MEMPHIS, Tenn. — With starting running back Patrick Taylor Jr. sidelined by injury, the responsibility for carrying the rushing load – and much of the offense’s load – fell into the hands, and onto the feet, of Kenneth Gainwell.
It wasn’t too much to ask of the soft-spoken redshirt freshman from Yazoo City, Miss.
Gainwell stepped comfortably into the role and led the University of Memphis to a 55-24 victory over Southern University Saturday at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. Gainwell rushed for a career-high 85 yards and two touchdowns and caught a 21-yard pass for another score against the Jaguars of the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
“Kenneth Gainwell is a young man that prepares extremely hard every single day,” said Tigers coach Mike Norvell. “We ask him to do a lot. I thought he did an exceptional job. He averaged over five yards per carry. He’s developing into a heck of a player for us. I’m proud of him.”
Two of Gainwell’s TDs – the 1-yard run and the 21-yard reception – came during a two-minute span toward the end of the third quarter that put what had been a close game out of reach.
“I knew (Taylor) was out, so it’s just next man up,” Gainwell said. “I just had to go out and do my job.”
In addition to Gainwell’s contributions, quarterback Brady White completed 17-of-21 passes for 337 yards and two touchdowns — in the first three quarters – and receiver Damonte Coxie caught six passes for 112 yards, also in three quarters.
Memphis (2-0) finished with 575 total yards, including 398 passing, and 23 first downs. The Tigers limited Southern to 258 yards.
“We did some good things, but, at the same time, that wasn’t our very best,” White said. “We can continue to get better.”
The Tigers dominated the Jaguars (0-2) in the second half. They outscored them, 28-7, outgained them, 345 yards to 15 yards, and controlled the clock. The UofM led time of possession, 23:23 to 6:37, after the half.
Tiger linebacker Austin Hall said he expected a strong effort from Southern, the preseason favorite to the SWAC West Division.
“People are going to bring their best to us,” Hall said. “We are the Memphis Tigers. They had good players. Their quarterback could run the ball.”
Southern quarterback LaDarius Skelton rushed 15 times for 75 yards.
Ahead by 10 at halftime, the Tigers extended their lead to 17 by going 64 yards in 12 plays and scoring on a 6-yard run by Kylan Watkins.
Before the Tigers could entertain thoughts of a lopsided victory, Southern countered late in the third quarter with a 74-yard fumble return. Jaguar defensive end Jordan Lewis sacked White and picked up the resulting fumble. His TD made it: Memphis 34, Southern 24.
The Tigers responded quickly by moving 65 yards in five plays. The key play during the touchdown drive was a 65-yard pass play from White to Kedarian Jones that gave Memphis a first down at the Jaguars’ 3-yard line. Gainwell got the TD with a 1-yard run for a 41-24 Tigers’ lead. Gainwell added his TD reception less than two minutes later.
Memphis led, 27-17, at the half, despite being outgained in total yardage (243-230), first downs (13-7), plays (45-21) and time of possession (22:35 to 7:35).
Southern scored on the game’s opening possession, requiring only five plays to go 75 yards. Jamar Washington took an option pitch from seven yards out and the Jaguars led, 7-0, with 13:28 to go in the first quarter.
The Tigers answered with a 23-yard Riley Patterson field goal on their first possession. And they grabbed the lead on their second possession as White found Antonio Gibson on a crossing pattern. Gibson sprinted 55 yards for the touchdown and broke several tackles during the final 30 yards to the end zone.
Memphis increased its lead to 17-7 shortly before the end of the opening quarter as Rodrigues Clark blocked a Southern punt at the Jaguars’ 27-yard line and Keith Brown Jr. scooped and scored. The Tigers were limited to three first downs and 24 rushing yards in the quarter.
Southern opened the second quarter with a time-consuming, 17-play, 75-yard drive that culminated in a 4-yard TD pass from Skelton to Jeremias Houston. The 10-minute drive resulted in a score that trimmed the Tigers’ lead to, 17-14.
Memphis got scores on its following two possessions – a 46-yard TD run by Gainwell and a 49-yard field by Patterson – and Southern got a 34-yard field goal by Martell Fontenot sandwiched in between.
The Tigers play next Saturday at South Alabama in a 2:30 p.m. kickoff. ESPNU will carry the game.