• “If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.” I’ve been thinking of this quip lately in watching the Tigers struggle under first-year coach Justin Fuente. Bill Parcells delivered that line, of course, during his days as coach of the New England Patriots. He’d had some differences with Patriots owner Bob Kraft over personnel decisions and summarized the feud with the best kitchen analogy he could summon.
The line is pertinent this fall for Justin Fuente, as he’s cooking primarily with ingredients left behind by his predecessor, Larry Porter. Through Fuente’s first eight games as Tiger coach, exactly 11 players he brought to Memphis have played in blue and gray. Only five of them have started a game: Jacob Karam (QB), Anthony Brown (LB), Antonio Foster (OL), Wynton McManis (LB), and Jai Steib (RB).
This isn’t to serve as an excuse for the rookie coach. The lone win and seven losses are all part of Fuente’s record, not Larry Porter’s. But for a game that requires a minimum of 30 to 40 “ingredients” (read: players) to win consistently, the 2012 Tigers are dreadfully undermanned. A grocery sack half-empty.
• If you didn’t know better, you might think the Tigers play games with a brand of football a little more slick than those other teams use. The U of M has lost more fumbles (14) than any other team in C-USA. And the Tiger defense is tied with SMU and Tulsa for the most fumbles recovered (11) in C-USA. The combined total of lost fumbles through eight games is just shy of the total for last season, when the Tigers lost 10 and recovered 18. For what it’s worth, Marshall has only lost six fumbles this season.
• Saturday’s game at Marshall could get ugly. The Thundering Herd enters the game leading Conference USA in total offense (542.9 yards per game) while the Tigers are dead last (286.5). Marshall’s Rakeem Cato is the top passer in the league, averaging 368.6 yards a game with 23 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. On the ground, tailback Kevin Grooms averages 6.1 yards a carry.
On the other hand, the Herd defense won’t be confused with the 1985 Chicago Bears. Marshall has given up at least 45 points in five games (one of them a victory) and allows an average of 464.5 yards per game. For the Tigers to earn their first win in Huntington (they’re 0-3), they’ll have to eat up clock with their running game and give the Herd offense no extra series with turnovers.
The Tigers scored a field goal for the first points of the second half this afternoon in Dallas. Sadly, they'd be the final points of the game for Memphis. The Mustangs turned a 16-13 lead into a 44-13 blowout, the Tigers' third straight lopsided loss after their only win of the season (against Rice on October 6th).
Quarterback Garrett Gilbert led the Mustang attack, passing for 353 yards and a touchdown. Gilbert also scored a pair of touchdowns running the ball. Tailback Zach Line carried the ball 23 times for 127 yards and a touchdown.
Brandon Hayes scored the only Memphis touchdown on a 36-yard run early in the second quarter. The junior tailback led the Tigers with 55 yards on nine carries. Quarterback Jacob Karam completed 8 of 17 passes for only 85 yards. Overall, SMU outgained Memphis 487 yards to 202. The Mustangs held Memphis to nine first downs. The U of M has failed to score 20 points in each of its last five games (including the win over Rice).
Now 1-7, Memphis travels to Marshall next week to face the Thundering Herd. The Tigers will be home again on November 10th when they host Tulane.
LAST WEEK: 4-2
Memphis at SMU
Navy at East Carolina
UTEP at Houston
UCF at Marshall
Southern Miss at Rice
UAB at Tulane
• Like most sportswriters, I can grow addicted to statistics. Lies, damn lies, and such. But there is one football figure I’ve come to consider as revealing as a concrete wall: time of possession. TV analysts inevitably turn to “TOP” as one of those game-shifting variables, along with turnovers, penalties, and third-down conversions.
In their game at East Carolina on October 13th, the Tigers held the ball for 33:41, fully seven minutes longer than the Pirate offense. ECU, of course, won the game. By 34 points. The Pirates scored often, and they scored quickly. Try this stat: East Carolina averaged 1.5 points per minute of possession (Memphis averaged .2 per minute).
