TAMPA, Florida — Unbeaten Memphis is off to its best start in 54 years and eager to find out how it stacks up against one of the nation's top teams.
The Tigers extended their winning streak to 12 games Friday night with a 24-17 victory over South Florida. Now, they have two weeks to prepare for their next challenge — a long-awaited home matchup against No. 3 Mississippi.
"All our focus is on Ole Miss now, and we're just going to make the best of our opportunity," linebacker Wynton McManis said. "This is a big game for us. We're not going to shy away from it."
Paxton Lynch threw for 305 yards and two touchdowns, helping the Tigers (5-0, 2-0 American Athletic Conference) overcome a slow start against USF (1-3, 0-1).
The junior from Deltona, Florida, who hasn't thrown an interception this season, also scored on a 3-yard run that snapped a 10-10 tie in the third quarter. The Tigers are off to their best start since 1961, when they began 6-0, and tied No. 4 TCU for the nation's second-longest Football Bowl Subdivision winning streak behind top-ranked Ohio State's 17.
It's been quite a turnaround for a program that went 5-31 in three seasons before coach Justin Fuente took over in 2012.
"It's definitely crazy to think about how far we've come," Lynch said. "But whenever you believe what your coach is saying, what he's preaching to you, anything's possible."
South Florida led 10-0 early, but sputtered offensively after putting together a 12-play, 95-yard touchdown to begin the game. Quinton Flowers threw a 23-yard TD pass to Elkanah Dillon to trim USF's deficit to seven points with 1:49 remaining, but his last pass was intercepted by Reggis Ball to end the prospect of a comeback.
Lynch topped 300 yards passing for the fourth straight game and eighth time in his career. He threw a 20-yard TD pass to Sam Craft in the second quarter, then watched 215-pound running back Doroland Dorceus rumble up the right sideline before cutting back to the middle to turn a screen pass into a 55-yard scoring play that put Memphis up 24-10 in the fourth quarter.
Lynch finished 20 of 33 with no interceptions. Flowers was 17 of 26 for 198 yards for USF, which also got 108 yards rushing from Marlon Mack, last year's AAC rookie of the year.
Memphis entered the game averaging 570.2 yards of total offense and nearly 54 points, with Lynch establishing career passing highs the previous three weeks with 354 yards against Kansas, 386 against Bowling Green and 412 — four shy of matching the school single-game record — in a 53-46 victory over Cincinnati in the Tigers' conference opener.
Darius Tice's TD run finished USF's long drive to start the game, and the Bulls went up 10-0 when their second possession produced Emili Nadelman's 31-yard field goal.
Meanwhile, the USF defense redeemed itself after a sloppy performance against Maryland two weeks ago. Memphis began its comeback on Lynch's TD throw to Craft, however the Tigers never really established a rhythm on offense until the quarterback directed a pair of long scoring drives to put his team in control in the second half.
"I feel like our guys got better," said USF coach Willie Taggert, whose team was coming off a bye week that allowed the Bulls to work on fundamentals. "We just didn't do the things we needed to do to finish the job."
Jake Elliott's 49-yard field goal made it 10-10 early in the third period. Lynch's TD on a quarterback draw capped a 13-play, 92-yard drive that he extended with third-down completions of 11 yards to Roderick Procter and 18 yards to Phil Mayhue. Dorceus broke two tackles on his catch-and-run that put Memphis up 24-10.
The Tigers finished with season lows in total yardage (425) and points.
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for South Florida's defense and the way they played," Fuente said. "The players they have, the scheme they have, is very sound and they're very good at it. I knew it was going to be difficult to make plays because they are so good."