Thursday, September 27, 2012

C-USA picks: Week 5

Posted By on Thu, Sep 27, 2012 at 8:00 AM

LAST WEEK: 8-0
SEASON: 33-6

UTEP at East Carolina
Houston at Rice
Marshall at Purdue
TCU at SMU
Louisville at Southern Miss
Louisiana-Monroe at Tulane
Tulsa at UAB
Missouri at UCF

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Monday, September 24, 2012

Bye-Week Blessing?

Posted By on Mon, Sep 24, 2012 at 8:19 AM

A bye week can be a blessing or a curse for a football team. The Memphis Tigers and their rookie coach get an entire fortnight to stew over the team’s 0-4 start, the worst for the program in 14 years. On the other hand, the Tigers get two full weeks to lick wounds, review film, and prepare for the start of Conference USA play. (Memphis has lost 11 consecutive C-USA openers. The tilt with Rice on October 6th, of course, will be the school’s final such game, as the Big East awaits in 2013.)

What have we learned about the 2012 Tigers over the season’s first month? Let’s start with some raw numbers.

• Over the first four games of the 2011 season, Memphis was outscored 154-44. Over the first four games this season, the Tigers have been outscored 139-79. So the margin of defeat has been reduced by 50 points, or 12.5 per game.

• Over the first four games last year, the Tigers gave up 2,143 yards and gained 1,091. This season, Memphis has allowed 1,950 yards and gained 1,203. By the most basic measure — yards per play — the Tigers allowed 6.6 per play a year ago compared with 5.8 this year. Only two teams in C-USA have allowed fewer yards per play, but no team in the league has allowed as many plays — 334 — as the U of M. Lengthy drives against the Tiger defense are the norm.

Last season, the Tiger offense gained a measly 4.2 yards per play. (The national average for Football Bowl Subdivision teams was 5.6.) This year, the Tiger offense is averaging 4.9 per play (seventh in C-USA). The Tigers seem to be making strides offensively, however incremental they may be.

• The Tigers have been opportunistic on defense and special teams with nine turnovers forced, second only to SMU’s 10 in C-USA (the Mustangs, it should be noted, have only played three games). Little good this did, though, last Saturday against Duke. Four turnovers gained, none given . . . and a 24-point loss.

Now let’s forget the numbers and absorb what our eyes tell us about this year’s Tiger team.

• It’s a winless team, yes, but one that was tied late in the fourth quarter of the opener against UT-Martin, led Arkansas State after three quarters, and was down only three points midway through the third quarter at Duke. A second-quarter implosion at home against Middle Tennessee allowed the Blue Raiders 20 unanswered points, essentially the margin of victory.

• Jacob Karam is a competent, if not threatening, quarterback. The Texas Tech transfer has completed 59 percent of his passes (fourth in C-USA) and has tossed five touchdown passes against only one interception. He’s only averaged 179 yards per game, though, not the kind of figure posted by a quarterback marching his team toward the end zone.

• Marcus Rucker might be, could be, can be(?) a star. The senior from Whitehaven High School caught 10 passes against Middle Tennessee and came within one more catch of breaking the program’s single-game yardage record (he had 177). The trouble is, over the other three games, Rucker has compiled a total of 71 yards. Karam-to-Rucker needs to be more frequent for the Tiger offense to gain any traction in conference play.

• The most exciting component of the 2012 Tigers has proven to be their special teams play. A blocked punt and a touchdown on a fumbled punt gave Memphis an early lead at Arkansas State. Bobby McCain’s 95-yard kickoff return at Duke is the highlight of the season to this point. By now Fuente, special teams coordinator James Shibest, and any Tiger fan that’s paid attention recognizes that the kicking game can swing a contest one way or the other. (Recall McCain’s two fumbles on kickoff returns in the Middle Tennessee debacle.) With Tom Hornsey’s thundering punts and the coverage units hunting turnovers, the Tigers’ biggest plays this year may continue to be when the offense and defense are watching from the sidelines.

The U of M has a long way to climb for respectability. But there are C-USA games to be won on the schedule. While the Tigers’ scoring differential stands at an ugly -50, Tulane (0-3) has been outscored 108-22. UAB (0-3) has a differential of -67. And fans of the Black-and-Blue game might take a look at the start perennial C-USA titan Southern Miss has endured: 0-3 with a scoring differential of -64.

