Inspired defense pushes Memphis football, and its uninspiring offense, past North Texas | Giannotto

Gut reactions from Memphis football's 44-34 win over North Texas Saturday at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium.

Defense to the rescue

Twice North Texas got to within one score of Memphis in the second half. Twice, the Tigers defense delivered with a pick-six. That's probably the best way to sum up how Memphis got a third straight victory.

There’s momentum brewing for the Memphis defense, as weird as that is to write when it allowed North Texas to approach 500 yards of offense.

That’s not often been an accurate sentiment, even in the best of seasons for the Tigers. But it’s no coincidence the best defense Memphis fielded during its rise from college football obscurity over the past decade came during the 2019 Cotton Bowl season.

This year’s unit doesn’t necessarily deserve to be mentioned in that breath, but the results are trending in the right direction. Two weeks after mostly putting the clamps on Navy’s triple option, and a week after holding Arkansas State to 300 fewer yards than the year before, the Memphis defense made the biggest plays of the game against a future conference foe.

North Texas entered Saturday with Conference USA’s top offense, averaging more than 220 rushing yards per game and more than five yards per carry. The Mean Green ended up gaining just 101 yards on the ground, completing just 55% of its passes and converting only 3 of 15 third downs.

Memphis Tigers defense players block North Texas Mean Green tight end Var'Keyes Gumms (30) from advancing during the first half of a Memphis Tigers game against the North Texas Mean Green on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium in Memphis.
Memphis Tigers defense players block North Texas Mean Green tight end Var'Keyes Gumms (30) from advancing during the first half of a Memphis Tigers game against the North Texas Mean Green on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium in Memphis.

Memphis looked better facing the pass, with the defensive line generating more pressure and secondary players not named Quindell Johnson making plays on key throws. But it was the interceptions returned for touchdowns, one from defensive end Jaylon Allen to start the second half and another from senior Xavier Cullens to begin the fourth quarter, that provided the cushion the Tigers would need during an uninspiring effort by the offense.

Memphis is still susceptible to being thrown on and much more stout against the run. North Texas passed for a season-high 371 yards. But defensive coordinator Matt Barnes, who was calling plays from the sideline for the third game in a row, still has time to figure out the best way to cover up those deficiencies, whether it’s a strategic move or personnel-based.

It shouldn't cloud how admirably the defense kept Memphis afloat when it needed resuscitation. The Tigers defense that showed up Saturday could make this a very dangerous team once it returns to conference play next week.

What happened to the offense?

The North Texas defensive players were sprinting desperately, trying to get off the field before Memphis quarterback Seth Henigan snapped the ball. This should have been an easy five yards for the Tigers. They were running for so long even the crowd of 23,203 began screaming for the ball to be hiked.

But Henigan never noticed them. Instead, when the ball finally came to him, he took a sack. A few boo birds surfaced, right as Memphis punted again.

These were the sorts of defining images on a Saturday that will go down among the most disappointing offensive performances of the Ryan Silverfield era. Facing one of the nation's worst defenses, a defense that gave up nearly 600 yards in two of its past three games, Memphis punted eight times, including six drives in a row from the end of the second quarter to the start of the fourth quarter. There were also eight drives in which the Tigers never converted a first down.

All these factors were true: The offense wasn't the same once it lost two starters in the second quarter (left tackle Austin Myers and left guard Jonah Gambill); Henigan wasn't nearly as sharp as he was during the past two games; and North Texas didn't have much trouble corralling the Tigers' playmakers.

This appeared to be a breakdown at all levels, from the trenches up to the coaches' box. Memphis gained 20 yards in the third quarter and didn't convert a third down until fewer than 10 minutes remained in the fourth quarter. The Tigers offense did manage to ice the game away late, but what transpired in this one is not a sustainable formula moving forward.

A moment missed

File the second quarter away for when the schedule gets tougher, like less than two weeks from now when Houston comes to town.

Memphis looked to have grabbed control of the game after a rocky start.

The defense had kept North Texas off the scoreboard on five straight possessions. Punter Joe Doyle kept pinning the Mean Green deep. And the Tigers offense finally began to click after a failed fourth-down conversion on the opening drive, Henigan’s first interception of the season, and another Henigan overthrow that stalled another drive.

Memphis scored to take the lead back on a beautiful Henigan touchdown pass to wide receiver Javon Ivory, and then the Tigers embarked on their largest scoring drive of the season (92 yards) to go up 20-10. One stop and another touchdown might have put North Texas in a hole it couldn’t recover from earlier than it ultimately happened.

Memphis Tigers wide receiver Javon Ivory (4) catches a touchdown pass in the end zone while North Texas Mean Green defensive back Ridge Texada (26) looks on during the first half of a Memphis Tigers game against the North Texas Mean Green on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium in Memphis.
Memphis Tigers wide receiver Javon Ivory (4) catches a touchdown pass in the end zone while North Texas Mean Green defensive back Ridge Texada (26) looks on during the first half of a Memphis Tigers game against the North Texas Mean Green on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium in Memphis.

But the Tigers lost two starters on the offensive line right around then, and the offense never quite looked the same. It produced two three-and-outs heading into halftime, and North Texas closed the first half with a field goal.

It felt like a squandered chance to put away North Texas, and it’s becoming a bit too much of a trend. Memphis lost multiple games it led last season and seemed to miss out on an opportunity in the third quarter that could have made last week’s win over Arkansas State a little less nerve-wracking.

Lacking a killer instinct hasn’t mattered yet. It probably won’t matter next week against Temple, either. But being aware of these moments, and capitalizing on them, will be crucial if the Tigers are to reach their potential.

You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at mgiannotto@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Memphis football powers past North Texas on big defensive plays