Memphis’s prolific offense takes on rugged Iowa State in the 2017 Liberty Bowl.
This year’s Liberty Bowl is here to help get your New Year’s weekend started. Memphis will take on Iowa State in the 2017 Liberty Bowl, early Saturday afternoon in Memphis, Tennessee. The Tigers have one of the nation’s most potent offenses, and one of the most porous defenses, but get to play this game at their home stadium. Iowa State started the year off strong with victories against Oklahoma and TCU, but struggled down the stretch, losing three of its last four games. Can the Cyclones rebound and finish the year off with a victory, or will the Memphis offense run roughshod all over them like it has against everyone all season?
Storylines Heading Into the Game
1. Memphis Scores 55 Points, But Falls in 2OT to UCF in AAC Championship - Memphis’s offense is high-flying. The Tigers put up points with the best of them. However, they don’t play much defense and that cost them in the American Conference Championship game. Memphis put up a staggering 55 points in the game, but allowed 62 points to the similarly dangerous UCF offense. The Knights were able to have their way with Memphis’s defense throughout the contest and ultimately got the one stop they need in overtime to win the game. Iowa State’s offense isn’t nearly as good as UCF’s – the Cyclones rank 71st in offense S&P+, 52nd in scoring offense, and 80th in total offense – and surely the Tigers are hoping that will allow them to string together a few key stops and allow their offense to create plenty of separation during the game.
2. After Hot Start, Cyclones Limp to 7-5 Finish - Iowa State began the season as expected, going 2-2 with losses against the two Power Five teams it faced. Then the Cyclones shocked the world by going on the road and beating eventual Playoff participant Oklahoma and Heisman winner Baker Mayfield to start a four-game winning streak. Iowa State bookended that streak with a second impressive win, this time against TCU, the Big 12’s second-best team. Unfortunately the run did not continue through the end of the season. During their final four games, the Cyclones lost to West Virginia, Oklahoma State, and Kansas State by a combined 12 points, and salvaged a win against Baylor. To beat Memphis, Iowa State will need to find some of its mid-season magic.
3. Memphis Head Coach Mike Norvell Signs Contract Extension - Instead of following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Justin Fuente, and leaving Memphis for a Power Five program, head coach Mike Norvell signed a contract extension to remain with the Tigers. The extension will reportedly keep Norvell in Memphis through 2022, and will make him the highest-paid Group of Five coach in the country. Norvell had been linked to the openings at Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Florida, but had apparently been working on this contract extension since the middle of September. The extension should ensure that Memphis remains relevant in the national conversation for at least the next few seasons, and the stability within the program could help the Tigers recruit against the other top Group of Five teams currently experiencing coaching turnover, namely conference rival UCF.
47.7 - Memphis’s average points per game, second in the nation. Only once this season, a 40-13 loss at UCF at the end of September, did Memphis fail to score at least 30 points in a game. Only three times this season has Memphis failed to score at least 40 points in a game. Five times, the Tigers scored more than 50 points in a game! Over its final six games, Memphis averaged 55.0 points per game!! These are staggering point totals, and the offense has only gotten stronger as the season has continued. Quarterback Riley Ferguson and wide receiver Anthony Miller are one of the most lethal combinations in the country, and running backs Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor Jr. combine to form an effective and efficient backfield. It is going to take a monstrous effort from the Cyclones to slow this team down.
21.0 - Iowa State’s average points allowed per game, 29th in the country. The Cyclones have shown to the ability to shut down, or at least limit, strong offenses. They allowed 13 against Texas Tech, seven against TCU, 20 against West Virginia, and 31 against Oklahoma. That last figure may not seem impressive, but considering the Sooners average 44.9 points per game and are helmed by the reigning Heisman winner, it’s a notable achievement. None of this guarantees a victory – Iowa State lost that game against West Virgina – nor is it impossible for the Cyclones to get lit up – they allowed 49 points against Oklahoma State and 44 against Iowa – but this team at least has the potential to stymie Memphis.
17 - Number of receiving touchdowns by Memphis’s Anthony Miller, second in the FBS. If you are an NFL fan looking for a reason to watch this game, Anthony Miller is that reason. Miller is one of the top wide receiver prospects for the upcoming NFL Draft and is a potential first-round pick. Miller has top-end speed, the ability to both stretch the field vertically and run the middle of the field, and possesses as sure a pair of hands as you’ll find. Listed at only 5-foot-11, Miller plays much bigger than he actually is. His ability to high-point the ball is among his most valuable skills, and he has a knack for making catches against bigger, taller defensive backs.
