HOUSTON - Houston head coach Major Applewhite faced a big decision late in the game against No. 25 Memphis. Go for it on 4th down or punt and give a red-hot offense a chance to take the lead.
He decided to punt and the Tigers made him pay, scoring on the drive to take their first lead of the game and holding on for a 42-38 win at TDECU stadium.
"We didn't get anything on 2nd or 3rd down," Applewhite said. "We didn't run the ball on the previous two downs. I was not excited to give an offense that has been scoring a bunch of points the ball at midfield."
Memphis rallied from a 17-0 first-half deficit by scoring all of its points in the second half. It was the most the Cougars have given up in a single half since they allowed SMU to score 44 in 2012.
The Tigers scored on their first five drives of the second half and scored a touchdown on a 93-yard touchdown return by Tony Pollard his third special team touchdown of the year and fifth of his career. They held the ball for just eight minutes and 31 seconds over that span.
Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to Sean Dykes with 1:28 left and Houston quarterback threw an interception on the Cougars final play to end any chance at a comeback.
"We've just got to learn to finish better," Houston safety Garrett Davis said. "It was surprising in the second half. They adjusted. We've got young guys, which is no excuse, but we've just got to hone in on the details that we are given."
Houston forced two turnovers and sacked Ferguson twice in the first half. The No. 6 passer in the country torched the defense for 279 yards and a touchdown in the second half while running back Patrick Taylor ran for a career-high four touchdowns.
The Cougars combined to rush for 239 yards led by Dillon Birden with 107 yards and a score and Duke Catalon with 65 yards and three touchdowns, a new career high. Postma finished 29-40 passing for 315 yards and a touchdown.
"We had success moving the ball," Postma said. "It just came down to the last few series and that's on us. We're going to come back and work on that this week. It comes down to finishing and securing the ball."
The win pushes the Memphis winning streak to three games and moved them into a tie with Navy atop the American Athletic Conference West standings. Houston sits at 2-2, one game behind the Tigers and Midshipmen.
Sophomore defensive lineman Ed Oliver recovered the first fumble of his career late in the first quarter. He finished the game with six tackles, one sack, and two and a half tackles for loss.
The Cougars picked up the pace on the short field. Postma's 11-yard pass to Steven Dunbar was spotted just short after a review. Birden powered in from 1-yard out on the next play for his fourth rushing touchdown of the season.
Houston continued to ride the wave of momentum on the next drive, tying their longest drive of the season with a 15-play, 94-yard drive capped off by a four-yard rush by Catalon early in the second quarter.
Memphis wide receiver Kedarian Jones Tweeted "Watch this..." at 8:46 p.m. when both teams were in the locker room. The sophomore receiver caught a 28-yard pass and drew a pass interference call as the Tigers scored their first touchdown of the game.
After Pollard's big return, Taylor scored the next two touchdowns for the Tigers, the first on a nine-yard rush and again on a one-yard burst. Houston's Jeremy Winchester came up with a clutch interception in the end zone, but he didn't maintain possession and had the call overturned.
"This team does not have a lot of competitive experience," Applewhite said. "It's never an excuse, but hopefully through the last two weeks, we're learning as a football team and developing some of that. You're seeing some of that youth. That's not an excuse, but it's the reality of it."
Houston is on the road against another ranked team when it heads to Tampa to take on No. 16 USF beginning at 2:45. The Cougars then return home and host East Carolina on Nov. 4.
"You have to take responsibility for your own actions," Applewhite said. "We've all had good times and we've all had bad times, but ultimately, you've got to accept how you've played. There's only one way to respond."