Monday, September 29, 2008

FROM MY SEAT: Have the Tigers Got It Turned Around?

Posted By on Mon, Sep 29, 2008 at 4:00 AM

University of Memphis football coach Tommy West was barely in his seat for his postgame comments last Saturday when he burst forth with a summary of how his Tigers beat Arkansas State, 29-17, at the Liberty Bowl. Said West, "[Our defense] came out for the second half, and listen to this: punt, punt, punt, punt, turnover, turnover, punt, out on downs. And that against an offense that's been playing pretty dang good." Led by four sacks from senior defensive tackle Clinton McDonald -- and not incidentally, 203 rushing yards from junior tailback Curtis Steele -- Memphis ended a two-game losing streak to the newly christened Red Wolves with their second straight win. And it could be a corner turned for the 2008 season, as the Tigers pulled away in the fourth quarter of a game that had four lead changes. Three factors -- yet to be played out -- will determine if this was, in fact, a big win, or merely a distracting sign of life for a struggling program.

• The Tigers beat a (seemingly) good team. The days of considering ASU a gimme on the schedule are over. The Red Wolves opened their season by winning at Texas A & M, then scored 83 points (no typo) in their home opener against Texas Southern (and not their basketball team). They lost by a field goal to perennial C-USA contender Southern Miss, then whipped MTSU, 31-14. West described ASU quarterback Corey Leonard as being as "good as we've seen this year." The Red Wolves entered Saturday's game with two running backs already over 350 yards for the season. If Arkansas State proves to be the class of the Sun Belt Conference, the Tigers may look back on September 27th as being a highlight of this campaign.

• Three weeks, three rivals. The Tigers next travel to Birmingham for a Thursday-night tilt with a very beatable UAB team. Then they host ancient rival Louisville on Friday, October 10th, in what would be the biggest home game of the season regardless of what's at stake for either squad. (The Cardinals will enter the game 2-2, having lost last weekend to Connecticut.) Like it or not -- and SEC-centric Mid-South fans may not -- Tiger football can claim four chief rivalries, and three of them are across the field over this single three-week stretch. (Memphis won't face Southern Miss until October 25th.) If the Tigers can run the table against the Red Wolves, Blazers, and Cardinals, they'll not only find themselves with a record of 4-3, but with a renewed sense of the competitive spirit that fuels the college football industry. A loss to Marshall fades in the memory bank when that bronzed rack of ribs is lifted after a victory over UAB. And you think knocking off a Louisville team now living the sheltered BCS life of a Big East program won't ease the sting of that Rice debacle?

• Defending their Liberty. There's a word (actually, a few) for college football teams that can't win at home: pushover. In winning their second straight home game, the Tigers have established some backbone in front of their loyal fans. Attendance last weekend was 26,376, so you can count on at least 10,000 more seats being filled for the prime-time affair with Louisville. Three of the Tigers' last four games this season will be at the Liberty Bowl, so another late-season drive for bowl eligibility isn't out of the question.

Of course, these factors become moot -- and fast - if Memphis can't build on its first decent win of 2008. And West recognizes the twin rails along which his train is riding. "We won this game defensively," he emphasized late Saturday afternoon. "We won with our running game. Because we weren't very good throwing it. We also made it hard on their quarterback today, and he's an outstanding player. When we needed to make plays today, we made plays. I'm excited about the improvement we've made."

Not to be ignored from last Saturday's coming-out party were the three field goals converted by reserve walk-on kicker Vinny Zaccario. With Matt Reagan nursing a hip-flexor injury, West turned to a kid his players know about as well as Tiger fans. "I introduced him to our team [after the game]," chuckled West. "I said, 'There's the guy who kicked the field goals.' " It wouldn't be the first time a hidden jewel has turned a season around.

Monday, September 22, 2008

FROM MY SEAT: An Open Letter, Soliciting Some Political Football from McCain and Obama

Posted By on Mon, Sep 22, 2008 at 4:00 AM

An open letter to Senators John McCain and Barack Obama:

Dear Mr. President-to-be (and his graceful Runner-Up-to-be),

Before you save the country, why not save a football program?

On behalf of all Mid-Southerners, welcome to our neck of the woods. We know you'll each be in top form Friday night in Oxford, when Ole Miss students see the biggest on-campus showdown since the Manning boys' daddy was slinging the pigskin. Which brings me to my reason for writing.

What better way to wind down after your opening debate than to spend a Saturday afternoon doing what every decent and God-fearing American does on such a fall day: watch some football. And what better place for the next leader of the free world to enjoy some blocking and tackling than in an arena called Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium? With kickoff between our Memphis Tigers and the Arkansas State Red Wolves scheduled for 1 pm, you can be in a swing state by nightfall, knowing you've done wonders for rescuing a crippled program that seems as bruised these days as our nation's economy. Tiger football, my presidential aspirants, is a cause worth fighting for.

