• 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.