MEMPHIS, Tenn. – As Marshall's fourth-down pass fell harmlessly to the turf in the final minute Tuesday night, the Memphis Tigers could finally sense some relief following a traumatic 48 hours.
Playing just two days after the violent death of teammate Taylor Bradford, the Tigers converted that emotion into a 24-21 victory over Marshall as Will Hudgens threw for a career-high 346 yards.
Bradford, a defensive lineman, was killed in an on-campus shooting Sunday night. The team voted after the tragedy to play the game in the junior's honor, and he was named an honorary captain for the game.
Then, they held on to add a victory to their recognition of a teammate's life.
"I just looked up in the sky and gave honor to God and Taylor," said linebacker Quinton McCrary, a close friend of Bradford's. "That's all I can do because (Bradford) looked down on us tonight,"
Memphis (2-3, 1-1 Conference USA) recognized Bradford in several ways, from round, black "TB" stickers on the back of players' helmets to a moment of silence before the game. Students, some clad in black and many wearing stickers with Bradford's No. 93, released balloons before the game. At halftime, the Memphis band played "Amazing Grace" as the fans stood in silence.
"Everything we were doing reminded us of him," receiver Maurice Jones said. "We're just so glad to get this win for him."
Hudgens, subbing for injured starter Martin Hankins, completed 30 of 45 passes. His two second-half touchdown passes and a pass for a 2-point conversion to Carlos Singleton erased a Marshall lead in the third quarter.
The Thundering Herd (0-5, 0-1) self-destructed in the second half, fumbling at the Tigers 24 and then botching a 25-yard field goal attempt in the fourth quarter when holder Emmanuel Spann fumbled the snap. They were unable to convert a fourth-and-3 at the Tigers 41 with under a minute left.
"Not getting any points on a couple of trips into the red zone; coming away with no points. That hurt," Marshall coach Mark Snyder said. "We found another way to lose, and that hurt."
Bradford, a junior from Nashville, died after a shooting at a residential complex on the Memphis campus about 9:45 p.m. Sunday. He drove a short distance before his car crashed into a tree. Emergency workers answering the wreck call, discovered Bradford was shot. He died later at a Memphis hospital.
Law enforcement authorities continued to investigate the death Tuesday, and there were no suspects in custody.
"Before we went out, they set up his locker like he was here," McCrary said. "Just to look at the locker and see him not there, I was in tears. The team, we just stuck together, we're his family, and we had to stay strong."
The Tigers showed their unity from the time they left the dressing room. Instead of the normal bouncing, running entrance before the game, Memphis walked methodically out of the tunnel arm-and-arm in rows of five players.
Fans put aside the normal raucous pre-game cheering and fight songs for a moment of silence for Bradford. The teams stood on their respective sidelines for the moment. Bradford, a 5-foot-11, 300-pounder who transferred from Samford, was used primarily on the practice scout team. He had not played in a game this season.
The emotion carried the Tigers to two early drives that resulted in field goals by Matt Reagan.
The Tigers were without Hankins, who still is recovering from a hip injury suffered in a 35-31 loss at Arkansas State last Thursday.
Hudgens completed his first four passes, leading to Reagan's 25-yard field goal. Reagan added a 26-yarder on the Tigers' second possession.
Memphis managed 245 yards in the half, 192 through the air, but could not manage to find the end zone.
Marshall was held to 125 total yards in the half, but took a 7-6 lead with just under 7 minutes left. Quarterback Bernard Morris connected with tight end Cody Slate for a 20-yard score.
But Reagan connected on a 30-yard field goal with 4 seconds left in the half for Memphis' 9-7 lead.
Darius Marshall's 11-yard touchdown run gave Marshall a 14-9 lead. The Tigers answered with Hudgens' first touchdown pass of game — a 19-yarder over the middle to Singleton.
Hudgens' second scoring pass was to Greg Hinds for 4 yards, giving Memphis the lead for good.
But Hudgens wouldn't get caught in a quarterback controversy.
"As far as I'm concerned, I'm the backup quarterback," he said. "That's my job, to come out when Martin can't go, and keep rolling with this team.
"As far as I'm concerned, I am the second-string quarterback."
It was obvious that Bradford was first in their minds, coach Tommy West said, but his players had to work for a victory.
"When bad things happen to you, you have to make something good happen," West said. "Just because we've had some bad luck on the field, and we had a terrible tragedy off the field, doesn't mean, all of a sudden you will win the game, and everything will be good.
"It didn't just happen, they had to make it happen because Marshall wanted to win too."