Hailing from Arizona and Illinois -- where the state universities are far more renowned for basketball than football -- I know you'll empathize with a cause that, one year after the next, falls under the considerable shadow of a roundball program that makes national waves every time John Calipari appears on The Best Damn Sports Show Period. (Okay, so the Illini reached the Rose Bowl last season. They've done so twice in 40 years and lost by a combined score of 94-26.) Tiger football, you see, embodies all that each of you have campaigned for: the underdog, the fighter, the team given no chance, a group of young men audacious enough to hope for victory against the odds, and a program left in the conference equivalent of a POW camp (but with a name I know you both applaud: Conference USA). How does this team stand up against the overwhelming strength of SEC programs east, west, north, and south? Do your business in Oxford (as the Tigers attempted in their season opener), then take the short drive north to find out.

You see, with no SEC team on the home schedule, this is the Tigers' one chance to fill the cavernous Liberty Bowl (capacity: 65,000). A team wearing blue (for you, Senator Obama) and a team wearing red (for you, Senator McCain). Rest assured, Mr. McCain, we won't tell anyone if you sit on the side supporting a team from Arkansas.

Oh, you'll each get your chance to earn some votes on November 4th. Instead of the Mighty Sound of the South taking the field at halftime, you'll each get ten minutes to share with your audience the most critical components of your campaign. Coin flip (if we can find one) to see who speaks first. Bonus points to the candidate who draws the best parallel between fixing a country and fixing a college football team looking for its first decent win of the season.

Please make sure you bring your running mates with you to the game. Based on their roots, Joe Biden and Sarah Palin are probably the only two adults who will be thoroughly impressed by the Memphis-ASU showdown. I don't care how many lower-division championships the University of Delaware has won, the Tigers would beat the snot out of any team that calls itself the Blue Hens. As for Ms. Palin's perspective, the average attendance at the Liberty Bowl last season (29,670) is almost five times the population of Wasilla, Alaska. She'll think she's landed in the Big House in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And the Tiger has yet to be born that needs any lipstick.

The economy's in the toilet. Wars on more fronts than we can count. Coasts ravaged by hurricanes. Any presidential problem-solver, though, needs a bit of training. I present to you, Number 44: University of Memphis football.

See you at the game!

Monday, September 15, 2008

FROM MY SEAT: Three Up, Three Down for Sad Tigers

Posted By on Mon, Sep 15, 2008 at 4:00 AM

If character is doing the right thing when nobody's watching, pride must be playing college football with very little to gain. Having seen their high hopes of a first Conference USA championship go up in smoke in a 17-16 defeat at Marshall last weekend, the Memphis Tigers are now staring at nine games and a steep climb to respectability. With two conference losses already and the program's first 0-3 start in a decade, silver linings are hard to come by. But we'll give it a shot.

For the first time this season, Memphis held its opponent under 40 points. But considering the Thundering Herd still amassed more than 400 yards of total offense, this was more a reflection of Marshall's offensive ineptitude than it was any solidifying of the Tiger D. On the offensive side of the ball, the U of M passing attack is proving to be as dangerous as advertised. Quarterback Arkelon Hall threw for 364 yards a week after compiling 373 against Rice. Junior Carlos Singleton was on the receiving end of 11 passes, good for 158 yards. But despite all the aerial movement, Memphis reached the end zone but once (on a four-yard pass from backup quarterback Will Hudgens to Earnest Williams).

More silver linings? The Tigers held the ball slightly longer than did Marshall. They committed fewer penalties and had ten more first downs (26 to 16) than did their opponent. All of which makes coach Tommy West's job that much more difficult in identifying how quickly the 2008 season turned sour, and how he and his staff might find some sweetener for the two-plus months of season that remains.

Next up Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl is the Tigers' annual schedule-filler against Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) competition. Instead of Chattanooga or Tennessee Tech, Nicholls State comes to town in what will be the Colonels' season opener, their first two games having been postponed by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. The closest thing to a cream puff Memphis will see this fall, Nicholls State may be salve to a wounded collective psyche on the Tiger side of the field. If ever West has needed a week to experiment with his depth chart and make some in-game alterations, this will be the one. But the home crowd -- will there be as many as 30,000 to see if the Tigers can scratch the win column? -- had better not count any chickens with these Colonels in town. A year ago, this FCS team beat the Rice Owls.

Wins are accumulated one at a time, of course. Schedule-gazing and dreaming of brighter lights are afterthoughts for the 2008 Tigers. Now, it's simply a matter of pride.

