Jump­ing for joy

Mem­phis is now el­i­gi­ble for trip to a bowl game Sea­son not the best, but it’s still sig­nif­i­cant

The Commercial Appeal - - Sports - Evan Barnes Mem­phis Com­mer­cial Ap­peal USA TO­DAY NET­WORK - TEN­NESSEE Mark Gian­notto Mem­phis Com­mer­cial Ap­peal USA TO­DAY NET­WORK – TENN.

John "Pop" Wil­liams didn't stop run­ning once he crossed into the end zone. Nei­ther did his team­mates.

Af­ter Wil­liams' scored on a 72-yard punt re­turn in the fourth quar­ter, he was mobbed by his en­tire team, which swarmed over from the side­line dur­ing Mem­phis' 47-21 win over Tulsa at the Lib­erty Bowl.

Even Tigers coach Mike Norvell wildly jumped for joy as he tried to re­store or­der. The scene drew a 15-yard un­sports­man­like penalty, but Norvell didn't mind one bit.

On a day where the Tigers (6-4, 3-3 AAC) be­came bowl el­i­gi­ble for the fifth straight year, Wil­liams' score proved one of the sea­son's most emo­tional highs.

Here are five things learned from Satur­day's win over Tulsa (2-8, 1-5):

Mem­phis is bowl el­i­gi­ble

There will hope­fully come a point in time when sim­ply earn­ing bowl el­i­gi­bil­ity won’t be a big deal for the Mem­phis foot­ball team any­more. But we’re not there ... yet. Not when, less than a decade ago, the fi­nal three years of the Larry Porter era ended with fewer com­bined wins than this sea­son.

Not when the school has never been to five bowl games in a row be­fore.

Not when this pro­gram only went to five bowl games dur­ing the 42 sea­sons that pre­ceded this cur­rent run.

Not when there’s only one other team in the Amer­i­can Ath­letic Con­fer­ence with a longer bowl streak than Mem­phis.

This sea­son may not have gone as Tiger fans planned, but it's still sig­nif­i­cant.

It might not fea­ture an­other ap-

pear­ance in the AAC cham­pi­onship game, al­though those faint dreams were kept alive when Mem­phis oblit­er­ated Tulsa, 47-21, Satur­day af­ter­noon at Lib­erty Bowl Me­mo­rial Sta­dium.

There are those around town who con­sider it a dis­ap­point­ment be­cause the Tigers’ six wins have come against teams with a com­bined record of 13-40 en­ter­ing this week­end.

They haven't beaten any­one good yet, and they’ve lost to ev­ery de­cent op­po­nent they’ve faced.

But the fact that an­other sea­son with a bowl game in­spires such angst is an achieve­ment in its own right. If this is bad (and it’s not), it’s yet an­other sign of how far the pro­gram has come.

Two se­nior classes in a row have now ex­pe­ri­enced noth­ing but bowl games. The mo­men­tum from that is real.

"Now," se­nior Jack­son Dil­lon said, "that’s just the ex­pec­ta­tion."

This is a mo­ment to em­brace per­spec­tive, just like so many around the city em­braced foot­ball again when Justin Fuente got this team rolling in the right di­rec­tion and Mike Norvell kept the progress go­ing.

My guess is many of the diehards who sat in the cold to watch the Tigers’ lat­est vic­tory re­al­ize all this.

Be­cause if you were brave enough to be at the Lib­erty Bowl for kick­off, when the ther­mome­ter in­di­cated it was 37 de­grees and the op­po­nent’s record in­di­cated this would be a blowout, there’s a good chance you sat through some of those ter­ri­ble sea­sons of the not-so-dis­tant past.

On Satur­day, there was a player and a punt re­turn this fan base rarely saw in the past.

Start with Dar­rell Hen­der­son, who rushed for an­other 166 yards and two touch­downs, adding to the great­est sea­son by a Mem­phis run­ning back not named DeAn­gelo Wil­liams.

He be­came just the sec­ond player in school his­tory to eclipse 3,000 ca­reer rush­ing yards (join­ing Wil­liams) and could fin­ish the year with more rush­ing yards than any­one in the coun­try.

He also limped off the field gin­gerly late in the third quar­ter, an­other re­minder of why you might want to come to the reg­u­lar-sea­son fi­nale against Hous­ton.

It could be his fi­nal home game at Mem­phis be­cause he’s even­tu­ally go­ing to play on Sun­days, and it’s hard to imag­ine him risking in­jury for an­other year at the col­lege level or sur­pass­ing what he’s done this sea­son.

Then came the 72-yard punt re­turn touch­down by wide re­ceiver John "Pop" Wil­liams, which fea­tured an ab­surd spin move and an even more ab­surd cel­e­bra­tion. Nearly the en­tire ros­ter came pour­ing from the side­line and mobbed Wil­liams.

Norvell dubbed it one of the great­est re­turns he's ever seen. Hen­der­son said he thought Wil­liams was "play­ing Mad­den." The ref­eree couldn't fig­ure out what player to flag for un­sports­man­like con­duct, so he just called it on the whole team.

"It was kind of like a tidal wave," Norvell said.

"Once he got to that end zone, you try to keep them back. But boy, the prob­lem is I looked down and I was at the 15-yard-line, too."

Many of them will be coming back next year, too.

There were likely at least 16 play­ers who started Satur­day’s game set to re­turn. There are just eight se­niors in the en­tire pro­gram. All of them are now guar­an­teed an ex­tra month of prac­tices.

Ul­ti­mately, the nar­ra­tive for this sea­son isn’t writ­ten yet.

If Mem­phis can win its fi­nal two games against SMU and Hous­ton, the un­likely could hap­pen and it ends up back in the AAC ti­tle game like ev­ery­one hoped be­fore the year be­gan.

Or per­haps this sea­son just ends with an­other bowl game.

Maybe in the fu­ture, that won’t mean much. But it still does now.

"We want that to be the min­i­mum stan­dard," Norvell said.

"When you come to be part of the Mem­phis Tiger foot­ball team ... you’re go­ing to be part of a pro­gram that’s pro­gress­ing."

MARK WE­BER, THE COM­MER­CIAL AP­PEAL

Mem­phis re­ceiver Pop Wil­liams (right) cel­e­brates a touch­down with team­mate Tony Pol­lard (left) against Tulsa on Satur­day.

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