Monday, November 19, 2007

FROM MY SEAT: Tommy West's Tigers Make Their Bones vs. UAB

Posted By on Mon, Nov 19, 2007 at 4:00 AM

They had to know it was a lost season when the UCF Knights hung up 42 points — in the first half — on September 22nd. What hope could possibly have remained after blowing a 25-point lead and losing at Arkansas State on September 27th? All would have been forgiven had they conceded a lost season in the aftermath of Taylor Bradford’s murder on September 30th. And what kind of team gives up 491 rushing yards — in a single game, folks — and considers itself worthy of a bowl game?

The 2007 University of Memphis football team never lost its season, didn’t concede a thing, and yes, has now earned consideration for a postseason contest.

Tommy West and his players owe no apologies. College football has made bowl season a buffet of pigskin flavors, from the five BCS contests that determine the year-end top 10 (and tries to provide a definitive national champ) to 27 lesser bowl games that allow schools, sponsors, and ESPN to pad their holiday-season revenue figures and get the new year off to a start that’s dripping in black ink. With their six victories, the Tigers have earned their spot in the selection line and now merely await word from the likes of the Texas Bowl (Houston, December 28th), the GMAC Bowl (Mobile, January 6th), the New Orleans Bowl (December 21st), the Hawaii Bowl (December 23rd), and something called the PapaJohns.com Bowl (Birmingham, December 22nd).

West got a 7-year-old dragon — quite scaly and cumbersome — off his back last weekend when his Tigers beat UAB, 25-9, at the Liberty Bowl. The victory ended a winning streak for the Blazers that began the year West arrived in Memphis as Rip Scherer’s defensive coordinator. (For emphasis,the U of M was 0-4 against UAB with a certain DeAngelo Williams in uniform.)

With UAB 2-8 entering the contest, it was a game Memphis should have won, but West has learned to take nothing for granted in what has become “The Battle for the Bones.”

“They’ve had our number, and we really needed to win this game,” said West after the game. “When you’ve lost to the same team six times [in a row], I’m not going to sit here and act like it doesn’t bother me. I don’t like to lose to anybody, much less lose to the same team six times in a row. It was intense.”

Perhaps most gratifying for the Tigers was the intensity displayed by their running game, which piled up more yardage against the Blazers (265) than it had in their previous three games combined (162). Joe Doss led the way with 168 yards, scoring a game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter after receiving a block from none other than quarterback Martin Hankins. Sophomore backup T.J. Pitts added 71 yards and gave an indication that next season may not be hopeless at the tailback position.

The Memphis passing attack was again in full flight and complemented the running game with 298 yards through the air. Hankins came up two yards shy of his fifth straight 300-yard performance and sophomore wideout Duke Calhoun established a school record with his seventh career 100-yard game.

Nearly as impressive as the statistical stars was the sight of backup quarterback Will Hudgens lifting the game’s signature trophy — a bronze sculpture of a slab of ribs that weighs in at 100 pounds — by himself before being swarmed by teammates yearning for a touch themselves. All part of a season that will be remembered for a team’s resilience.

“Our players and assistant coaches did an unbelievable job at staying focused this season through some hard times,” said West. “They found a way to become a better team. When you get to five [wins], it doesn’t matter who you play next. You just want to get to six.”

Those six wins now have Memphis in a position to head back to the Superdome in New Orleans, a berth in that city’s bowl game all but assured if the Tigers beat 1-10 SMU this Saturday at the Liberty Bowl. And maybe that’s precisely the marriage this Memphis football season needs: a city in rebirth and a football team renewed in both spirit and performance.

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