Memphis' Demeer Blankumsee (0) catches a pass for a touchdown in the opening drive during the game between the University of Memphis and Iowa State University in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium on Dec. 29, 2023.

Strong passing attack lifts Memphis over Iowa State in Liberty Bowl

Seth Henigan passed for four touchdowns and ran for another to lead Memphis to a 36-26 victory over Iowa State in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on Friday in Memphis, Tenn.

Henigan completed 24 of 34 passes for 364 yards with no interceptions against an Iowa State defense that had 16 picks during the regular season. Blake Watson rushed for 107 yards on 15 carries and Roc Taylor had eight catches for 102 yards for Memphis (10-3).

Henigan hit Sutton Smith for a 48-yard touchdown to put Memphis up 36-13 midway through the third quarter. Rocco Becht answered with a 15-yard scoring strike to Easton Dean to bring the Cyclones within 36-20.

Becht hit Jaylin Noel with a 23-yard scoring pass with 9:55 left, but the two-point pass failed, leaving Memphis up by 10.

Becht, the Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year, completed 22 of 38 passes for 446 yards with three touchdowns for Iowa State (7-6). The Cyclones were held to 0 yards rushing on 20 attempts.

Henigan completed two long touchdown passes and ran for another score to put the Tigers up 19-0 after one quarter.

Memphis struck quickly when Henigan connected with Demeer Blankumsee on a 70-yard touchdown pass on the third play of the game. The PAT was missed.

The Tigers made it 13-0 on their second possession, converting a fourth-and-1 to set up Henigan’s 11-yard touchdown scramble on the following play.

On Memphis’ next possession, Henigan capped a four-play, 84-yard drive with a 51-yard scoring strike to Joe Scates.

The Cyclones got on the board early in the second quarter when Becht hit Jayden Higgins with a 29-yard scoring pass to make it 19-7.

Iowa State pulled within 19-10 when Becht connected again with Higgins for 53 yards to set up Chase Contreraz’s 22-yard field goal.

Contreraz added a 39-yard field goal with 35 seconds left in the half to make it 19-13. But the Tigers went 44 yards in four plays and Tanner Gillis hit a 49-yarder on the final play for a 22-13 halftime lead.

Watson’s 55-yard run to the Cyclones’ 5-yard line on Memphis’ first series of the second half set up Henigan’s short scoring pass to Anthony Landphere to put the Tigers in front 29-13.

–Field Level Media

Tigers' Seth Henigan (2) warms up before the game between University of Memphis and Boise State University in Memphis, Tenn., on Saturday, September 30, 2023.

Memphis takes on Iowa State in Liberty Bowl ‘home’ game

Iowa State’s solid defense will be challenged by the high-powered Memphis offense in the Liberty Bowl on Friday in Memphis, Tenn.

Memphis (9-3), making its ninth bowl appearance since 2014, won five of its last six games and scored at least 44 points in each victory over that span.

Iowa State (7-5) is making its sixth bowl appearance in seven seasons, including a 21-20 win over Memphis in the 2017 Liberty Bowl.

Memphis coach Ryan Silverfield was an assistant coach when the Tigers faced Iowa State in 2017. Silverfield also worked under Cyclones coach Matt Campbell as an offensive consultant at Toledo in 2014.

“Obviously it’s an honor and a privilege for us. Our football program and our university are so appreciative of the invite and to be able play in our home stadium,” Silverfield said. “We’re excited about the matchup. Obviously, we know what Iowa State brings to the table … Big 12 team that’s won a lot of football games.”

The Cyclones were second in the Big 12 in yards per game allowed with 349.3, behind only third-ranked Texas. Iowa State was third in points allowed at 21.7, trailing only Texas and Kansas State.

The opportunistic Cyclones have 16 interceptions and three fumble recoveries, tying for 18th nationally with a plus-8 turnover margin.

As of Tuesday, there was no word from Iowa State if defensive back T.J. Tampa, a third-team All-American, would play in the bowl game.

Iowa State, which won just one conference game last season and was 4-8 overall, has a much-improved offense. The Cyclones averaged 29.4 points per game in Big 12 play this season, compared with 16.3 a year ago.

Quarterback Rocco Becht, the 2023 Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year, completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 2,674 yards with 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Jaylin Noel is the fourth receiver in school history with back-to-back 60-catch seasons.