His greatest strength, though, is his ability to control his body in the air. Staying under control and manipulating your body while in hanging in mid-air is generally a skill reserved for high-end NFL receivers with at least a few years experience under their belts. But Miller, at age 23, floats through the air and positions himself with the precision of a fifth-year pro, and it is particularly impressive that he continues to come down with catches in this manner considering he is not quite 6-feet tall. Miller is essential to the success this offense, and he will need to finish up his career at Memphis with a big game to help his team to its first bowl victory since 2014.
Riley Ferguson, QB, Memphis - Riley Ferguson is the engine of this offense. He receives some help from his running backs’ ability to force defenses to remain honest, but it is mostly his ability to sling the ball around accurately and to all parts of the field that makes this offense lethal. Ferguson’s 3,971 passing yards rank fifth in the nation, his 36 touchdowns rank fourth, and his 9.0 yards per attempt rank 10th. Although his favorite target is obviously Miller, he’s more than happy to use every receiver and back in his disposal. Ferguson has completed passes to 14 different receivers this season.
Most importantly for this game, though, Ferguson needs to take care of the ball. In Memphis’s first loss to UCF, the score was extremely lopsided mostly because Ferguson threw three picks in the game. He never threw more than one interception in any other game, and the Tigers lost only one of those games. If Ferguson can take care of the ball and continue to move this offense the way he has for the vast majority of the season, Memphis will be in a great position to win the game.
Joel Lanning, LB/QB, Iowa State - Lanning used to be the starting quarterback for the Cyclones, but with the emergence of Jacob Park at the end of last season, Lanning and head coach Matt Campbell agreed that it was in the best interest of the team for Lanning to switch to linebacker. That switch has worked out well for both Lanning and the Cyclones. Lanning leads the team with 110 total tackles, is tied for second with 10.0 tackles for loss, tied for the team lead in sacks with 5.0, and he also added an interception, a fumble recovery, two pass break ups, and three quarterback hits for good measure.
He has quickly become an invaluable member of the Iowa State defense, but he still plays some offense for the Cyclones as well. Every now and again, Lanning will come out and play a little quarterback-running back hybrid to spark Iowa State’s offense. He has 34 carries on the year for 115 yards and a touchdown, and he has also completed three of his four pass attempts for 47 yards and a touchdown. He may have lost his job as the starting quarterback, but Lanning is still an invaluable member of this Iowa State team.
Why Memphis Wins
At its peak, Memphis’s offense is an unstoppable machine. If the Tigers can hit that top gear during this game, Iowa State won’t stand a chance. Chances are Memphis won’t drop 70 points against a more than respectable Cyclones defense like it did against Connecticut and ECU, but it could very easily crack 40 points. Iowa State ranks 82nd in pass defense, and lacks a shutdown defensive back, so Miller shouldn’t have too much trouble finding space and reeling in catches. Ferguson should be able to poke holes in any zone coverage and utilize his receivers athleticism against man-to-man.
Then it comes down to the defense generating just enough stops and/or turnovers. The Tigers are tied for 15th nationally in interceptions, tied for fifth in fumble recoveries, and tied for third in total turnovers gained. If they can continue that trend, the Tigers should get enough done on defense to support the offense and grab the victory.
Why Iowa State Wins
Iowa State has shown it can shut down potent offenses, and there is no way they win a shoot out against Memphis, so to win this game the Cyclones defense will absolutely have to turn the ball over or else find some other way to keep the Tigers out of the end zone. The Cyclones are better at stopping the run than the pass (31st in rush defense), so the best way for them to slow down Memphis is to frustrate their rushing attack early.
If they can swarm and stifle Henderson and Taylor Jr., that will first force Memphis into more third and long situations, and also make Ferguson feel like there is more weight on his shoulders to move the offense on his own. That could subsequently cause him to make decisions he normally would not and potentially make forced, errant throws.
Quarterback Kyle Kempt is far from a prolific passer, but if he can take care of the ball, the offense should be able to move the ball well enough through the air against a defense that ranks 123rd in passing defense. Then, if running back David Montgomery can help control the tempo of the game and extend Iowa State’s possessions, thereby limiting the amount of times Memphis has the ball, the Cyclones could pull off the upset.
With UCF in its conference, I felt like Memphis’s offense was overlooked at times this season. It will be on full display Saturday. This Tigers team can score points in a hurry, and even though Iowa State has shown it can keep teams contained, in recent weeks it hasn’t been nearly as stingy. The Ferguson and Miller should have no problem connecting several times throughout the game, likely for a couple scores. Memphis also benefits from playing this game on its home turf. The Liberty Bowl seats nearly 60,000, so although Iowa State sold out all of 15,000 ticket allotment, Memphis fans should still dominate the crowd.
Memphis wins, 45-34.
Edited by Brian Kang.
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