Memphis 31, Mississippi State 29: What we learned as Tigers, Calvin Austin rally at home for thrilling win
Calvin Austin III’s track speed and smarts carried Memphis football to a 31-29 win over Mississippi State on Saturday.
Mississippi State tried to down a punt in the fourth quarter but didn’t secure the ball. Austin picked the ball up and raced away for a 94-yard punt return touchdown with 5:36 remaining.
It was a heads-up play by the Tigers’ best playmaker, who scored three times in the second half. The defense, which stood tall most of the second half, had the final say with Xavier Cullens and Quindell Johnson stopping Mississippi State's game-tying 2-point conversion attempt in the final minutes.
The Memphis fans ended the final seconds chanting “SEC! SEC!” in approval as the clock ran out. Here’s what we learned from the Tigers’ (3-0) first win over Mississippi State (2-1) since 1993
Calvin Austin shows out
On a day when Memphis honored its first Pro Football Hall of Famer in Isaac Bruce, it was only fitting another receiver shined.
Austin caught touchdowns of 25 and 21 yards, with the second being the go-ahead score. He finished with nine catches for 105 yards and had 107 return yards as the Tigers rallied from a 17-7 halftime deficit.
Bruce said on ESPN2’s telecast that Austin should be considered a candidate for the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best receiver. With more performances like Saturday, he could find himself in the conversation.
Defense diced but responds
Memphis allowed three consecutive scoring drives of nine plays or more in the first half, including an 8-minute, 39-second drive in the first quarter. But the Tigers got crucial stops to stay in contention, especially in the second half.
The Tigers forced a three-and-out just before halftime. After Seth Henigan’s first career interception was returned to Memphis’ 14, the defense stood tall with a fourth-and-goal stop at the 2. Mississippi State was also held scoreless in the third quarter.
Mississippi State scored twice in the fourth quarter, but when quarterback Will Rogers was stopped short of the goal line on a two-point conversion, the Tigers could celebrate another impressive performance.
Offense finds life late
Memphis entered the game as the nation’s leading offense and was mostly bottled up in the first half. Receivers struggled to get open and Brandon Thomas, the nation’s leading rusher entering Saturday, had little room to run.
Henigan, a freshman, opened the third quarter with an interception to make things worse. But he responded to lead a 98-yard scoring drive capped by the 21-yard TD pass to Austin.
Greg Rubin keeps on impressing
Greg Rubin earned his second consecutive start at defensive back, and the Memphis native kept up his strong play. He had two critical pass break-ups on third down in the third quarter and finished with eight tackles.
Rubin’s play isn’t just great for a true freshman. It’s impressive because he didn’t play his senior year at White Station High School last fall with Shelby County Schools cancelling the football season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Coaches have praised his attitude and instincts, as Rubin has been as good as any Tigers defensive back through three games.
Tigers keep home winning streak alive
Memphis defeating Ole Miss in 2015 was an upset. Four years later, the Tigers were physical enough to beat Ole Miss with its defense.
With a third win over an SEC program in seven seasons, the Tigers extended their home winning streak to 17 games.
They showed toughness to rally from a 10-point halftime deficit and played themselves into position for a special season if they can keep improving.
Want to stay informed on the latest Memphis sports news? A Commercial Appeal subscription gets you unlimited access to the best inside information and updates on local sports, and the ability to tap into sports news from throughout the USA TODAY Network's 109 local sites.
You can reach Evan Barnes on Twitter (@Evan_B) or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org