The American Athletic Conference championship game is now set, and it’s going to be a rematch. Memphis (8-4, 5-3 AAC) clinched a return trip to the conference championship game on Friday afternoon with a 52-31 victory over Houston (8-4, 5-3 AAC) in a game that determined the AAC West Division crown. Darrell Henderson‘s big day on the ground fueled the Memphis clincher for the division, with his 60-yard touchdown midway through the fourth quarter giving the Tigers a two-score lead.
What was a back-and-forth type of game with momentum swings at every turn became a game in which Memphis took control in the fourth quarter. The Tigers scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, which started with the game tied at 31-31. Houston’s offense struggled to find the plays that had been available earlier and the defense was leaving hole son the ground with Ed Oliver out of action for much of the afternoon. Oliver did return and started the game for the Cougars after missing some playing time in recent weeks, but he was limited to the sideline for much of the afternoon in what could be a disappointing end to his time in a Houston uniform. When Oliver was in the game in the first half, Memphis struggled to get much offense running, especially on the ground.
Henderson rushed for 177 yards and a touchdown and Patrick Taylor accompanied that with 111 rushing yards and two scores as Memphis combined for 353 rushing yards against a reeling Houston defense. Memphis will hope to carry over that momentum on the ground in the AAC Championship Game next week when they face UCF for a second-straight year. Henderson broke the single-season rushing record in the AAC by passing James Flanders of Tulsa by ending his day with 1,699 yards for the regular season, exceeding Flanders’ 2016 total of 1,629 yards.
Houston attempted to make plays happen through the air with backup quarterback Clayton Tune taking over for an injured D’Eriq King, but the consistency through the air never materialized as the game went on. Tune did throw three touchdowns but he completed just 18 of 43 pass attempts and was intercepted in the end zone late in the game on Houston’s last scoring chance of the afternoon. Memphis quarterback Brady White had a rough end to the first half with two interceptions thrown, both by Houston’s Gleson Sprewell who returned one for a long touchdown, but White had the luzury of falling back and letting the running game take control.
UCF will host Memphis for the second straight year in the AAC Championship Game, and once again UCF is looking to book a trip to a New Years Six bowl game. Memphis, who lost in overtime to the Knights in last year’s AAC title game and came up just shy of edging UCF earlier this season, could play the ultimate spoiler and open the door up for a spot in the New Years Six for a team from the Mountain West Conference, which would be the conference most likely to capitalize on any sudden shortcomings by UCF. However, UCF has won each of the last three meetings between the two programs.
UCF will host Memphis on December 1 for the AAC Championship Game. Houston, after losing three of their final four games as key injuries piled up, will wait to learn their bowl destination.