Two of the Cyclones’ top rushers, Eli Sanders and Cartevious Norton, entered the transfer portal and did not play in the season finale at Kansas State. But true freshman Abu Sama III rushed for 276 yards on 16 carries with touchdown runs of 77, 71, and 60 yards.

Memphis averages 39.7 points per game, seventh-best in the nation, while allowing 29.0 The Tigers have scored 20 or more points in 26 consecutive games — the longest active streak in the nation — dating back to the end of the 2021 season.

Seth Henigan has completed 66.4 percent of his passes for 3,519 yards with 28 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He had 15 touchdown passes to just two picks in the Tigers’ final six games.

“He’s got great confidence and they ask him to do a lot,” Campbell told the Des Moines Register about Henigan. “They ask him to put them in the right situation a lot. And he’s got such great playmakers on the outside that he’s able to find matchups and really deliver the football with great consistency.”

Roc Taylor has 61 catches for 981 yards and four touchdowns, and Dameer Blankumsee has 51 receptions for 825 yards and a team-high six scores.

Blake Watson leads the ground game with 1,045 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns, along with 50 catches for 458 yards out of the backfield.

–Field Level Media

Dec 28, 2022; Memphis, TN, USA; Kansas Jayhawks running back Devin Neal (4) rushes against the Arkansas Razorbacks in the first quarter in the 2022 Liberty Bowl at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Arkansas defeats Kansas in 3OT in Liberty Bowl thriller

KJ Jefferson accounted for 417 yards of total offense as Arkansas defeated Kansas 55-53 in triple overtime Wednesday night in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tenn.

It was the highest-scoring Liberty Bowl in history.

Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels threw for a Liberty Bowl-record 544 yards, with five touchdowns in defeat.

Jefferson had 287 yards passing and two touchdowns and rushed for 130 yards and two touchdowns for Arkansas (7-6).

Kansas scored the final 25 points of regulation to send the game to overtime.

Down 38-23, Kansas scored with 1:05 left and recovered the onside kick. Daniels hit Luke Grimm with a 21-yard touchdown, and then hit Lawrence Arnold for the 2-point conversion to tie it with 41 seconds left.

Daniels hit Jared Casey on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line to take the lead in overtime. Rashod Dubinion answered with a 6-yard touchdown run for the Hogs.

Jefferson scored on a 20-yard run in the second overtime and then converted the 2-point conversion on a pass to Jaedon Wilson.

Daniels scored on a 2-yard run to answer. Daniels was stopped short on the 2-point attempt, but targeting was called. Daniels hit Casey with a 1-yard pass on the second try.

Jefferson hit Dubinion for the 2-point try in the third overtime. Kansas failed to convert its try.

Kansas (6-7), in its first bowl game since 2008, was seeking its fifth win over a Power 5 opponent this season after tallying just five in the previous five seasons combined.

Arkansas stretched the lead to 38-13 in the third quarter on Dubinion’s 2-yard run. Dubinion finished with 112 yards rushing, giving Arkansas 394 for the game.

Kansas’ Ky Thomas answered with a 2-yard run late in the quarter. Owen Piepergerdes’ 36-yard field goal for Kansas made it a two-score game.

Both offenses were able to move the ball early, although turnovers hurt Kansas. Daniels, who threw only two interceptions in 175 attempts this season, had two by the first drive of the second quarter.

The Razorbacks continued to pile on, taking a 31-7 lead with 5:02 left in the first half.

Kansas got a much-needed touchdown in the final two minutes of the first half when Daniels found Mason Fairchild for a 24-yard touchdown.

The Razorbacks led 31-13 at halftime.

–Field Level Media

Nov 25, 2022; Columbia, Missouri, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) throws a pass against the Missouri Tigers during the game at Faurot Field at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas ends bowl drought vs. Arkansas in Liberty Bowl

It’s often the case for bowl games. One team is excited to be there while the other accepted the bid reluctantly. That’s certainly the case for the Liberty Bowl on Wednesday in Memphis, Tenn.

Kansas (6-6) reached a bowl game for the first time since 2008. The Jayhawks ended the season by losing six of their last seven games, but a bowl is more than just about anybody affiliated with the program expected in September.

Arkansas (6-6) meanwhile will play in the Liberty Bowl for the sixth time after finishing fifth in the SEC West. The Razorbacks had much higher expectations after entering the season ranked No. 19 in the Associated Press Top 25.

Arkansas coach Sam Pittman has been trying to put on a happy face regarding the game.

“We’re extremely excited to be headed to Memphis to play a really good Kansas team in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl,” Pittman said after the bowl announcement. “Coach (Lance) Leipold and his staff have done a tremendous job with their team, and we look forward to the challenge. For us, the opportunity to play a bowl game in what we consider our backyard is going to be special. We can’t wait to see our fans in Memphis.”

Arkansas uses a balanced attack on offense. The Hogs average 230.3 yards per game through the air, and slightly less (223.4) on the ground. Raheim Sanders leads the Razorbacks with 1,426 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. KJ Jefferson threw for 2,361 yards with 22 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

The Jayhawks were picked to finish last in the Big 12 but were one of two undefeated teams left in the conference when they lost to TCU on Oct. 8. Quarterback Jalon Daniels got early Heisman Trophy attention, but he injured his shoulder against the Horned Frogs and missed the next five games. He came back for the final two games.

Leipold has plenty of reason to celebrate the bowl selection. The Jayhawks won a total of four conference games over the previous seven seasons and went 2-10 overall in 2021.

“If you really held it up to me, I would say I didn’t know if we could make the jump from two wins to six maybe immediately,” he said after the selection. “But I’d never bet against this group and the coaches that work with them daily.”

–Field Level Media

Dec 28, 2021; Memphis, TN, USA; Texas Tech Red Raiders quarterback Donovan Smith (7) warms up prior to the game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Liberty Bowl Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Texas Tech runs past Mississippi State in Liberty Bowl

Donovan Smith ran for a touchdown, threw for another and directed an impressive performance for Texas Tech’s offense in a 34-7 rout of Mississippi State on Tuesday night at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tenn.

Smith completed 15 of 28 passes for 252 yards and Texas Tech (7-6) completed its first winning season since 2015 by totaling 512 yards of offense against former coach Mike Leach, who was 84-43 with the Red Raiders from 2000-09.

The Red Raiders racked up a season-high 260 rushing yards and scored three rushing TDs in their final game under interim coach Sonny Cumbie. The former Texas Tech quarterback, who led the team to an upset of Aaron Rodgers and California in the 2004 Holiday Bowl, is headed for the head-coaching job at Louisiana Tech.

Red Raiders running back Tahj Brooks gained 107 yards on 16 attempts, including a 19-yard TD run early in the first quarter. SaRodorick Thompson gained 80 yards on 14 carries and had a 1-yard TD run midway through the fourth.

J.J. Sparkman caught a 14-yard TD near the end of the third quarter and Jonathan Garibay booted field goals of 31 and 26 yards in the first half as the Red Raiders easily won the first meeting between the schools since 1970.

Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers was 32 of 53 for 290 yards. He was unable to throw for 300 yards for the 11th straight game and also faced constant pressure as the Bulldogs (7-6) turned in a disappointing showing after winning four of their final six regular-season games.

Lineman Tyree Wilson recorded two of Texas Tech’s four sacks and the Red Raiders also intercepted Rogers once and recovered a fumble in the fourth quarter.

The Red Raiders needed just seven plays and 2:20 to take a 7-0 lead on Brooks’ TD and went up 10-0 lead on Garibay’s first field goal with 3:03 left in the opening period. Garibay kicked another field goal with 13 seconds left in the half to give the Red Raiders a 13-7 lead.

Smith’s TD run with 9:03 left in the third made it 20-7, and consecutive sacks by Wilson set up Sparkman’s leaping catch with two seconds remaining in the third for a 27-7 edge.

Thompson’s TD run early in the fourth made it 34-7 shortly after Rogers was intercepted in the red zone by defensive back Eric Monroe.

–Field Level Media

Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach said players who opt-out of bowl games to prepare for the NFL Draft are selfish.

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Mississippi State’s Mike Leach seeks revenge vs. Texas Tech in Liberty Bowl

Mike Leach spent a decade patrolling the sideline at Texas Tech and overseeing a prolific offense in a tenure that ended controversially.

Leach, now in his second season guiding the Mississippi State program, will oppose his former team in the Liberty Bowl on Tuesday night at Memphis. It will be the first meeting between the schools since 1970.