• Considering how high Memphis Tiger basketball has risen in the nation's Q ratings, the upcoming home schedule has to be considered a disappointment. After a 2007-08 season that welcomed the likes of Arizona, Georgetown, Tennessee, and Gonzaga to FedExForum, the upcoming season's nonconference home highlights will be Massachusetts (November 17th), Syracuse (December 20th), and Cincinnati (December 29th). While the Tigers will face the Vols and Zags again on the road, Lamar is the only nonconference opponent visiting FEF after New Year's Day. And while UMass will carry sentimental value -- as Calipari's former stomping grounds, now under the guidance of longtime Memphis assistant Derek Kellogg -- the Tigers will be considerable favorites, just as they will against the Orange and Bearcats. You'll likely witness the most dramatic moments of the upcoming season in your living room.

• Last week, Ryan Ludwick became the second St. Louis Cardinal to drive in 100 runs a year after playing for the Memphis Redbirds. (The first was none other than Albert Pujols.) The 30-year-old outfielder remains among the best baseball stories of 2008. Entering the 2007 season, Ludwick had played in 104 big-league games (with a total of 44 RBIs) and 520 minor-league contests over his eight-year professional career. He lit up Pacific Coast League pitching last year, hitting .340 with 36 RBIs in only 29 games for Memphis. Promoted to St. Louis in May '07, Ludwick hit 14 homers and drove in 52 runs as a reserve for the Cardinals. After making his first All-Star appearance this past July, Ludwick will receive a few MVP votes at season's end. No player on the planet will have earned them more.

Monday, September 8, 2008

FROM MY SEAT: Weekly Top 40, U of M-Style

Posted By on Mon, Sep 8, 2008 at 4:00 AM

The University of Memphis has been playing football since 1912, and the program has had its share of struggles, suiting up plenty of teams that were, if not down right sorry, quite forgettable. But not since 1924 had the Tigers given up more than 40 points in each of their first two games. (Hendrix College and Arkansas College outscored Zach Curlin's boys by a combined score of 100-0 a few weeks before President Calvin Coolidge was re-elected.) Then came the start of the 2008 season: Ole Miss 41, Memphis 24 and Rice 42, Memphis 35.

While the opening loss at Oxford may have been disappointing to head coach Tommy West, his team, and the growing legion of Tiger fans who've come to embrace this era of Memphis football, the late-game collapse against Rice Saturday at the Liberty Bowl carried the kind of heartbreak that can shape a season. Having emphasized the character of his recruits for eight years now, West will see if the current team is staggered by the loss to an Owl squad it should have beaten, or inspired by what could have been.

The manner by which an apparent win was given away -- Rice scored three touchdowns in the last seven minutes, including a game-winning 69-yard interception return -- was eerily similar to gut-wrenching home losses to Cincinnati in 2002 (a season finale that cost Memphis a winning season and bowl game) and to Arkansas State in 2006 (a crusher followed by five consecutive losses). Behind the arm of rookie quarterback Arkelon Hall -- his 373 yards passing against Rice is the fourth highest single-game total in Memphis history -- the Tigers took a 35-20 lead over a Rice team that had lit up SMU with 56 points in their opener a week earlier. Alas, it's the pass intercepted by Chris Jammer and returned for Rice's final touchdown that will stand out from Hall's first performance at the Liberty Bowl.

This was a bigger game, in some respects, than the more ballyhooed opener at Ole Miss. With an expressed goal of contending for the Conference USA championship, the Tigers need to beat the likes of Rice (picked by league coaches to finish fourth in C-USA's West Division). Hall matched Rice's all-conference quarterback Chase Clement pass for pass (Clement wound up with 318 yards but two picks of his own), and the Tigers held all-conference wideout Jarett Dillard to a fairly pedestrian eight receptions for 66 yards. But clamping down on Dillard merely opened gaps in the Tiger defense for Owl tight end James Casey, whose 11 catches were good for an astonishing 208 yards (which don't even include the game-tying two-point conversion with under two minutes to play).

Two of the three most important stat lines in football are first downs and penalties. The team that wins these categories typically wins a game. Rice had 24 first downs to the Tigers' 22 and the Owls were penalized but three times for 20 yards, while Memphis had six infractions that cost them 48 yards. (In the third critical area -- turnovers -- each team had two.) A week earlier, Memphis had twice the penalties (eight) of their opponent, and a pair of turnovers (to none for Ole Miss) offset the first-down advantage Memphis held (28 to 19). It's a cliche, of course, but the honest truth: when Memphis protects the football and avoids penalties, the Tigers will start winning games.

