Six games into the first year of the Larry Porter era, the Tiger football team is halfway to matching the 2-10 season that led to the dismissal of Porter’s predecessor, Tommy West. Considering the 56-0 loss at Louisville last Saturday, Tiger fans might be grateful for another win this fall, as the second half of the schedule — featuring Southern Miss, Houston, Tennessee, and UCF — is going to be tougher than the first. The good news may be that four of the remaining games will be played at the Liberty Bowl. The bad news may be that the program’s biggest supporters will be eyewitness to a kind of football that makes teeth-grinding a habit.
Here are five things we’ve learned over the first half of what we can only hope is the transition year of transition years for the Memphis program.
• Football fans love celebrating the rare team with no weaknesses. The 2010 Tigers are a rarity, in that the team has no strengths. They are near the bottom of the national rankings in total offense (276 yards per game) and total defense (436). They’ve had trouble running the ball (101 yards per game behind the tandem of Greg Ray and Jerrell Rhodes) and have gained as many as 200 passing yards in only one game. A veteran offensive line — forecast to be the strength of the squad — has given up 18 sacks in six games. The defense has forced a total of six turnovers, but four of them came in a single game (the only win of the season, over Middle Tennessee).
If you’re looking for a blanket diagnosis of the many symptoms that are hurting the Tigers, it’s team speed. Or the woeful lack thereof. Receivers aren’t escaping opposing defensive backs. The Tiger secondary is being outrun, often to the end zone. Memphis has given up 233 and 299 rushing yards in its last two games, gaps being opened by opposing blockers that the Tigers simply can’t close.
• Porter would never say so publicly, but this season is as much a commentary on his predecessor’s final few years as it is on his own debut. Aside from a few true freshmen Porter has (wisely) put on the field, he’s battling with ammunition supplied by Tommy West. Senior linebacker Jamon Hughes and sophomore defensive tackle Dontari Poe (and in some games, defensive end Frank Trotter) have been gladiators. But the rest of the defense has looked overmatched. On the offensive side of the ball, Porter has been quick to say you can only do what your personnel allow. And that says it all.
• In politics, it’s called “managing the message.” Porter has done this well, if you ask me. He’s taken some barbs for locking down his staff and freshmen players from the media, for closing practice, for sometimes saying less than is expected about his roster, game strategy, recruiting, etc.
My guess is that Porter saw much of this coming. And recognized that the less he said in August, the less he’d have to cover in October and November. It’s an assistant coach’s job to be optimistic. Freshmen players had better be optimistic, or why suit up? The 2010 Tigers are a terribly flawed team, one on which every player and coach has only other coaches and players to lean on. Remember Mom’s golden rule? If you don’t have anything positive to say . . . . Larry Porter has managed his message well to this point.
• The team has a quarterback, and that’s an important start. Ten years ago, Tiger coach Rip Scherer red-shirted a freshman named Danny Wimprine. Sacrificing his own son — quarterback Scott — in the name of the program’s future, Scherer saw his team lose its final five games, enough to earn him a pink slip.
If the Tigers are to return to respectability within three years, Porter needs a quarterback learning the hard way. Ryan Williams seems to be that guy. He’s the biggest quarterback Memphis has suited up since Steve Matthews in the early Nineties. I’ve only seen him live for a game-and-a-half, but he’s appeared courageous in the pocket — remember the line support he’s getting — and unafraid to the throw the ball downfield. Williams should read up on Troy Aikman, a quarterback who lost the first 11 games he started as a pro on his way to the Hall of Fame.
• Honeymoon? What honeymoon? There were 27,965 fans in the Liberty Bowl for Porter’s first home game as head coach on September 18th. There were 22,231 on hand two weeks later for the blowout loss to Tulsa. That’s a lot of bare concrete in a stadium that seats more than 60,000. The annual Black-and-Blue Bowl against Southern Miss (this Saturday) tends to draw a crowd, but for a game with the two teams at opposite ends of the C-USA standings? Tennessee should fill the stadium on November 6th, but don’t take any color photos of the crowd, as there will be more orange than blue. And what if Memphis plays its season finale — at home against a good UCF team — with a record of 1-10?
An ugly season is only halfway to completion. Tiger basketball tips off its preseason this Friday with Memphis Madness at FedExForum. By the time the football team wraps up Larry Porter’s first campaign, will anyone in the coach’s hometown care?