The Fuente era has stumbled out of the gate, to say the least. As optimists would tell you, though, this merely allows room for improvement. And perfect timing for a bye week.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Duke 38, Tigers 14

Posted By on Sat, Sep 22, 2012 at 8:34 PM

The Memphis Tigers are 0-4 for the first time since 1998. The U of M led Duke 14-7 in the second quarter, and was down only 17-14 midway through the third before allowing the Blue Devils to score three unanswered touchdowns. Coach Justin Fuente has matched Chuck Stobart's futility at the start of his Memphis career (Stobart won his fifth game in 1989).

The game was somehow more lopsided than the final score suggests. The Duke offense ran a total of 83 plays for 500 yards. Memphis snapped the ball 48 times and gained 131 yards. (The Tigers' lowest output over their first three games was 293 yards against Arkansas State.) Duke quarterback Sean Renfree completed 26 of 37 passes for 315 yards and four touchdowns. Conner Vernon caught eight of the passes for 120 yards and a pair of scores.

The Tigers played without their top tailback, Jerrell Rhodes, who stayed home for personal reasons. Reserves Carl Harris and Brandon Hayes combined for only 48 rushing yards. Memphis quarterback Jacob Karam completed 13 of 22 passes for 82 yards. The U of M didn't turn the ball over against Duke, but committed eight penalties that cost the team 89 yards.

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A pair of special-teams plays led to both Memphis touchdowns. Punter Tom Hornsey pinned the Blue Devils on their own 3 yard line with a 52-yard boot to open the second quarter. On the next play, Memphis freshman linebacker Wynton McManis jumped in front of a Renfree pass and returned the interception four yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 Tiger lead. After Duke tied the game (on a four-yard scamper by Brandon Connette), Tiger sophomore Bobby McCain returned the kickoff 95 yards to the Duke 5 yard line. The jaunt was the longest Memphis kickoff return since Kevin Cobb's epic 95-yarder against Tennessee in 1996. A two-yard run by freshman Tevin Jones gave the lead back to the Tigers, 14-7. Memphis wouldn't score another point over the remaining 39 minutes of the game.

The Tigers now have two weeks to prepare for the Rice Owls, who visit the Liberty Bowl on October 6th. Perhaps the last competitive selling point the Memphis coaching staff has is the team's 0-0 record in Conference USA play. The Tigers have not won their C-USA opener since 2000.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

C-USA picks: Week 4

Posted By on Thu, Sep 20, 2012 at 8:53 AM

LAST WEEK: 8-2
SEASON: 25-6

Memphis at Duke
East Carolina at North Carolina
Marshall at Rice
Southern Miss at Western Kentucky
Ole Miss at Tulane
Fresno State at Tulsa
UAB at Ohio State
UTEP at Wisconsin


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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 19, 2012 at 8:00 AM

For every football coach who takes over the rebuilding of a program, there must come a night when he lowers his head to a pillow and wonders, “What the heck have I gotten myself into?” That may well have been last Saturday night (or more likely, early Sunday morning) for Justin Fuente. Playing a beatable Middle Tennessee team, the Tigers turned the ball over four times, committed seven penalties, and saw the Blue Raiders score 20 unanswered points in the second quarter to take control of the contest. When the U of M managed to regain some momentum near the end of the first half — thanks to a Marcus Rucker touchdown — they surrendered it on the first play after halftime when Bobby McCain coughed up the opening kickoff.

Fuente became the first coach to open his Memphis career 0-3 since Chuck Stobart in 1989. (Stobart lost his first four games before beating Vanderbilt during a 2-9 season.) Longtime Tiger loyalists will shudder at the memory of 1986, when Charlie Bailey took over for Rey Dempsey and lost the first seven games of the season. (The Tigers’ only win that season came against . . . wait for it . . . Vanderbilt.) Bailey, of course, was on the sideline in 1987 when Memphis upset Alabama. And Stobart had what amounts to a glory run for this program with three straight 6-5 seasons. Better days will come for Justin Fuente. After Saturday’s loss, he must be wondering when.

