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Memphis, Wake Forest meet in Birmingham Bowl minus stars

December 21, 2018
FILE - In this Dec. 1, 2018, file photo, Memphis running back Darrell Henderson runs for a touchdown against Central Florida during the first half of the American Athletic Conference championship game, in Orlando, Fla. Henderson was named to the 2018 AP All-America NCAA college football team, Monday, Dec. 10, 2018. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — The Memphis Tigers’ formidable ground game took a big hit when All-America running back Darrell Henderson opted to skip the bowl game. Their offensive coordinator has already left for another job, and the defensive boss isn’t far behind.

The Tigers (8-5) are hoping to overcome those potential issues against Wake Forest (6-6) Saturday in the Birmingham Bowl at Legion Field. The Demon Deacons also will be without their biggest offensive star, wide receiver Greg Dortch, with a hand injury.

For Memphis, Patrick Taylor Jr. and Tony Pollard are expected to shoulder much of the running load.

“We’re all excited for Darrell and his future opportunities,” Tigers coach Mike Norvell said. “I know he’s going to be tuned in and watching and cheering. These two guys have prepared. There’s nothing different going into any game. These guys have been key playmakers for us.”

Still, Henderson’s departure dealt a blow to the nation’s No. 2 rushing offense’s apparent advantage over the Atlantic Coast Conference’s 10th-best run defense.

He ranked second nationally with 1,909 yards rushing, while leading the nation with 25 total touchdowns and an 8.9-yard per carry average. Taylor has topped 1,000 rushing yards and Pollard is averaging 7.3 yards on 61 carries.

“It’s not like they had one great back and nobody else,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said. “That’s been a three-headed monster all year for them. And if you still have two of your best three, there’s plenty of stuff they can do.”

Dortch was injured in the regular-season finale against Duke, and Clawson said Friday the standout receiver/return man wouldn’t play.

Wake Forest quarterback Jamie Newman enters the bowl game after starting the final three games following a season-ending leg injury to freshman Sam Hartman.

The Demon Deacons still won on the road over North Carolina State and Duke over the final three weeks to make a bowl game. Clawson called the finish “really remarkable.”

“I think we have a really good culture and we have really good seniors,” he said. “Football is just too important to these guys to fold.”

Here are some things to know about the Birmingham Bowl.

MISSING IN ACTION

In addition to Henderson, the Tigers will also be without offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham, who has already left for the same post at Auburn. Norvell had already been the team’s offensive play-caller. Associate head coach Will Hall has left for Tulane. Defensive coordinator Chris Ball has taken the head coaching job at Northern Arizona but stayed put for the game.

“He wanted to finish what he started,” Norvell said.

BOWL STREAKS

Memphis is playing in its fifth consecutive bowl game, a program first. The Tigers have dropped the last three. This is only the second time Wake Forest has qualified for three consecutive bowls, joining the 2006-08 teams. The Demon Deacons have won two straight in the postseason.

TAYLOR’S TURN

Taylor is an accomplished runner in his own right. He has 1,012 yards and 15 touchdowns this season and ranks fifth in program history with 2,424 rushing yards despite only two career starts in his first three seasons.

“I just tried to go throughout the season with a chip on my shoulder, really,” Taylor said. “Providing me with this opportunity isn’t something that I look at. It’s a team thing and I want the best for my team. I’m going to give it all I’ve got so we can come out with the victory.”

MANY HAPPY RETURNS

The game was set to feature dangerous return men for both teams. Wake Forest’s Dortch was a second-team AP All-American after leading the ACC with 1,750 all-purpose yards. He returned two punts for touchdowns against Towson on Sept. 8 and also returns kicks. For Memphis, John “Pop” Williams is second in the American Athletic Conference in punt return average (11.1 yards).

LAST TIME OUT

Memphis is trying to erase memories of its last game while the Demon Deacons would love a repeat performance. The Tigers blew a 17-point lead in the American Athletic Conference championship game and lost 58-41 to UCF. Wake Forest became bowl eligible with a 59-7 rout of Duke, the Demon Deacons’ most lopsided win since 1945.

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