Geoff Calkins

Geoff Calkins has been chronicling Memphis and Memphis sports for more than two decades. He is host of "The Geoff Calkins Show" from 9-11 a.m. M-F on 92.9 FM. Calkins has been named the best sports columnist in the country five times by the Associated Press sports editors, but still figures his best columns are about the people who make Memphis what it is.

Calkins: Memphis Tigers football falls just short (once again)

By Published: December 27, 2018 1:46 AM CT

BIRMINGHAM — He made the first one. Riley Patterson drilled the 38-yard field goal to send the game into overtime. Except Wake Forest called timeout just before the snap. So he had to kick the thing again.

He made the second one. Patterson drilled another 38-yard field goal to send the game into overtime. Except Memphis was flagged for a false start.  So he had to kick the thing yet again.

He missed the third one, this one from 43 yards. The ball tumbled wide right. Then Patterson stood, not moving, on the field for a very long time.

Wake Forest defeated Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl, 37-34. 

The third time was the harm.

And so this season ended in fitting fashion, with a game that wasn’t quite as triumphant as it could have been.

This is not to dismiss the effort of the Memphis players or coaches. This is not to disparage a program that has transformed itself into something worthy of national respect.

Mike Norvell has won more games (26) faster than any coach in Memphis history, has led Memphis to back-to-back conference title games and just put the finishing touches on yet another splendid recruiting class.

The program is not just fine. The program is flourishing beyond what most Memphians ever dared dream.

And yet.

And yet Norvell himself will tell you that this game — like this season — was not quite what it could have been. 

“We had some opportunities,” Norvell said. “We have to do a better job of finishing.”

That’s the all-purpose quote of the year.

The Tigers had some opportunities against Navy, a game they lost by the score of 22-21 after leading 21-9 heading into the fourth quarter.

The Tigers had some opportunities in their regular-season game against UCF, a game they lost by the score of 31-30 after leading 30-14 late in the first half. 

The Tigers had some opportunities in their championship rematch against UCF, a game they lost by the score of 56-41 after leading 38-21 at the half.

So savvy Memphis fans resisted celebrating too extravagantly Saturday when Tony Pollard returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown to give the Tigers a 28-10 lead with 11:04 left in the first half.

It was a magical moment for Pollard. He tied the NCAA’s career record of seven kickoff returns for touchdowns. But nobody was under any illusions that  Memphis had won the thing, not the way this team has frittered away games.

Sure enough, Wake Forest ripped off 20 straight points to take a 30-28 lead. The Memphis offense couldn’t do anything. It felt a lot like both second halves against UCF. The Tigers drove 98 yard yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. But after the Pollard touchdown, their next nine drives totaled 108 yards.

Quarterback Brady White will take criticism for this.  Some of it is certainly fair. He passed for 28 yards in the second and third quarters combined. That is not good enough.

But with 5:51 left, White and the Tigers put together what could have been the winning drive, with White getting things started by hitting Sam Craft for 25 yards. Patrick Taylor wound up scoring from nine yards out to give Memphis a 34-30 lead with 4:36 left in the game.

If only the game had ended right then. Or better yet, if only it had ended when Jackson Dillon sacked Wake Forest quarterback Jamie Newman on the next drive. That would have been the perfect ending. The colorful linebacker who returned to Memphis for a sixth season sealing the win with the final sack of his career.

But that is not the way this year has gone for Memphis. And that is not the way this game would go. Newman completed a 49-yard pass — over T.J. Carter — to set up another Wake Forest touchdown with just 43 seconds left.

JONAH JORDANTigers fall to Wake Forest in Birmingham Bowl

Still, Memphis rallied to give itself one more chance to win. Because whatever failings this team had, it never failed to compete. White hit Joey Magnifico for 44 yards to the Wake Forest 17. Norvell’s first bowl win at Memphis was at hand.

And then a pass to Damonte Coxie in the end zone fell incomplete. And then Norvell sent Patterson out to kick the field goal for the tie. And then Patterson made the first one (which didn’t count) and made the second one (which didn’t count) and missed the third one (which naturally did).

It's hard to know what to make of a season like this one. It was compelling and it was fun. Darrell Henderson became the first unanimous All-American in program history. Memphis won the West Division once again.

But there is a different sort of pain that comes from coming close and falling just short. It’s a pain you have to earn.

The Memphis players and coaches earned that pain. There is a certain honor in that. But in the wake of a season that wasn't quite what it could have been, they all feel it, just the same.


Geoff Calkins Memphis Tigers Memphis football Birmingham Bowl

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