So much for the value of a bye week. With two weeks to prepare for tonight’s homecoming tilt with Houston, the Tigers showed some promise — at least in game plan — in the first quarter. Emphasizing the run (14 of their first 17 plays were on the ground), Memphis held the ball for 11:36 of the first quarter, keeping Conference USA’s second-leading offense on the sideline for extended stretches.
So much for the value of ball control, too. The Cougars led, 7-3, after the game’s first 15 minutes. Before the second quarter was halfway finished, the rout was on.
The loss drops Memphis to 1-7 and was the sixth time in eight games the Tigers have given up at least 41 points. Yet this may have been the U of M defense’s weakest performance to date. Houston scored touchdowns on seven consecutive possessions and did not punt the entire game. The Cougar offense accumulated 37 first downs (the previous high against Memphis was 28) and 651 yards (previous high was 574). Quarterback David Piland completed 20 of 23 passes for 292 yards and five touchdowns, doing a Case Keenum impression that would impress the most jaded of injured Heisman Trophy candidates. Michael Hayes rushed for 123 yards to lead Houston and Patrick Edwards scored three touchdowns (two on pass receptions, one on a 74-yard punt return).
“After two weeks, we expected to play better than we did,” said coach Larry Porter after the game. “It’s also become obvious that our biggest battle is amongst ourselves. Defensively, we didn’t stop them enough to give ourselves a chance to get something going offensively. We did some good things the first couple of drives, but then we stalled. Their speed was a big issue, and we didn’t tackle as well as I’d have liked.”
Greg Ray was a light in the darkness for the U of M, rushing for a career-high 176 yards on 23 carries. Starting quarterback Ryan Williams completed only two of seven passes for 27 yards. Cannon Smith wasn’t much better, connecting on two of five tosses and throwing an interception (the Tigers’ only turnover of the game). Smith scored on a keeper for the Tigers’ final points midway through the fourth quarter.
Despite losing Keenum — the reigning C-USA Offensive Player of the Year — in their third game of the season, the Cougars find themselves atop the league’s West Division with a record of 4-1 (tied with SMU). Tonight’s game marked the fifth time this season Houston has topped 40 points. (Their game at 4-0 UCF next Friday will be among the top battles in C-USA this season.) “It was their speed,” acknowledged Porter. “It was like we were stuck in mud. They were running by us, left and right. I knew they had really good team speed.”
With Tennessee (2-6 after losing to South Carolina today) coming to the Liberty Bowl next Saturday, Porter addressed the season-long goal of finding players capable of moving the ball down field. “We’ve got to find some balance, and some ways to move the ball offensively,” he said. When asked about any potential controversy over his quarterback position, Porter was succinct: “It’s more about what we’re doing right now than who’s doing it.”
With their seventh loss of the season, the Tigers are officially eliminated from bowl contention.