Next up for the Tigers is a trip to Huntington, West Virginia, for a tilt with Marshall. The Thundering Herd was manhandled by Wisconsin last weekend, but pounded Illinois State in its opener. The game is now a must-win for the U of M, as the 2008 schedule gets tougher with every 50 points scored by Louisville and every major upset pulled off by East Carolina. (Can the Pirates be the 2008 BCS-busters we saw in Boise State two years ago and Hawaii in 2007?) For a winning season, the Tigers are going to have to find a three-game winning streak (minimum) on that schedule. With Marshall followed by Nicholls State and Arkansas State at home, then a road game against a beatable UAB team, Memphis may well determine how high the bar for this season can be raised before the nationally televised showdown with the Cardinals on October 10th. The first aim next weekend, you can be certain, is to keep the Herd under 40 points.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

FROM MY SEAT: Redbirds Recap

Posted By on Tue, Sep 2, 2008 at 4:00 AM

There are two ways to measure the success of a Triple-A baseball team's season. The first is rather obvious. Look at the record of the 2008 Memphis Redbirds -- who concluded their 11th season on Labor Day -- and you see a final mark of 75-67, the franchise's best record in eight years. Alas, the team again missed the postseason. Among Pacific Coast League squads, only three -- Colorado Springs, Fresno, and Omaha -- have longer playoff droughts than the now-eight-year drought suffered by Memphis.

But if you're able to look beyond the record and second-place finish in their division, you might find the '08 Redbirds a success in the area of player development in ways many of their predecessors -- including the 2000 PCL champs -- were not. It doesn't necessarily help the local brass, as winning baseball teams sell tickets, and the Redbirds fell to fourth in the PCL in attendance this year. But considering the team takes the field with the success of its parent franchise in St. Louis foremost among priorities, Cardinal fans -- here in Memphis and elsewhere -- may be looking back fondly on the summer of 2008.

But the story of this Redbirds revival really began with the 2007 edition.

You have to go back 49 years in Cardinal history to find a team that turned over its entire outfield from the previous season. (And who will ever forget the 1959 trio of Bill White in left, Gino Cimoli in center, and Joe Cunningham in right.) And the 2008 St. Louis outfield is made up entirely of players who earned the second bird on their jerseys with their play at AutoZone Park. Rightfielder Ryan Ludwick was clinging to his pro career before hitting .340 over 29 games with Memphis at the dawn of the 2007 season. Rick Ankiel established himself as a legitimate, everyday centerfielder -- and slugger -- by hitting 32 homers and driving in 89 runs in but 102 games for the '07 Redbirds. Leftfielder Skip Schumaker paid his dues in Memphis, batting .306 in both 2006 and 2007 before taking a permanent spot on Tony LaRussa's roster this season. (With multiple walk-off, game-winning hits, Schumaker has established himself as one of the best clutch hitters on the Cardinal team.)

Looking at this year's club, you need a deep breath before reciting the names of players to impact the Cardinals' extended stay in a pennant race they weren't supposed to join: Joe Mather, Chris Perez, Mitchell Boggs, Jaime Garcia, Kelvin Jimenez, Nick Stavinoha. Perez, in particular, has been a godsend since the demise of longtime Cardinal closer Jason Isringhausen. Armed with a slider that would make Bob Gibson proud, Perez has saved six games in 31 appearances for St. Louis, and looked like a legitimate 2009 Rookie of the Year candidate on August 27th when he struck out Milwaukee's Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder to clinch the Cardinals' biggest win of the season to date (one that salvaged any lingering playoff hopes the team had before a weekend sweep at Houston).

With the emergence of Ludwick and Schumaker (not to mention Ankiel) in the Cardinal outfield, this year's Redbird prospects may become next winter's trade bait, as St. Louis is lacking a productive bat in the middle infield and, like every team not named Angels or Cubs, will be in the market for more starting pitching. Mather, Stavinoha, and David Freese - this year's third-baseman in Memphis -- will be among names Cardinal general manager John Mozeliak hears when his counterparts start calling. Freese, in particular, is a great story. Having never played above Class A in San Diego's system before this season, he was considered less a prospect than merely a ticket for a Jim Edmonds homecoming in Southern California. One Triple-A campaign later, he has 26 home runs and 91 RBIs on his resume. Only 25, Freese could end up succeeding Troy Glaus at the hot corner for St. Louis.

Here's one more name to remember as you consider yesterday's Redbirds and tomorrow's Cardinals: Jason Motte. The flame-throwing relief pitcher -- a converted catcher -- struck out 110 batters for Memphis in only 67 innings. He'll likely join Perez in a much younger, presumably more effective bullpen at Busch Stadium next year.

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