Memphis stays home to face Iowa State in Liberty Bowl

Most college football teams get to travel for their bowl game. The players and coaches, if they’re lucky, get a week in a warm-weather locale in the first week of winter and get a chance to see some unfamiliar sights before coming home from their holiday excursion.

Memphis’ football team is doing things a bit differently this year. The 20th-ranked Tigers are staying at home for Saturday’s Liberty Bowl with Iowa State. They are one of three teams getting to play home games in the bowl season.

Although the weather figures to be cold by Memphis standards — 35 degrees, 10 mph winds from the north/northeast — the welcome should be warm for coach Mike Norvell’s team.

“This is the first time we get to play in our hometown bowl game and we will get to face a Big 12 opponent in another national showcase game,” he said. “There’s a lot of excitement and progress in the direction we’re taking, and to get this one last time to see this team in the Liberty Bowl, with this group of seniors, is going to be special.”

Some of that excitement might be due to the fact that Norvell appears to be staying for a third season. Tasked with maintaining the momentum Justin Fuente built over his four years before replacing Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech following the 2015 season, Norvell has done at least that much.

The Tigers went 10-2 this year behind an offense that ranked second in FBS with 47.7 points per game and fourth in total yardage per game at 548.2. Most of that is because of senior quarterback Riley Ferguson, who threw for 3,971 yards and 36 touchdowns while completing 63 percent of his passes.

A good chunk of that production came in part from senior wide receiver Anthony Miller, a consensus All-American after grabbing 92 passes for 1,407 yards and 17 touchdowns. Running back Tony Pollard and wideout Phil Mayhue combined for another 64 catches, averaging 14.6 yards between them.

Lest one thinks Memphis is simply a one-dimensional offense, think again. Darrell Henderson ran for 1,154 yards, averaging a whopping 8.9 yards per carry, and backup Patrick Taylor, Jr. added 798 yards and 13 touchdowns.

It will be a formidable challenge for the Cyclones (7-5), but one that shouldn’t faze them. They faced the best of the Big 12’s wide-open, high-scoring attacks with more than a little success. Upset wins at Oklahoma and then-unbeaten TCU had Iowa State in contention for the league title before it faded in November.

Just one of the Cyclones’ last seven opponents managed more than 20 points. The secret was a strong rush defense that gave up only 134.3 yards per game, often forcing foes into predictable passing situations that spotlighted first-team all-conference safety Kamari Cotton-Moya and second-team all-conference cornerback Brian Peavy.

That Iowa State fell from 6-2 when November started shouldn’t detract from the work performed by second-year coach Matt Campbell. It improved by four wins over 2016, earning Campbell some consideration from more tradition-laden programs before he inked a six-year, $22.5 million extension to stay in Ames.

“We’ve got to find the perfect recipe and make sure we put it together to go out the right way,” he said of the bowl game.

One way the Cyclones can do it is to get their offense going. They’ll probably have to score several touchdowns to keep pace with the Tigers, but the good news is Memphis’ defense is as bad as some of the Big 12 defenses. The Tigers permit an average of 33.4 points-per-game, coughing up 62 in losing the AAC title game to unbeaten Central Florida.

Iowa State should have a healthier version of quarterback Kyle Kempt (arm) for the bowl game. Senior wide receiver Allen Lazard caught 61 passes and could be playing for pay by this time next year, and running back David Montgomery (1,094 yards, 11 TDs) figures to be a handful for Memphis.

This will be Iowa State’s first bowl game since 2012, when it also played in the Liberty Bowl, losing to Tulsa in front of a crowd wearing predominantly Cyclones merchandise.

That won’t be the case this time around.

“You have two objectives this time of year,” Campbell said. “No. 1 is to continue the growth of your program, take what you’ve done and what you continue to need to do, find those margins and fill those in. The second piece of it is to take this team and put a stamp on what this season looks like and what they’re about. That’s the challenge.”