MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Brady White threw for 233 yards and two touchdowns as No. 17 Memphis beat 18th-ranked Cincinnati 34-24 Friday for the Tigers’ third straight American Athletic Conference West title and the right to host the league championship — and the Bearcats again — next week.
This will be the first time that Memphis (11-1, 7-1, No. 18 CFP) will host a conference title game in program history, making the first 11-win season in Tigers’ history almost an afterthought.
“We do want to celebrate it,” Memphis coach Mike Norvell said a third straight division title. “We do want to celebrate it, but we’re not done.”
And the league championship will be a rematch between these teams after Memphis snapped a nine-game winning streak by the East Division champs. Cincinnati (10-2, 7-1, No. 19 CFP) hadn’t lost since being routed by Ohio State on Sept. 7.
Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell didn’t want to think about playing Memphis at the Liberty Bowl in consecutive weeks knowing that would mean a Bearcats’ loss.
“There’s things you got to be able to do differently, and there’s things you got to be able to change,” Fickell said. “But just like them, we still got to be who we are.”
Joseph Dorceus and Bryce Huff had two sacks apiece, and Memphis finished with five. The Tigers came up with three turnovers, including an interception by Sanchez Blake Jr. with 1:35 left.
Memphis also forced Cincinnati three-and-out after Ahmad Gardner intercepted White with 7:49 left with the Tigers up only 27-24.
The Tigers led only 20-17 when they put together their longest drive, going 83 yards over nine plays capped by a flea flicker. Patrick Taylor took the handoff, handed to Kedarian Jones who flipped the ball to White, and he hit Damonte Coxie for a 46-yard TD with 13:22 left.
Antonio Gibson scored on a 29-yard TD run with 3:16 left for the final margin for Memphis.
Cincinnati started redshirt freshman Ben Bryant for the first time, snapping a 24-game streak of starts for Desmond Ridder whose ailing shoulder limited him to 140 yards passing combined over his past two games. Bryant had nearly that by halftime and finished with 229 for Cincinnati’s fourth-highest passing game this season.
“He did a great job,” Fickell said of Bryant. “No one wants turnovers. Again, we had obviously a few too many of those. He had poise, he had confidence. He didn’t’ seem rattled at any time in the game.”
Bryant threw a 4-yard TD pass to Leonard Taylor helping Cincinnati put together back-to-back TD drives in the second quarter to tie it up at 17 just before halftime. Michael Warren II followed with a 3-yard TD run. Bryant also ran for a 12-yard TD with 10:27 left as Cincinnati pulled within 27-24.
Memphis led 14-3 after Chris Claybrooks took the opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown, and White hit Kedarian Jones for a 9-yard TD pass in the first quarter.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats came in leading the AAC in scoring defense, allowing just 19.9 points a game. They held the nation’s eighth-best scoring offense below its average of 42.2 points a game, and Memphis didn’t match its average of 488.2 yards a game. Even with the offensive boost Bryant provided, it wasn’t enough.
Memphis: The Tigers already came in leading the nation in special teams efficiency and with the most kickoffs returned for TDs in the past four years with 10. Claybrooks became the fifth different player to score at least once on a kickoff return.
Memphis will host Cincinnati on Dec. 7 in a rematch for the American title with a possible spot in the Cotton Bowl also on the line.
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker