These are the games where BCS dreams go to die. When Memphis Tiger faithful — football variety — ponder the possibility (however slight) of someday joining a conference with Bowl Championship Series benefits, the nightmare of losing (again) to an SEC program by 45 points inevitably displays how wide the gap remains between the BCS haves and the U of M have-nots.
When Mississippi State’s Chad Bumphis hauled in a 44-yard touchdown pass from Chris Relf less than four minutes into Thursday night’s season opener, the rout was all but on. The 20th-ranked Bulldogs proceeded to roll up 645 yards on merely 69 plays. Tiger fans must hope this will be the ugliest statistic of the season: MSU’s first eight scoring drives took a total of nine minutes and four seconds. (The Tigers actually dominated the time of possession, with 37:20 to the Bulldogs’ 22:40. The next time an analyst tells you to pay close attention to time of possession, find a new analyst.)
Big plays exposed holes in the Memphis defense, with four of MSU’s scores coming on plays of at least 35 yards. Senior tailback Vick Ballard pranced 46 yards for a first-quarter touchdown, then added a 66-yard romp shortly before halftime. (Ballard gained a total of 166 yards on 10 carries for the game.)
“I’m very disappointed, obviously,” said Tiger coach Larry Porter after the game. “I truly thought we’d play better than we did.” The loss was the 11th straight for Memphis against teams from the SEC. The Tigers are now 2-25 against the country’s strongest league since 1997. “Once the ball got into our secondary, it was hard to bring them down,” noted Porter. “They generated speed, and we just couldn’t bring them down. I felt like we had a decent game plan to keep them off balance, but they broke off a couple of big runs, and we couldn’t bring them to the ground.”
Injuries added to the insult of the final score. Starting tailback Jerrell Rhodes gained 28 yards on his first six carries of the season, then went down after a violent hit to his knee from the Bulldogs’ Corey Broomfield just two minutes into the second quarter. (Porter said the injury appears to be a hyperextension.) Starting quarterback Andy Summerlin injured his left ankle and was replaced in the second quarter by freshman Taylor Reed, who completed 23 of 35 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown pass to Marcus Rucker.
Filling in for Rhodes, freshman tailback Artaves Gibson rushed for 89 yards on 17 carries. Porter emphasized that Gibson has earned playing time in the Tigers’ second game, September 10th at Arkansas State.
Porter surprised local media by bringing Reed to the postgame press conference. (Last season, freshmen weren’t allowed to address the media in any format.) When asked about a possible quarterback controversy, Porter was quick to say he and his staff would grade film of this game before deciding who starts against Arkansas State (presuming Summerlin is able). As for Reed, he remained bright-eyed despite the drubbing in his first college game. “I got to see from the sideline just how fast the game was,” he said. “Coming in, I felt we could move the ball, and we did. We just have to finish drives. That’s one of the best teams we’ll play all year.”
A crowd of 33,990 had thinned by the time the game ended, more than three hours after kickoff. Many of those left, alas, were wearing maroon. If there’s a silver lining, perhaps it’s the fact that this is the final SEC game of 2011 for the Memphis Tigers. The next three weeks will see the Tigers travel to Jonesboro, then host Austin Peay and SMU, all games that — not that long ago — would have been considered winnable for the U of M. Giving up 59 points and 645 yards to start a season, there’s only one direction to go. Right, Coach?
“I think what’s missing from this team is confidence,” said Porter. “We just can’t give up defensively what we did. That’s the bottom line.”