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.