• During the fourth quarter of last Saturday’s game, my buddy Leroy Watson asked me a provocative question in the press box: “This team needs size, speed, and depth. If you had to pick just one, which would it be?”

How can you choose between three elements of the game so broad and so necessary for success? It’s a confounding riddle the Tiger coaching staff faces, and one that can’t be answered within the confines of a 12-game season. (I went with speed.) Memphis defenders are routinely outrun once an opponent clears the line of scrimmage. On short yardage plays, the push seems to go against the Tigers. (The Tiger defense has yet to record a quarterback sack.) And with the roster so thin (just over 70 scholarship players, only 14 seniors), the options at one position or another are limited. Fuente’s challenge — as he acknowledged regularly after taking the job — is making the most of the talent he has. It’s a formidable challenge.

• Entering the season, if you divided the Tigers’ schedule into three-game quarters and ranked them (from strongest quarter to weakest), it would have looked like this:

1) UCF/at SMU/at Marshall (3rd quarter, strongest)
2) at Duke/Rice/at East Carolina (2nd quarter)
3) Tulane/at UAB/Southern Miss (4th quarter)
4) UT-Martin/at Arkansas State/Middle Tennessee (1st quarter, weakest)

So the U of M finishes its weakest quarter of the season with nothing to show in the win column. And two of the next three games on the road. Memphis-Duke in basketball would mean national television. On the gridiron, it’s a game between two programs with something to prove. Duke enters with two wins (but over FIU and North Carolina Central) and a thorough whipping at the hands of Stanford. For the Tigers, a win in Durham would be . . . enormous. The last time the Tigers beat a team from a BCS league was the 2004 opener over Ole Miss. To upset the Blue Devils on the road? It would be the equivalent of silencing the Cameron Crazies in March.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Middle Tennessee 48, Tigers 30

Posted By on Sat, Sep 15, 2012 at 10:48 PM

Many football games are won with precise execution. Just as often, though, games are lost with mistakes. Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl, the Memphis Tigers fumbled and bumbled their way to an 18-point loss at the hands of the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, the fourth loss in five games against a program once considered a warm-up before Conference USA play. Like the Arkansas State Red Wolves, Middle Tennessee can now be considered a regional program a step — or maybe a few — ahead of Memphis.

Look at a stat sheet from tonight’s game, and it didn’t have to be that way. The Tigers’ rookie quarterback completed 70 percent of his passes. Marcus Rucker caught 10 of those passes for 177 yards, nine yards shy of a Tiger single-game record set 47 years ago by Bob Sherlag. The Tiger offense gained 399 yards, only 40 shy of their opponent’s total.

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But those mistakes. Count the mistakes.

• With five minutes to play in the first quarter, Memphis quarterback Jacob Karam lofted a pass into the end zone for what should have been a game-tying, five-yard touchdown to tight end Alan Cross. Cross dropped the ball, Karam fumbled on the next play, and Memphis settled for a field goal from Tyler Spurlock.

• After MTSU tied the game at 10 early in the second quarter, the Tigers’ Bobby McCain fumbled the kickoff, giving the Blue Raiders the ball at the Memphis 29. Four plays later, Carlos Lopez kicked a field goal to give the visitors a 13-10 lead they would not relinquish.

• His team trailing by three points midway through the second quarter, Karam lofted a pass downfield into thick Blue Raider coverage, where Middle Tennessee’s Kevin Byard snagged the ball and raced 68 yards for a pick-six. The score put the visitors up 20-10 and the Tigers would never get closer the rest of the game. (The interception was Karam’s first of the season.)

• Momentum seemed to have turned late in the first half when Rucker scored his second touchdown of the game to bring the Tigers within 10 points, 27-17. But McCain fumbled the kickoff to open the second half. Not quite four minutes later, Middle Tennessee’s Benny Cunningham scored from the one for a 34-17 Raider lead.

There were other sloppy errors involving the game officials. Tiger linebacker Anthony Brown was called for roughing the passer on a play that would have forced fourth down for Middle Tennessee. Their drive extended, the Blue Raiders added another touchdown.

Late in the first half, the officials awarded Memphis a defensive timeout . . . as the play clock was nearing zero for the Blue Raiders. Tiger coach Justin Fuente protested, loudly enough to be called for unsportsmanlike conduct, taking Middle Tennessee half the distance to yet another six points. (After the game, Fuente said the officials thought a Memphis player on the field called timeout. The coach shook his head and said nothing more.)

With the loss, Fuente becomes the first coach to start his Memphis career 0-3 since Chuck Stobart in 1989. While he was grateful for “every fan that came out tonight” (announced attendance: 27,113), the rookie coach acknowledged the strength and speed of an opponent that beat his team rather thoroughly.

“Physically, we just got handled,” said Fuente. “On both sides of the ball. There are some very fundamental principles to this game, and one of them is that when you have the ball, you can’t give it to the other team.”

While the passing attack compiled yardage — Karam completed 26 of 37 passes for 325 yards — Memphis couldn’t establish a running threat. “You’d like to be able to run it,” said Fuente, “to help everything else out.” Jerrell Rhodes led the Tigers with 48 yards on the ground, but no Memphis back had a carry longer than nine yards. (The Blue Raiders gained 179 yards on the ground to the Tigers’ total of 74.)

“[Middle Tennessee] can run,” said Fuente. “They are really, really fast. But we were timid, on our heels.”

The Tigers go from Blue Raiders to Blue Devils, as they travel to Duke for their next game on September 22nd. Fuente continues the hunt for his first win as a head coach. And the hunt for what he calls the “gritty determination” necessary to close the gap between his struggling program and respectability. “We want to be an earn-everything-you-get type of team,” he said late Saturday night, three games into what may be a long first season at the Tiger helm.

NOTES
• In addition to Rucker’s big numbers, Keiwone Malone caught 10 passes for the Tigers, totaling 102 yards.
• Fuente described junior kicker Paulo Henriques as being “erratic” on short or midrange field-goal attempts, thus the switch to Spurlock for such kicks.
• The Tigers have now played three games without sacking the opposing quarterback. Sophomore linebacker Tank Jakes had two tackles for loss against the Blue Raiders.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

C-USA picks: Week 3

Posted By on Thu, Sep 13, 2012 at 8:00 AM

LAST WEEK: 8-1
SEASON: 17-4

Middle Tennessee at Memphis
East Carolina at Southern Miss
Houston at UCLA
Ohio at Marshall
Rice at Louisiana Tech
Texas A&M at SMU
Nicholls State at Tulsa
UAB at South Carolina
FIU at UCF
New Mexico State at UTEP


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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 12, 2012 at 8:00 AM

• Perspective Victory
In respect to Tiger coach Justin Fuente’s distaste for the expression, we’ll steer clear of “moral victory.” The opening game of the season could be described as an aesthetic victory (thanks to the crowd and new video board at the Liberty Bowl). And last Saturday’s five-point loss at Arkansas State can be placed in a new category: perspective victory.

When you shave 39 points off the margin of defeat in a single year — while again playing on foreign soil — progress can be measured, even in a defeat. Whereas the 2011 Tigers entered halftime in Jonesboro down 30-3, this year’s bunch led, 21-17. After three quarters last year, it was 47-3, Red Wolves. Last Saturday, 28-27, Tigers.

There are still some ugly numbers. The Memphis defense gave up 619 yards on an astounding 97 plays. Were it not for two big special-teams plays (and that’s progress, too), the score would have been more lopsided. Two games in, the Tigers have not tallied a quarterback sack. But for now, let’s lean on that 39-point improvement. It’s a nice bit of perspective for the young season.

• Punting Prowess
You’ll never see a punter endorsing soft drinks or cereal. But the star of the Tiger team through two weeks is, unquestionably, junior punter Tom Hornsey. Through two games, Hornsey is averaging 45.9 yards on 12 punts. (Entering this season, his career average was 42.3.) Against Arkansas State, Hornsey dropped seven of his eight punts inside the Wolves’ 20 yard line (four of them inside the 10). Ironic twist on the game stats: Among the reasons the A-State offense accumulated so many yards is the distance they had to travel to the Tiger end zone.

To date, Hornsey has accumulated 7,960 yards with his powerful right leg. Barring an injury, he’ll likely break Jeff Fite’s Tiger record (9,939) with his senior season still to play. Or maybe the Tiger offense finds its groove, reducing Hornsey’s time on the field. When your team has to punt, though, it’s nice to have a weapon taking the deep snap.

• Retired (and Invisible) Numbers
Go to a Tiger basketball game and you can gaze up at the retired jerseys of Memphis hardwood legends. Visit FedEx Park and you can see the jerseys of honored Tiger baseball players painted on the rightfield wall. So why is it that if you go to the Liberty Bowl for a Tiger football game, you’d never know DeAngelo Williams played there unless you saw him yourself?

I remain mystified by the absence of a display (of some kind) that salutes the five Tiger football players who have had their jerseys retired. (In addition to Williams, the honorees are Dave Casinelli, Harry Schuh, Charles Greenhill, and Isaac Bruce.) A few cans of paint would seem to do the trick. And there’s plenty of room on the rim of the Liberty Bowl. Contrary to some opinion, the U of M has a football history. It just needs to do a better job of celebrating it.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Arkansas State 33, Tigers 28

Posted By on Sat, Sep 8, 2012 at 9:33 PM

Two days shy of a year after losing by 44 points to Arkansas State in Jonesboro, the Tigers took a lead into the fourth quarter at ASU before falling, 33-28. The Tigers fall to 0-2 on the season, having lost their games by a total of eight points.

Memphis special teams earned 14 points on a pair of touchdowns, one following a blocked punt in the second quarter, the other on the recovery of a fumble on a Tom Hornsey punt in the third.

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The Tigers missed a chance to extend a 28-27 lead six minutes into the fourth quarter when Paulo Henriques hooked a 24-yard field goal attempt left of the uprights. The Red Wolves capitalized with their following drive, culminating in a one-yard touchdown run by David Oku to give ASU the lead for good. Oku finished with 108 yards on 23 carries.

Junior quarterback Jacob Karam threw a pair of touchdown passes in the first half, the first for 18 yards to tight end Alan Cross (giving Memphis a 7-0 lead), the second for 41 yards to Keiwone Malone to give the Tigers a 21-10 lead late in the second quarter. Karam finished the game with 14 completions in 24 attempts for 155 yards, numbers virtually identical to those he had in the season opener against UT-Martin.

A year after allowing the Red Wolves 28 first downs and 611 yards of total offense, the Memphis defense surrendered 33 first downs and 615 yards. Ryan Aplin completed 23 of 43 passes for 308 yards to give the reigning Sun Belt champions their first win of the season. Both Josh Jarboe and J.D. McKissic had 100 yards receiving for the home team. For the second straight game, Memphis did not earn a sack.

The Tigers return to the Liberty Bowl next Saturday night to face Middle Tennessee (31-17 winners over Florida Atlantic today).

Thursday, September 6, 2012

C-USA picks: Week 2

Posted By on Thu, Sep 6, 2012 at 11:27 AM

LAST WEEK: 9-3

Memphis at Arkansas State
East Carolina at South Carolina
Louisiana Tech at Houston
Western Carolina at Marshall
Rice at Kansas
Stephen F. Austin at SMU
Tulane at Tulsa
UCF at Ohio State
UTEP at Ole Miss

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Monday, September 3, 2012

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Mon, Sep 3, 2012 at 8:00 AM

• Aesthetic Victory
Memphis coach Justin Fuente pays no attention to moral victories. He said as much during his postgame comments just after midnight Sunday morning. So let’s call the atmosphere at the Liberty Bowl for the 2012 season opener an aesthetic victory. After three seasons of lopsided losses and dwindling crowds, the University of Memphis hosted an event that felt like top-tier college football. Tiger Lane was buzzing, the new video board transformed the cosmetics of a stadium still too large, and a crowd of nearly 40,000 fans turned out . . . to watch their Tigers. (Hats off to UT-Martin’s traveling contingent, but it didn’t make up a significant portion of the crowd.)

Mother Nature’s dramatic interruption aside, this was college football as it can be in Memphis. It’s a shame so many fans were home before the fourth quarter (though no one can be blamed for seeking permanent shelter from a storm like Saturday’s). Would an extra 20,000 fans have made a difference? For a game decided by three points, who knows? Fact is, two-hour rain delays aren’t going to happen again. Let’s hope crowds of 40,000 are indeed in the seats the next time a tight fourth quarter unfolds at the Liberty Bowl.

• Jacob’s Ladder
Junior quarterback Jacob Karam has some climbing to do. (I’d give him a B- for his first start as a Tiger.) Karam’s play is the largest among several variables that will determine if this year’s team is competitive in Conference USA. He led an impressive scoring drive in the first quarter, completing a beautiful pass to tight end Alan Cross down the right sideline for a 36-yard gain. Better yet, he was cool late in the game, connecting with Keiwone Malone on 4th-and-12 then scrambling twice to extend the drive that tied the game with under a minute to play. And in Fuente’s words, Karam “valued the football,” tossing it to the sideline to avoid a sack, avoiding the temptation to throw deep into coverage.

On the other hand, Karam connected on only 12 of his 28 passes, and averaged 5.6 yards per attempt (13.1 per completion). Many of his 157 passing yards came after a receiver had the ball in hand. The Tigers will need to develop a downfield threat as the season progresses. Otherwise, they’ll see an opponent load seven defenders (if not eight or nine) into the tackle box, making life miserable for running backs Jerrell Rhodes (106 yards Saturday), Jacquise Cook (40), and Artaves Gibson.

• Pressure, pressure . . . pressure?

Ugliest stat from an ugly loss: UT-Martin quarterback Derek Carr dropped back to pass 38 times and was not sacked once. I’m guessing the Skyhawk offensive line won’t be the biggest or toughest Memphis faces this season, so to have the opposing quarterback play an entire game pressure-free may be the most troubling indicator of all entering this Saturday’s Arkansas State game. Whether it’s bull rushes from linemen Corey Jones or Terry Redden, or blitzes from the outside by linebackers Zach Gholson or Charles Harris, the U of M has to establish pocket pressure or the Tigers will likely discover an undermanned secondary dreadfully exposed. (Starting safeties Mitch Huelsing and Cannon Smith combined for a single assisted tackle against the Skyhawks.)

Last year’s opening loss to Mississippi State, by a score of 59-14, was troubling, but it was the 47-3 dismantling at Arkansas State the next week that was the real “uh-oh” moment for the 2011 Tigers. How might that loss motivate the Tiger veterans this weekend? Will the objective be to merely close that gap . . . or grab the first win of Fuente’s coaching career? Coming off a 57-34 drubbing of their own at Oregon, the Red Wolves won’t be lacking for motivation.

Fuente emphasizes that the building of the Tiger program is a “process.” It’s a process that won’t get any easier until that first victory is secured.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

UT-Martin 20, Memphis 17 (full report)

Posted By on Sun, Sep 2, 2012 at 8:55 AM

As far as introductions go, the script seemed firmly in place. A crowd just shy of 40,000 filled most of a dolled-up Liberty Bowl to greet rookie coach Justin Fuente and sound off a new era for a football program desperate for a positive vibe. Before kickoff, players pranced atop a new artificial turf and stole glimpses at the mammoth, $2.5-million video board above the south end zone. The sky was sunny, the breeze steady (if a bit stiff). And the Tigers’ opponent on this opening night was not Ole Miss. Wasn’t even Mississippi State. The UT-Martin Skyhawks were in town.

Tiger tailback Jerrell Rhodes lost the ball on the first Memphis possession, but the sky didn’t fall (not yet). Quarterback Jacob Karam — also making his Memphis debut — led a 97-yard drive, highlighted by a pretty connection with reserve tight end Alan Cross down the right sideline. Rhodes carried the ball the final three yards to give the home team a 7-0 lead with 5:43 left to play in the first quarter.

Calm before the storm: The Sound of the South marches in.
  • Calm before the storm: The Sound of the South marches in.

The Skyhawks tied things on a 9-yard pass from Derek Carr to Quentin Sims midway through the second quarter. But a pair of botched field goals by UTM added to the sense that this would be a Memphis night, however sloppy. Early in the third quarter, Tevin Jones got his hand on a Skyhawk punt, giving Memphis the ball at the UTM 34 yard line and eventually setting up a 33-yard field goal by Paulo Henriques. Tigers back on top, script holding to form.

