Monday, September 28, 2009

Tiger Football: All Too Familiar

Loss to Marshall "disappoints" West

Posted By on Mon, Sep 28, 2009 at 9:27 AM

Tommy West is the longest tenured football coach in Conference USA. Which makes it especially ironic that West -- in his ninth season at the Tiger helm -- has never won a C-USA opener. His Tigers, after dropping Saturday’s game to Marshall, 27-16, are 0-1 in league play for the ninth straight year. (The U of M beat Army in 2000, the last time the program could call itself undefeated in C-USA play.) Perhaps worse for West -- and his prospects for coaching another nine years in Memphis -- is the gap that seems to be growing between a second-tier conference and his program.
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The Thundering Herd, by every measure, was a beatable team entering the Liberty Bowl. Picked by league coaches to finish fifth in C-USA’s East Division (two spots below Memphis), Marshall had beaten Southern Illinois and Bowling Green, but had been drubbed, 52-10, by Virginia Tech. They ranked seventh in C-USA in total offense (just above Memphis) and eighth in total defense (just below Memphis). Thanks largely to 203 rushing yards by the aptly named Darius Marshall, the Herd outgained the Tigers, 367 yards to 351. Dead-ball penalties, a miserable punt-coverage team, and some timid play-calling doomed the Tigers in front of an announced crowd of 20,063. At least the sun was shining for the first time in a fortnight.

“We are not a good enough offensive team to win football games now,” said West after the game. “Pour on top of that poor special teams, and you have a disaster.”

Marshall averaged a staggering 25.5 yards on four punt returns, one of which was returned 52 yards late in the third quarter to set up the visitors’ game-clinching touchdown. “We outkicked our coverage on a couple of those,” West admitted.

Down 11 points with just over eight minutes to play and the ball on the Herd eight-yard-line, the U of M faced fourth down with a yard to go. The Tigers tried to draw the defense offsides, but wound up burning the second of three timeouts before Matt Reagan kicked a 25-yard field goal. The ensuing kickoff went out of bounds and Marshall chewed up a short field to eat up all but 1:56 of the game’s balance.

“Offensively ... this is my responsibility,” said West. “Two motion penalties ... that lack of discipline is on me.” And the conservative play-calling near the game’s end? “I just don’t trust our power game,” said West. “Your offensive line has to take the load on their shoulders.” The coach acknowledged that star tailback Curtis Steele was missed (and that Steele is expected back next week against UCF). Backup T. J. Pitts was also sidelined in the fourth quarter, contributing to the decision to take a sure three points instead of gamble a single play in an effort for seven.

Sophomore quarterback Tyler Bass, starting his first game against Division I-A competition, passed for 232 yards (141 of them to Duke Calhoun) and led the Tigers on the ground with 64 yards. A pair of interceptions, though, were momentum-killers, particularly one in the Marshall end zone late in the first half. “He played against a veteran defense,” said West. “For the most part, I think he read coverage decently. He made a mistake in the red zone that we just can’t make.”

The Tigers will next travel to UCF to face a Knight squad that has lost its first two C-USA games, so the loser will take a stranglehold on the East Division cellar. The Tigers started the 2007 and 2008 seasons 1-3, then rallied to qualify for a bowl game. If they’re to do the same this fall, new difference-makers will have to emerge.

“I’m disappointed with where we are now,” West acknowledged. “We’re talented enough. I have to get our offensive line to rear up.” Too much season lies ahead for West and his staff to expect anything less.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Winning on Empty: The Redbirds Take the Crown

And the Tigers bounce back ... but for how long?

Posted By on Mon, Sep 21, 2009 at 9:09 AM

If you saw one of the Memphis Redbirds’ wins in last week’s Pacific Coast League Championship Series at AutoZone Park, hang on to your ticket stub. It’s a rarity.

Memo to the new management team of the Memphis Redbirds:

You’ve been hand-delivered the most priceless marketing tool in sports: a championship. Don’t miss the singular opportunity to sell the 2009 Pacific Coast League champions as you plan on filling more seats in 2010.

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Over the last nine seasons, only diehard Redbird fans — familiar with AutoZone Park’s lone red seat — could point to an indication that another championship was won by the home team, “way back” in the ballpark’s inaugural season of 2000. (Fans going to the suite or club levels, however, saw permanent reminders that the likes of Kurt Russell, John Elway, and Michael Jordan “also played,” though never for a Memphis team.) The 2009 PCL champs deserve a permanent display for making a piece of history at AutoZone Park, as do the 2000 champs of Stubby Clapp, Lou Lucca, and Albert Pujols. Professional baseball is a business, but the teams play for championships. And championships can help the bottom line.

