Iowa State survived an ill-timed, controversial fumble and harassed Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson throughout a cold, windy afternoon to score a 21-20 upset of No. 20 Memphis on its home field in the Liberty Bowl.
The win capped off an ascendant season for Matt Campbell and his program, ending a string of six straight losing seasons with an 8-5 campaign — the Cyclones’ most wins since 2000 — that included three victories over ranked opponents.
Iowa State started the game in a Memphis-like fashion, accepting the ball to open the game and scoring on a 52-yard bomb from Kyle Kempt to Hakeem Butler. The Cyclones had a chance to take a 14-0 lead, driving to the Memphis 39-yard line, but a botched punt snap gave the Tigers the ball at the Iowa State 40 and the Tigers capitalized in two Ferguson passes. The first went 30 yards to Tony Pollard and the second 10 to Anthony Miller for the tying score, a grab that tied West Virginia’s David Sills for a national-best 18 touchdown receptions.
Memphis (10-3) missed on two opportunities to take the lead. First, Riley Patterson missed a 38-yard field goal at the tail end of the first quarter, and then Ferguson was sacked on a 4th-and-8 at the Iowa State 37 to open the second quarter. Iowa State took advantage of that momentum with a 12-play, 6-minute touchdown drive that was extended after a Kempt interception in the end zone was overturned upon review. Given new life, Campbell elected to go for a 4th-and-5 from the Memphis 30 and converted on a 12-yard completion to Allen Lazard. The Cyclones re-claimed the lead four plays later on a 2-yard Joel Lanning rush.
Iowa State had a chance to push its lead to two scores late in the half, driving to the Memphis 24, but Kempt was sacked on a 3rd-and-10 and Garrett Owens‘s 51-yard field goals sailed (way, way) wide left with 1:18 to play. Kempt connected on 15-of-26 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown in the half.
Memphis responded by driving for a 34-yard Patterson field goal as time expired in the half, then grabbed its first lead on a 36-yard toss from Ferguson to Phil Mayhue.
The Cyclones went back in front later in the third quarter, but not without significant help — again. Facing a 2nd-and-7 at the Memphis 9, Kempt was intercepted at the goal line by Curtis Akins, who returned the ball all the way to the 24. But the pick was overturned by a roughing the passer call — and a fortunate one at that — and Kempt nailed Lazard for a 5-yard touchdown two plays later, see-sawing Iowa State back in front at 21-17 with 4:28 left in the third quarter. Lazard closed his record-setting career with 10 grabs (tying a Liberty Bowl record) for 142 yards and a touchdown, while Kempt hit 24-of-38 passes for 314 yards and two touchdowns.
After a short kickoff game Memphis the ball at its own 38, Memphis moved swiftly into Iowa State territory to set up Patterson’s second field goal, a 30-yarder that pulled the Tigers within 21-20.
The teams traded punt on their next possessions, but an advantage in the field position battle gave Iowa State the ball at the Memphis 45 with 11:05 to play in the game. The Cyclones successfully pulled off a choke-the-life-out-of-’em drive, consuming seven minutes and 23 seconds and moving to the Memphis 1 before the sure-handed David Montgomery fumbled the ball into the Memphis end zone, which was recovered by the Tigers’ Jonathan Cook. The play was (of course) reviewed and upheld, meaning the Cyclones’ first lost fumble of the entire season came at the worst possible time.
Memphis took over at its own 20 with 3:50 to play and appeared to go three-and-out, but a pass interference call on Iowa State’s Brian Peavy bailed the Tigers out with a first down instead of a punt. Ferguson drove Memphis to the Iowa State 40 with more than two minutes remaining and two timeouts in his pocket, but fired four straight incomplete passes to give the ball back to Iowa State with 1:52 to play. Lanning converted a 2nd-and-7 with a 9-yard rush, securing a game-clinching first down to salt away Iowa State’s first bowl win since 2009.
Ferguson completed his collegiate career with an effective 21-of-33 passing for 256 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, but he was sacked six times.