Senior Day at the Liberty Bowl is always about goodbyes, but today's pregame ceremony before the Tigers' Battle for the Bones with UAB had an extra dollop of remorse. With last Monday's announcement of coach Tommy West's dismissal, each hug he delivered to his 25 seniors seemed to be a goodbye embrace to the program — and greater football community — he commanded for the last nine years.
Had the script held, West would have walked off Rex Dockery Field as a winner, the third Memphis coach to reach the 50-win plateau. Instead, a visiting senior — UAB quarterback Joe Webb — took over and led his Blazers to a 31-21 win and possession of the world's most famous bronze rack of ribs.
While the U of M held Webb in check as a runner (78 yards on 21 carries), their beleaguered secondary gave up 378 yards and three touchdowns through the air, a career day for Webb as a passer and an unlikely performance for a team that ranks dead last in Conference USA passing offense.
"Defensively, we're fighting our tails off," said West after the game. "We've fixed our run defense, but we're just not good enough in the secondary. We're one-dimensional on defense, and that's not good enough. They're trying as hard as they can, but we let some guys loose.
With a four-yard grab late in the second quarter, Tiger senior Duke Calhoun became the first player in the program's history with 200 career receptions. It was a game to forget, though, for Calhoun and his four-year partner in crime, Carlos Singleton (second only to Calhoun on the Tiger receiving chart). Each player caught a pass within reach of the Blazer end zone, only to fumble and lose possession to UAB. To say the least, those potential 14 points would have swung the game tremendously.
"You can't turn the ball over, particularly in the red zone," added West. "Those turnovers aren't because they're not trying. It's just guys trying to get the ball in the end zone. Maybe they're trying too hard. The bottom line is I haven't fixed it, and that's my fault."
The highlight for the home crowd — and for West himself — came with just 1:48 left in the game, when senior Brett Toney scampered in for a 6-yard touchdown, the first of his career. A longtime holder on special teams, Toney served as a reserve quarterback the last two seasons. "That's why we had him in there. If I don't do anything else good in my life," said West, "I feel like I did something good there. That's what it's about. I don't know if you can like Memphis more than [Toney] does. That was a dream. Twenty years from now, no one will remember who won this game, and nobody will care. But he'll always remember that touchdown. In a year with a lot of bad stuff, that's good stuff."
The Tigers (now 2-8) travel to Houston next week to take on the Cougars and one of the top quarterbacks in the country, Case Keenum.