The Redbirds averaged 4,943 tickets sold for their three playoff games this month at AutoZone Park. Prep football on Friday, the 11th, and rainy conditions for the first two games of the Pacific Coast League Championship Series certainly limited the walk-up traffic. But regardless of the mitigating factors, to sell less than 5,000 tickets for championship baseball in the ballpark voted the best in the minor leagues is pitiful. The few hundred who actually attended — it was less than 1,000 for the two championship-series games — saw crisp, terrific baseball, each game won by the Redbirds by a single run. The players, needless to say, could hear every syllable of their cheerleaders (or hecklers). Consider the challenge the Redbirds new management team — Global Spectrum, out of Philadelphia — has on its hands. If championship baseball isn’t a hook, can battling mascots and dollar-beer-nights be far behind?

Here’s a radical suggestion. The PCL Championship Series could be played in the stadiums of the teams’ parent clubs. In this year’s case, the games would have been played at Busch Stadium in St. Louis and Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. If the big-league clubs happen to be home, the PCL game could be played during the afternoon as part of a split doubleheader. This would be a considerable reward for players aspiring to make the major leagues (many of whom will not) and would certainly draw more than 5,000 fans to see its team’s top minor-league affiliate play for a championship. Proceeds from the gate and concessions would be split between the parent club and the Triple-A franchise. Ask Global Spectrum how that might boost its bottom line.

Such a move would be counter to any longtime baseball fan’s perception of a postseason rewarding fans as well as players. Had you been at AutoZone Park on September 15th, however, you’d recognize how few longtime baseball fans there are left in Memphis.

• A football coach’s job security can be measured in direct proportion to the performance of his quarterback. After two losses to open the 2009 season, Memphis Tiger coach Tommy West took the keys for his offense from senior Arkelon Hall and turned them over to dual-threat sophomore Tyler Bass. In Saturday night’s game against UT-Martin — the Tigers’ annual beat-down of Football Championship Subdivision (a.k.a. I-AA) competition — West made a point early about what the transition might mean for the Tigers’ season.

In the first quarter against the Skyhawks, Bass carried the ball as many times (5) as did tailbacks T.J. Pitts and Lance Smith combined. On the Tigers’ first touchdown drive of the game, Bass accounted for 74 of 81 yards (51 passing, 23 rushing). In the first half alone, Bass accounted for a Tebow-esque 86 percent of his team’s total offense. Just as telling, Bass re-entered the game after being replaced by Hall in the third quarter, West not comfortable upon UT-Martin closing their deficit to 17 points. Bass quickly added his fourth touchdown pass of the game, finishing the 41-14 rout with 293 yards through the air and 81 more on the ground.

Next Saturday’s tilt with Marshall at the Liberty Bowl will open C-USA play for both teams. (The Thundering Herd beat Bowling Green last weekend and will enter the game 2-1.) Bass will still be playing on a tender knee, but with an offense very much in his hands. Also in the signal-caller’s hands, it would appear, is Tommy West’s future on the Tiger sideline.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Memphis Athletes of the Decade: Number 4 — Danny Wimprine

Posted By on Mon, Sep 14, 2009 at 10:06 AM

Before Danny Wimprine threw his first pass for the Memphis Tigers in 2001, the school record for passing yards was 4,311. Wimprine finished his career with 10,215. Until Wimprine took his first snap, Steve Matthews held the records for completions (341) and touchdown passes (31). Wimprine connected on 808 passes, 81 of them in the end zone. Danny Wimprine is to the U of M passing record charts as Wayne Gretzky is to scoring standards in the National Hockey League.

Wimprine’s only shortcoming? He was merely the Tigers’ second-best player with the initials “D.W.” over his last three seasons.

“I don’t think Danny gets enough credit,” says his former coach, Tommy West. “He’s thrown for double what anyone else had thrown for here. Are you kidding me? I think the reason is that he played with DeAngelo Williams. I hope as the years go by, his numbers stand out more. Danny led us to a bowl victory when DeAngelo didn’t play. Unfortunately, DeAngelo was so great, he took away from Danny.”

As a redshirt freshman in 2001 — West’s first as head coach in Memphis — Wimprine took over from senior Neil Suber and passed for 1,329 yards and 14 touchdowns, with only four interceptions in nine games. But the Tigers struggled mightily, losing four of their last five games after starting the season 4-2. The next year was even worse in terms of the team’s record (3-9), but Wimprine broke the school record for single-season passing yardage (2,820) and touchdown passes (23).

Everything changed in 2003, when Williams took over full-time duty at tailback, and Wimprine became merely a complementary record-breaking quarterback. But even as Williams churned out weekly 100-yard-rushing games — and quite often, 200-yard games — Wimprine managed to exceed 300 yards through the air twice in 2003 and four more times in 2004. Better than numbers, though, were the wins that started coming with Wimprine under center.

After starting the 2003 season 3-3, the Tigers enjoyed their first five-game winning streak in 11 years, topping 35 points in four of the wins and ending a three-game losing streak to Cincinnati in the other. A final record of 8-4 earned the U of M its first bowl berth since 1971, a game the Tigers would be forced to play North Texas without an injured Williams. Wimprine completed 17 of 23 passes for 254 yards and was named the game’s MVP, the Tigers winning 27-17.

