There’s nothing ambiguous about a 48-7 loss. This may be small consolation to Tiger coach Larry Porter and his overmatched team tonight, but it may provide clarity to the motivational tools Porter will require as his first season in command of the Memphis program continues to unfold. Judging by another sparse crowd at the Liberty Bowl — 22,231 — the tools may be needed as much for the program’s fan base as for its players.
A Tiger defense that had shown steady improvement over the season’s first four games regressed against a Tulsa offense that entered Saturday’s game ranked fifth in the country with 523 yards per game. After giving up 288 yards last week at UTEP, Memphis surrendered 447 to the Golden Hurricane, a total that would have been considerably higher were it not for the short field Tiger turnovers provided all night.
On the U of M’s first drive of the game, freshman quarterback Ryan Williams was intercepted by Tulsa freshman Marco Nelson at the Tiger 48-yard-line. Six plays and two minutes later, Golden Hurricane quarterback G.J. Kinne ran in from the eight-yard-line for a 7-0 Tulsa lead. (A front-runner for C-USA’s Offensive Player of the Year now that Houston’s quarterback Case Keenum is out for the season with an injury, Kinne passed for 214 yards — well under his average of more than 300 — and two touchdowns before leaving the game with 11 minutes to play, the game decided.)
The Memphis offense showed life early in the second quarter, with Greg Ray and Jerrell Rhodes sharing the rushing load on a 60-yard drive that culminated in a 22-yard touchdown scamper by Rhodes. Down 14-7, the Tiger defense then forced a Tulsa punt after three plays, only to see sophomore Curtis Johnson fumble the kick, giving Tulsa the ball at the Memphis 30-yard-line. Kevin Fitzpatrick hit his first of two field goals four plays later and the rout was on. (Could have been much uglier: Tulsa was only able to convert three second-quarter turnovers into six points.)
“We didn’t give ourselves a chance early,” said Porter after the game. “This game was laced with turnovers. Going into halftime, we were only down two touchdowns, and I thought we had a chance if we came out and played hard, put ourselves in position to put points on the board. Obviously, that didn’t happen. We didn’t execute on offense or defense in the second half.
“I don’t think we’re going backwards. We just have to put a 60-minute game together, where we’re playing together: offensively, defensively, and special teams.”
Williams was forced from the game with 8:06 left to play in the second quarter, having suffered an apparent head injury. (The freshman quarterback remained in uniform — though without his helmet — on the Tiger sideline for the duration of the game.) Sophomore reserve Cannon Smith — having recently been activated after his own concussion — was ineffective, completing only four of eight passes for 18 yards. Also injured tonight was freshman guard Ricky Hart (filling in for the injured Dominik Riley), who left with a right-leg injury just five minutes into the contest.
Rhodes led Memphis with 62 rushing yards (averaging 6.2 per carry) with Ray adding 48. No Tiger receiver caught as many as three passes. On the defensive side, Jamon Hughes led the way with 12 tackles, DeRon Furr adding 10.
“There were some guys who played hard till the bitter end,” said Porter. “We have to find 11 guys on both sides of the ball who will give us that for 60 minutes.”
Now 1-4, the Tigers will prepare for a road trip to Louisville, where they’ll face the Cardinals next Saturday afternoon. Louisville beat Arkansas State tonight, 34-24, and is 2-2 on the season.
“We’ll come back strong,” Porter emphasized, “just as aggressive. We’ll continue to challenge them, and they’ll respond. It’s not just [the players], it’s us coaches. We’re all in this together, and that’s the only way we’re going to get through this.”