Leach rose to prominence when he coached at Texas Tech from 2000-09, producing an 84-43 record. He led the Red Raiders to a bowl game in every season, including an upset of Aaron Rodgers and California in the 2004 Holiday Bowl when Sonny Cumbie — now Texas Tech’s interim head coach — was his quarterback.

After being fired from Texas Tech due to misconduct, Leach resurfaced at Washington State from 2012-19 before taking the job at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs finished 7-5 this season, winning four of their final six games after absorbing a 49-9 loss to Alabama on Oct. 16. They knocked off three ranked teams in 2021.

After Mississippi State went 4-7 last season, the Bulldogs improved this year with an offense that averaged 30.9 points per game. They are led by quarterback Will Rogers, who threw for a Southeastern Conference-leading 4,449 yards. Rogers also threw 35 touchdowns, second in the SEC to Heisman winner Bryce Young’s 43, and he never threw for fewer than 294 yards in a game this year.

“I’m the quarterback in this offense for Coach Leach,” Rogers said. “I think that my job is to win games. It’s cool to throw for 500 or 600 yards, but ultimately I get judged and this team gets judged on if we win a game or not.”

Texas Tech (6-6) is playing its final game under Cumbie, who took over for the fired Matt Wells on Oct. 25. Joey McGuire was hired last month to be the Red Raiders’ head coach in 2022, and Cumbie will depart for the head coaching job at Louisiana Tech.

The Red Raiders, who are in a bowl game for the first time since 2017, ended the regular season with four losses in five games.

“Our players, you can’t give them enough credit for everything they’ve gone through for the season,” Cumbie said. “All that is stuff you reflect on after (the Liberty Bowl), and hopefully when you reflect on it (postgame), you’re feeling good about how things went.”

Texas Tech averaged 30 points per game and saw three players split time at quarterback, including Donovan Smith. The freshman will make the start after completing 70 of 111 passes for 929 yards and six touchdowns with two interceptions.

Smith will not be throwing to top target Erik Ezukanma, who declared for the NFL draft after totaling 48 receptions for 705 yards and four touchdowns. Ezukanma opted out of the bowl game.

–Field Level Media

Dec 31, 2020; Memphis, TN, USA; Army Black Knights linebacker Arik Smith (53) sacks West Virginia Mountaineers quarterback Jarret Doege (2) for fumble during the first half  at Liberty Bowl Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

West Virginia rallies to top Army in Liberty Bowl

Backup quarterback Austin Kendall threw two second half touchdown passes Thursday, including the game-winner to T.J. Simmons with 5:10 remaining, as West Virginia rallied for a 24-21 victory over Army in the Liberty Bowl at Memphis, Tenn.

Taking over for starter Jarret Doege, who was 15 of 25 for 159 yards with a touchdown, an interception and a lost fumble, Kendall had an instant impact. He connected with Mike O’Laughlin on a 3-yard scoring strike with 3:22 remaining in the third quarter that pulled the Mountaineers within 21-16.

Kendall then found Simmons for his second touchdown of the day, a 20-yard pass that finished off a 65-yard drive and enabled West Virginia to finish the year at 6-4. Kendall hit on 8 of his 17 passes for 121 yards.

The Black Knights (9-3), who took the place of Tennessee in the game after the Volunteers bowed out last week due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the program, could have tied the game with 1:50 remaining. But kicker Quinn Maretzki yanked a 39-yard field-goal attempt wide left.

Army had one final chance to win or force overtime, but West Virginia’s Josh Chandler-Semedo intercepted Christian Anderson at the Mountaineers’ 26-yard line with 29 seconds remaining.

Army’s Tyhier Tyler rushed 24 times for 76 yards and three scores, while Anderson completed 4 of 6 passes for 57 yards.

West Virginia initiated scoring late in the first quarter, tapping into a field position advantage created by its defense after it stopped Army on a 4th-and-2 at the Mountaineers’ 38. Tyler Sumpter’s 31-yard field goal capped a seven-play, 48-yard drive.

The Black Knights finally found traction on their next possession, eating 74 yards and more than seven minutes on 14 plays. Tyler ran off right tackle for a 1-yard touchdown.

West Virginia grabbed a 10-7 edge in the second quarter when Doege found Simmons for a 5-yard scoring strike at the 4:21 mark.