Before his senior season of 2004, I interviewed Wimprine for a cover story in Memphis magazine. He knew he’d be remembered most for what he did last as a Tiger. And he was up to the challenge of having to meet a new standard. “I want to be in the position where I can take control of the game, where I can go out and win the game. We now have the weapons here — especially on offense — where we can take control by scoring points. So my biggest challenge ... is to limit my mistakes.”

Wimprine opened his senior campaign by leading Memphis to a victory over Eli Manning and Ole Miss at the Liberty Bowl. If there was a signature game to the season, though, it actually was a Tiger loss: the epic, nationally televised 56-49 defeat at the hands of 14th-ranked Louisville in the Liberty Bowl. Wimprine passed for 361 yards and four touchdowns, a nice supplement to 200 yards rushing by Williams. Alas, the Cardinals scored with 37 seconds left in the game for the win. The ’04 Tigers went on to win eight games, falling to Bowling Green in the GMAC Bowl (despite 324 yards and four more touchdown passes from Wimprine).

Brief stints in the Canadian Football League (with the Calgary Stampeders in 2005) and the Arena Football League (with his hometown New Orleans VooDoo in 2008) were hardly what Wimprine envisioned upon completing his college career. He’ll have to settle for being merely the finest quarterback the University of Memphis has ever seen.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Redbirds Up, Tigers Down

Posted By on Tue, Sep 8, 2009 at 9:16 AM

Perhaps the Memphis Redbirds just need a Democrat in the White House. The St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate clinched its first playoff berth since 2000 late Saturday night, completing a double-header sweep of the Oklahoma City RedHawks. The victory was the Redbirds’ fourth in a row and finished a 20-game stretch during which Memphis won 13 games, including seven on a rigorous 13-game road trip. Need more perspective on the last time AutoZone Park hosted playoff baseball? When Albert Pujols hit the championship-winning home run on September 15, 2000, John Calipari had yet to coach a basketball game at Memphis.
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This division title was unlikely in the extreme. As recently as July 3rd, Memphis was six games under .500 and eight games out of first place. Trades and promotions cost the team its most heralded prospect (third-baseman Brett Wallace), its closer (Jess Todd), and three members of its starting rotation (Mitchell Boggs, Blake Hawksworth, and Clayton Mortensen). But with steady play from the likes of outfielder Allen Craig (.322, 26 home runs, 83 RBIs), shortstop Tyler Greene (.291, 15 homers, 31 stolen bases), and third-baseman David Freese (10 home runs and 37 RBIs in a season shortened to 56 games by injury rehab), the Redbirds went 40-24 since Independence Day. Starters P.J. Walters and Adam Ottavino turned their seasons around and have been consistent winners, while manager Chris Maloney has coordinated a bullpen of fill-ins rather masterfully.

A key to the ’Birds playoff chances may be the left arm of Jaime Garcia. One of the top pitching prospects in the Cardinals’ system, Garcia returned to the mound recently after a year spent recovering from surgery. He gives Memphis a third starter with the ability to eat seven innings and keep his offense in the game. Postseason baseball in the minors is much like the big-league variety: few pennants are won without dominant starting pitching.

The Redbirds will open their best-of-five series with the Albuquerque Isotopes in New Mexico Wednesday. The Redbirds were 6-10 this season against the Dodgers’ top affiliate (2-6 in Albuquerque). Game 3 will be Friday night at AutoZone Park, with Games 4 and 5 to follow over the weekend if necessary.

The Memphis Tiger football coaching staff has one of the most challenging weeks of the season on its hands. Having spent a month preparing to open at home in front of 45,000 against a Top 10 opponent from the mighty SEC, the Tigers now get five days to lick their wounds from a 45-14 drubbing and prepare to face Middle Tennessee in Murfreesboro, a team not even favored to win the Sun Belt Conference. However disappointed the Tiger players may be after the season-opening loss on ESPN, a second-straight defeat to the Blue Raiders (who won in the Liberty Bowl two years ago) would be an ugly commentary on how little growth the team has made. Motivation, rest assured, won’t be a problem for Middle, as the U of M will be one of the biggest foes on its home schedule. Can the Tigers play with the sense of purpose necessary to level the emotional playing field?

A few numbers I’d be concerned with if I were Tommy West:

174 — Rushing yards accumulated by Ole Miss. The Tiger secondary will be exposed on occasion this season (though they played above themselves in limiting the Rebels to 175 passing yards). But the U of M front seven has to hold firm. When a team chooses to run the ball 39 times, it’s telling you your defensive front can be beaten.

7 — Penalties drawn by the Tigers. The drive-killing dead-ball penalties have to end. With a young offensive line, Memphis will likely improve in this area as the season unfolds.

10 — Average yards per reception by the tandem of Duke Calhoun and Carlos Singleton. The Tigers need this figure to be between 15 and 20 yards. A tender ankle hindered Singleton against Ole Miss. So again, this number should see improvement.

1 — Number of teams in Conference USA’s East Division that lost its opening game of the season. Whether or not the games were league contests, it’s no fun looking up at the rest of the division before Labor Day.

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