Then came the rain.

At 7:58 p.m, with 7:51 to play in the third quarter, severe-weather warnings came to fruition, complete with lightning, thunder, and local meteorology giant Dave Brown standing 50 feet tall on that new video board. The stadium emptied, fans huddling for shelter along the Liberty Bowl’s wide, ground level concourse. For two hours and forty minutes. (The press box briefly lost power, making some wonder about the wisdom of sitting in such a venue, ten stories closer to the lightning than most.) Not quite two hours into the delay, public address announcer Chuck Roberts emphasized that the game would be completed, however long it took to resume. (The two teams not sharing the same conference complicated rules for cancellation.)

When play finally resumed (at 10:38 p.m.), the Skyhawks completed a 75-yard drive with a five-yard dash by D.J. McNeil to take a 14-10 lead. The remaining crowd (less than half the 39,076 who originally came) seemed to take pause when the fourth quarter opened with Memphis behind by the same score. (The last time Memphis lost to a team currently in the Football Championship Subdivision was in 1972, to Drake.)

UTM kicker Cody Sandlin missed another field goal attempt (from just 19 yards) with 12:05 to play. But he extended the lead to seven points four minutes later after a pair of penalties by Tiger freshman Reggis Ball — one a horse-collar, the other a facemask — gave the Skyhawks 30 yards of field possession.

The Tigers found themselves facing fourth down and 12 yards to go at their own 27 with 3:30 left on the clock, which is where Fuente made the first bold call of his head coaching career. Karam dropped back to pass and found Keiwone Malone for 18 yards and a first down. The Texas Tech transfer scrambled for big gains to extend the drive and finally connected with senior wideout Marcus Rucker on a cut-back with just under a minute to play. Rucker dodged Skyhawk tacklers the final 20 yards to tie the game at 17.

The Memphis defense held UTM to three downs on the ensuing possession, forcing a punt. Malone fielded the ball cleanly, but lost it as he tumbled backward to the turf upon being hit, UTM recovering. (The play was reviewed but upheld by the game officials.) Sandlin then ripped the script to shreds just before midnight, connecting on a game-winning 43-yard field goal with four seconds to play.

“This was a rough loss,” said Fuente as Saturday turned to Sunday. “I was proud of some aspects of our program. But I was not proud of the penalties we had in the fourth quarter. We’re not going to tolerate that.”

Fuente became the sixth straight Memphis football coach to lose his debut. “I’m not into moral victories,” he said. “I saw our team handle adversity, and I’m not sure we have in the past. It’s a step in the right direction. Kids take their cues from the coaches, and I’ll have a very spirited preparation for next week [at Arkansas State].”

The new coach acknowledged the welcome he received, however damp and gloomy the night may have become. “The fan support was great,” he said. “I wish we could have delivered a better product for them. It’s definitely a process.”

GAME NOTES
• Rhodes gained 106 yards rushing, while Karam added 52 on the ground
• Karam completed 12 of 28 passes for 157 yards and did not throw an interception.
• Tiger punter Tom Hornsey averaged 44.2 yards on four kicks, with one going 63 yards.
• Lonnie Ballentine was the star for the Memphis defense with the first two interceptions of his career.
• Skyhawk quarterback Derek Carr completed 19 of 38 passes for 211 yards and was not sacked.

UT-Martin 20, Memphis 17

Posted By on Sun, Sep 2, 2012 at 12:43 AM

Like his five most recent predecessors as University of Memphis football coach, Justin Fuente lost his debut. Almost six hours after kickoff — thanks to a weather delay that lasted two hours and forty minutes — Skyhawk kicker Cody Sandlin drilled a 43-yard field goal to crush the spirits of a few thousand Memphis fans determined to see the first win of yet another new "era." (A crowd of 39,076 filled most of the Liberty Bowl under pleasant conditions when the game started.)

The winning field goal came after the Tigers' Keiwone Malone fumbled a punt at the Memphis 27 yard line with 17 seconds to play. (The fumble was reviewed by the game officials and upheld.)

A full report on Saturday's game will be posted at Tiger Blue Sunday morning. (Later Sunday morning, that is.)

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