Just before the half, Doege was sacked by Army’s Malkeim Morrison and stripped of the ball, with Ryan Duran recovering at the West Virginia 7 for the Black Knights. That turned into a 6-yard touchdown keeper by Tyler two plays later that gave Army a 14-10 halftime lead.

–Field Level Media

Dec 19, 2020; West Point, New York, USA; Army Black Knights quarterback Christian Anderson (4) runs with the ball against the Air Force Falcons during the second half at Michie Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Army rushes to step in, will face West Virginia in Liberty Bowl

When West Virginia coach Neil Brown gathered his coaches and players for practice on Dec. 21, they were preparing for a Liberty Bowl matchup with Tennessee on New Year’s Eve in Memphis.

Then 2020 intervened.

“We started the day preparing for one opponent and will end it preparing for another, but that’s how crazy 2020 has been,” Brown said.

Tennessee pulled out of the bowl game after coach Jeremy Pruitt and multiple players tested positive for COVID-19. Luckily enough for the Liberty Bowl, it had a better team ready to step in.

Army went from being an outrageous snub to being an attractive catch at 9-2. The Commander-in-Chief trophy winners after a 10-7 defeat of Air Force on Dec. 19, the Black Knights were originally ticketed for the Independence Bowl after winning their sixth game on Oct. 24.

But when the Shreveport-based bowl had to cancel because so many prospective opponents opted out, it left Army in a lurch not of its own making.

Coach Jeff Monken made it clear that he thought his team was getting the short end of the stick, and aside from a handful of ESPN talking heads who had no trouble lugging the Power 5 conferences’ water while leaving Group of 5 schools parched, Monken was preaching to the choir.

As the old saying goes, better late than never. The Knights have their bowl bid, and West Virginia (5-4) has a new, more formidable opponent.

“I have great respect for the Army football tradition and the sacrifice the cadets make daily for our country,” Brown said. “Coach Monken and his staff have done a great job at West Point.”

The Knights own 43 wins in the last five years under Monken, a disciple of former Navy and Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson.

Much like Johnson, Monken believes in triple-option football, a staple at the military academies for most of the last 30 years.

Army finished fourth in the nation this year in rushing, averaging 281.3 yards per game despite having only one player rush for more than 500 yards. But it had four players between 401 and 502 yards, a testament to the balance it possesses.

Most importantly, the Knights played excellent defense, permitting just 14 points per game. Nearly a fourth of their allowance came in a 38-12 loss last month at Tulane. Their other loss was to Cincinnati, 24-10, in September. Cincinnati is now 9-0 and ranked No. 8 in the CFP poll.

“This is going to be a tremendous challenge for us to have any opportunity to win the game,” Monken said. “It’s exciting for our players. They came here to play big-time football against top-level opponents, and I’m glad they have the opportunity to play one in West Virginia.”

The Mountaineers could have easily been 7-2 were it not for one-possession losses at Texas Tech (34-27) and Texas (17-13) in a three-week span. Their final regular-season game with Oklahoma was canceled because of COVID-19 concerns.

West Virginia’s offense is led by Jarret Doege (2,428 yards, 13 TD passes) and Leddie Brown (945 rushing yards, nine TDs).

This will mark the first time the programs have met in 59 years. Army leads the series 2-1.

–Field Level Media

Dec 12, 2020; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Tennessee Volunteers head coach Jeremy Pruitt during the first half against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Vanderbilt Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Report: Vols pull out of Liberty Bowl due to positive tests

Tennessee was forced to pull out of next week’s Liberty Bowl after coach Jeremy Pruitt and several players tested positive for COVID-19, ESPN reported Monday.

The Volunteers (3-7) were slated to play West Virginia (5-4) on Dec. 31 in the Memphis bowl game.

The team’s tests were conducted Sunday with the positive results coming back after Tennessee had accepted the bowl invitation. Tennessee then re-tested the positives and did a whole new round of testing, per the report. The positive results and contact tracing rendered the Vols with not enough players and coaches to play the game.

The Vols finished their regular season last week against Texas A&M without assistant coaches Jay Graham and Derrick Ansley reportedly because of COVID-19 issues.

ESPN reports that the Liberty Bowl could select Army (9-2) or Mississippi State (3-7) to replace the Vols. Mississippi State is slated to play Dec. 31 in the Armed Forces Bowl, which could be a landing spot for Army if the Bulldogs head to the Liberty Bowl.

–Field Level Media