Memphis’ head coach Ryan Silverfield watches his team warm up before the game between the University of Memphis and the University of Alabama at Birmingham at Protective Field in Birmingham, Ala., on Saturday, October 21, 2023. © Chris Day/The Commercial Appeal / USA TODAY NETWORK
AMES — As his players performed drills a few days ago, Memphis head football coach Ryan Silverfield fielded a phone call. The 9-3 Tigers already knew they’d be competing in a bowl game for the ninth time in the past 10 seasons, but they didn’t know where.
Not until that fateful phone call that precipitated what Silverfield called “an emergency team meeting.” The Tigers would be staying home to face Iowa State in the Dec. 29 AutoZone Liberty Bowl — a rematch from six years ago.
“After we broke the meeting to tell the boys, they were so excited,” Silverfield said on a conference call earlier this month. “It’s just an honor and a privilege for us. We’re excited about the matchup.”
Silverfield served as the run game coordinator and offensive line coach for Memphis when his team took on the Cyclones (7-5) in 2017. ISU won that game, 21-20, to give its then-new head coach Matt Campbell his first bowl victory with the Cyclones. Now the two teams are running it back and come in with similar respective resumes to what they possessed six years ago.
“I think it’s unique anytime that you play a team with the ability and certainly the success of Memphis, and not only do you play them in a bowl game, you play them in their home stadium, right?” said Campbell, who has guided ISU to postseason play in six of the past seven seasons. “It’s certainly a unique challenge in a bowl game and you watch their growth under coach Silverfield, I think he’s done a great job. I’ve got a lot of respect for Ryan and what he’s about.”
As usual among coaches, the feeling is mutual — but there’s a twist in this case. Silverfield worked under Campbell as an offensive consultant at Toledo in 2014 before two stints in the NFL preceded joining Memphis’s staff in 2016. Former ISU offensive line coach, Jeff Myers, who was replaced by Ryan Clanton, is also on the Tigers’ staff.
“I’ve got so much respect for coach Campbell and (ISU defensive coordinator Jon) Heacock and what they do as a program,” Silverfield said. “So we’ve got to pull out all the stops.”
The Tigers feature the nation’s seventh-most potent scoring offense (39.7 points per game) and it’s spearheaded by quarterback Seth Henigan, who’s passed for 3,519 yards, 28 touchdowns and nine interceptions this season.
The Cyclones counter with quarterback Rocco Becht, who’s thrown for 2,549 yards, 20 touchdowns and eight picks, along with a passing defense that’s tied for fifth nationally in interceptions with 16. There’s also some good news on the injury front for ISU: Talented sophomore safety Malik Verdon could be back after missing the Cyclones’ regular-season-sealing win at Kansas State because of injury.
“Malik is really doing better,” Campbell said. “Obviously, the time off has been really positive for him. I think (we’ll) probably know exactly where he’ll be here within the next two weeks and I’ll probably be able to give you a more clear answer the closer we get, but at least he’s doing really, really well.”
Campbell also said he doesn’t anticipate any of his players will opt out of the game. Memphis saw a couple of players do that to prepare for the NFL Draft, but both teams should feature nearly full rosters when they take the field at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium in Memphis for the 3:30 p.m. game that will be broadcast on ESPN.
“It’s got the makings of a great football game, for sure,” Campbell said.