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.
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.
• 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.