Tigers scored again during the closing minute of the half on another 1-yard run, this one by Taylor. Taylor was briefly stopped at the line of scrimmage, before bouncing outside for the TD.
The scoring drive began at the Ole Miss 37 following a 21-yard punt return by John `Pop’ Williams. The Tigers limited the Rebels to 42 total yards in the opening half. Memphis amassed 172, including 125 on the ground. Taylor had 87 yards at halftime.