Iowa State falls behind early, can’t close late, in 36-26 loss to Memphis in AutoZone Liberty Bowl

Dec 29, 2023; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Tigers tight end Anthony Landphere (82) runs after a catch as Iowa State Cyclones defensive back Myles Purchase (5) and linebacker Caleb Bacon (50) make the tackle during the first half at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

 AMES — Swaths of gray clouds blotted out the sun. A stiff breeze blew and the temperature barely reached 40 degrees. In other words, Friday’s weather outlook proved to be fairly typical for Iowa State when it plays in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, and the result — a 36-26 loss to Memphis before 48,789 fans at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium — mirrored the adverse atmospheric conditions.

 The Cyclones (7-6) came out flat, to put it mildly, to begin both halves, and the Tigers (10-3) scored four touchdowns on drives that spanned two minutes and 15 seconds or less.

 “I think they had a really good plan to come out in the football game,” ISU head coach Matt Campbell said. “They did some things that certainly stressed us (and) they made some big plays.”

 Memphis bolted to a 19-0 lead in the first quarter as the Cyclones tried and failed to establish a running game. ISU finished with exactly zero rushing yards on 20 carries, while the Tigers racked up 166 yards on the ground.

 “Their ability to run the ball, our inability at times to rush the ball the way we needed to — that’s not how we win football games at Iowa State,” said Campbell, who guided his team to its sixth winning season since 2016. “You give them a lot of credit for what they did (defensively), for sure.”

 ISU responded to its early adversity by scoring 13 consecutive points — including a 29-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Rocco Becht to Jayden Higgins — to get back into the game.

 That initial surge proved to be short-lived, though, as Memphis scored the game’s next 17 points to seemingly put the game out of reach.

 But Becht responded again, connecting with tight end Easton Dean on a 15-yard touchdown while later hitting receiver Jaylin Noel for a 23-yard scoring strike to make the score, 36-26, with 9:55 remaining. The two-point conversion failed, however, and the Tigers used a long drive late to fully put the game away.

 “We ran out of time,” sophomore safety Jeremiah Cooper said. “But like I said, it was a great team that we played.”

 Becht eclipsed former ISU star Brock Purdy’s previous single-game bowl record for passing yards set in the 2018 Alamo Bowl by the end of the third quarter. He ended up 22 of 38 through the air for an ISU single-game record 446 yards and three touchdowns.

 “I felt like there are a couple of things out there I could have done better at, but (offensive coordinator Nate) Scheelhaase and the offensive staff give me a good opportunity, for whatever they were to show us on defense — they (give) me the ability to process through the concept and the play, and I felt like they did a good job of doing that.”

 Higgins amassed 140 receiving in the first half alone, but big plays for the Cyclones led mostly to field goals, while the Tigers turned explosive plays into touchdowns. 

 That’s largely because ISU could not establish any semblance of a running game. Freshman tailback Abu Sama — who ran for 276 yards and three touchdowns in the 42-35 win at Kansas State — managed to gain four yards on 12 carries against a previously porous Memphis defense that was allowing nearly 170 rushing yards per game.

 “We got behind, so then you play a game where you’re trying to play catch-up and you’re trying to throw the football to try to get yourself back in the football game, and obviously Rocco, and obviously Jayden and our kids did a great job of that,” Campbell said. 

 Higgins finished with nine catches for an ISU bowl-record 214 yards. Noel had six catches for 71 yards and freshman Ben Ngoyi recorded his first career catch, a 46-yarder down the sideline. 

The Cyclones played in their sixth bowl game in the past seven seasons and could return as many as 20 starters next season. So there’s plenty to look forward to next season even as the 2023 season ended with a disappointing setback.

 “Where we’re at, the foundation of this team, I think it’s as rock-solid as it’s been,” Campbell said.

 Memphis quarterback Seth Henigan completed 24 of 33 passes for 364 yards and became the school’s all-time passing leader. The junior from Denton, Texas, peppered four different receivers with touchdown throws, including former Cyclone Joseph Scates, who hauled in a 61-yard touchdown grab.

 The Tigers — who were the visitors in their home stadium — avenged a 21-20 loss to ISU in the 2017 Liberty Bowl. The Cyclones were 10.5-point favorites according to Las Vegas oddsmakers but never led while trailing by as many as 23 points.

 “Of course it was frustrating,” Cooper said. “Nobody wants to get score on (with) 60-yard bombs back to back, but we just had to keep our composure and keep fighting. That’s really what we did today.”