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Becht launches into Liberty Bowl record books despite failed comeback

Jacob Rice
Redshirt freshman quarterback Rocco Becht looks back at the University of Memphis football team celebrating their 26-36 win over Iowa State in the Iowa State vs. Memphis 2023 AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium, Dec. 29. 2023.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A record-setting performance by redshirt freshman quarterback Rocco Becht was not enough to overcome Iowa State’s silent night in the run game, resulting in a 36-26 loss in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl against Memphis.

After the first two drives for Iowa State, it became clear that it could not rely on the run game to carry the offense. The Cyclones tried to get true freshman Abu Sama III going in hopes of finding the spark he had in his historic performance against Kansas State, but their wishes never came true.

“[Memphis] came out with some things that we had not seen,” head coach Matt Campbell said. “They had a great plan to start the football game.”

With 30 seconds left in the first quarter, Iowa State failed to get the chains moving, and with the defense allowing multiple big plays to the Tigers, they trailed by 19 points.

From that point on, Campbell and offensive coordinator Nate Scheelhaase let the reigns loose on Becht, and he took over the offense for the rest of the game.

The Cyclones’ first sign of hope came on their first drive of the second quarter. To the tune of four straight connections with his receivers, Becht totaled 66 yards, along with 10 rushing yards, Iowa State got on the board with a 29-yard Jayden Higgins touchdown, which could not have been possible without an aggressive downfield block from Noel.

Becht continued to feed the ball to Higgins throughout the night, and got his junior wide receiver a spot in the record books. Higgins’ 214 receiving yards is the second-most all-time in a Liberty Bowl, and his nine receptions are tied for the second-most all-time as well.

After the initial touchdown drive, the Cyclones drove down the field two more times before the end of the half, but scored field goals on each of those drives.

“What we’ve seen all season from our team is handling adversity really well,” Becht said. “You saw some spots tonight where we were able to handle it, we just weren’t able to finish.”

After a slow start to the game, Iowa State outscored Memphis 13-3 in the second quarter to climb back in as they headed to halftime still trailing by nine.

Becht finished the first half with 223 passing yards and was fitting balls into tight spots and keeping plays alive, whether it was by scrambling outside or waiting for a receiver to get open while he stood waiting in the pocket. His poise in the pocket made up for the lack of success in the run game, as the Cyclones finished with 20 rushing yards in the first half, 16 of which he was responsible for.

“Give credit to the offensive line to the receivers and the offensive line for giving me time back there,” Becht said. “The receivers going to make plays, especially [Higgins] on a couple of those deep balls going down field.”

However, the spark Iowa State finished with in the first did not translate to start the second half.

The Cyclones started the closing half with a pair of three-and-outs on their first two drives, and could not figure out how to build off their successful second quarter.

The run game with Sama continued to not work, as Becht was pressured heavily and did not have enough time to find his receivers the way he did at the end of the first half. But much like their third drive of the first half, the Cyclone offense came alive on their third drive in the second half with an improbable touchdown drive.

After being forced into a 3rd and 26 following a 14-yard sack on Becht, three straight clutch completions to Carson Hansen for 35 yards, a 40-yard jump ball for Higgins, capped off by a 15-yard touchdown to Easton Dean got the Cyclones on the board in the second half.

With the Cyclones still trailing by 16, they needed to keep this second spark flourishing to have a chance at pulling off their miracle comeback. A missed field goal from Memphis on its next drive gave the ball back to the Cyclones with their chances at pulling off a comeback, although still not probable, became slightly more believable.

Becht once again created his own magic on the following drive, going 4-for-4 through the air including a dramatic 46-yard sideline catch for true freshman Beni Ngoyi, ending in a 23-yard shot into the endzone to Jaylin Noel.

Iowa State’s late efforts however were seemingly all for nothing, as they missed the two-point conversion, and trailied by 10. Memphis went on to chew off over nine minutes of game time, and sealed the fate of the Cyclones despite Becht’s non-stop heroic efforts.

After putting the team on his shoulders with a run game that finished with zero net yards on the ground, Becht cemented himself in the Liberty Bowl record books with his gunslinger performance. He finished the game with the second most passing yards in a Liberty Bowl (446) and joined the party of quarterbacks to throw three passing touchdowns at Liberty Stadium.

“He’s grown every week,” Campbell said. “He was special today. He gave us every opportunity to win the football game. I think you will look back on this season and the foundation he’s laid for himself and our football team moving forward, you got a lot to be excited about and a lot to be proud of.”

Before Becht headed to the locker room, he made sure to thank his teammates and take a moment to take all the emotions in on the field one last time.

Becht was one of the last Cyclones on the field, shaking hands with every one of his teammates that passed him.

“I just wanted to give my help to all the players that came off the field,” Becht said. “They did their part this year, they did their job and put it all out on the line.”

The emergence of Becht behind center, including his career performance on such a big stage, guided what is now a veteran offense that has proven itself, despite a loss to end the season.

“This is going to be a good spark going into the offseason,” Higgins said. “We have the same goal going into every year no matter what.”

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Jacob Rice, Visual Editor
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