Early on it looked like Memphis didn’t belong in the same zip code of the big stage, let alone on it. After weathering that early flurry from No. 13 Ole Miss, the team with the third-longest winning streak in the country got up, punched back and buckled the knees of its Top-15 opponent.
Winners of 12 straight coming in, the U of M was able to shake of an early 14-0 deficit and head into the locker room down with a stunning 24-14 lead. With just over five minutes gone in the first quarter, a trick play on the second play from scrimmage — wide receiver Laquon Treadwell was the thrower — resulted in a 68-yard touchdown pass and a Chad Kelly 23-yard touchdown pass had the Tigers on the ropes.
Add in a U of M touchdown pass off trickeration that was called back in between, and the home-standing Tigers were reeling.
A Paxton Lynch touchdown pass with 2:12 left in the first helped steady the Tigers and cut the deficit in half at 14-7. A defensive stand for the normally offensive-minded Tigers early in the second quarter seemed to swing the momentum violently back toward the home team, with the U of M stiffening on three straight short-yardage plays at their own 10 to get the ball back on downs.
Still trailing 14-7 with under four minutes remaining, a quick 17-point burst gave the Tigers not only their first lead of the game but also complete control of it. A field goal with 3:49 remaining was quickly followed by a Kelly interception that, three plays later, the Tigers turned into a four-yard Sam Craft touchdown run for a 17-14 lead.
On the ensuing possession, and with around two minutes remaining in the half, Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze inexplicably went for it on fourth-and-one from his own 34-yard line. Kelly was stuffed for no gain, handing the ball back to the Tigers with plenty of time remaining.
That decision came back to bite Freeze in his backside as, after a third-and-13 conversion, the Tigers capitalized with another Lynch touchdown pass with :34 left in the half.
The Rebels have thrown for 233 yards as a team, with Kelly responsible for 165 of those. Lynch has 191 of his own, although he did throw his first interception this season in 172 attempts. Neither team has done much in the running game, with the Rebels averaging 1.3 yards per carry and the Tigers 3.2.
The Rebels are in even bigger danger of digging an even deeper hole early in the third quarter as the Tigers will get the ball on offense to start the second half. That offense, incidentally, scored 17 points on its last three possessions.
Coincidentally or not, all of that damage came after star Rebel defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche sustained a head injury as a ball carrier on the Tigers’ red-zone stand early in the second quarter. His return in the second half is questionable.