Last Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl, the Tigers again “won” the TOP battle, holding the ball for 31:53. And they lost by 18 points.
The U of M runs the ball. Against UCF, they had 45 rushes and 28 pass attempts. (For the season the respective figures are 276 and 179.) This strategy helps kill the clock, and against superior talent it may well be the smartest approach. But does TOP suggest the winning team? By no means.
• My favorite sequence of plays this season came during the third quarter of the UCF loss. Snapping the ball from their own 27 yard-line, the Tigers faked a punt, with Tom Hornsey striding down the left side of the field for a 21-yard gain and a first down. At the time, Memphis only trailed UCF by four points. The play required risk, deception, and more than a little heart.
On the next play, quarterback Jacob Karam heaved the ball downfield, only to have it picked off inside the UCF 10 by the Knights’ A.J. Bouye (who returned the ball 32 yards). Nonetheless, I liked the call, a proactive strike against a superior team at a point when the game could have been swung to favor the underdogs.
I remain convinced we’re seeing the bottled version of Justin Fuente’s offensive scheme. He’s steering this boat as the winds of talent allow. Let’s hope a few years from now, a fake punt followed by a bomb toward the end zone doesn’t feel all that unusual.
• For the second straight week, the Tigers face a C-USA rival that will be joining Memphis in the Big East next season. And I love SMU being on the U of M football radar. This is a program that gave us Doak Walker, Don Meredith (a hero of my dad’s), and Eric Dickerson. Associated by many with the only “death penalty” ever dealt by the NCAA (for transgressions during the Dickerson years), the Mustangs deserve better historically.
As for Saturday’s game, will the Tigers see the team handled by Texas A & M, 48-3? Or the team that beat Houston last week, 72-42? Last season at the Liberty Bowl, SMU rolled to a 42-0 win. Tailback Zach Line ran for 136 yards in that game, scoring three touchdowns. Line leads C-USA in rushing this year with 717 yards.
Fumbles are damaging to the chances of a good football team. For a struggling team — facing one of its league’s pacesetters — fumbles are positively deadly.
The Tigers fought gamely tonight at the Liberty Bowl and trailed UCF by only four points (14-10) at halftime. But two ugly fumbles turned what might have been the first real upset this program has seen in years into an all-too-standard blowout.
Down 7-0 with less than five minutes to play in the first quarter, the Tigers had the ball inside the UCF five-yard line thanks to a drive led by the rushing of Jai Steib and Brandon Hayes. But instead of Steib and Hayes carrying toward the goal line, freshman tight end Alan Cross — lining up at fullback — was given two straight opportunities. After falling just short on first-and-goal, Cross fumbled on the second attempt, the Knights recovering. Moments later, UCF’s Latavius Murray galloped through the Tiger line for 83 yards and a 14-0 UCF lead.
“We’ve had that package [with Cross carrying] and have practiced it since the start of the season,” said Tiger coach Justin Fuente after the game. “We just haven’t been near the goal line all that much.”
The U of M capitalized on a fumble too, though, as senior cornerback Robert Steeples picked up a Storm Johnson drop and raced untouched for 27 yards and a touchdown to close the UCF lead to four with 5:30 to play before halftime. It was Steeples’s third fumble recovery in four games and the play of the night for a Memphis defense that played with an intensity and urgency for a second straight home game.
UCF scored the only points of the third quarter — a 29-yard touchdown connection from Blake Bortles to J.J. Worton — and the Tigers found themselves driving into Knight territory early in the fourth period. Memphis quarterback Jacob Karam completed a pass to Keiwone Malone for what would have been a Tiger first down, but Malone lost the ball. Knight cornerback A.J. Bouye picked up the ball and raced 79 yards for the game-clinching touchdown. (The two teams traded meaningless touchdowns inside five minutes to play.)
“Our kids played their tales off,” said Memphis coach Justin Fuente following the game, the program’s third straight loss on homecoming weekend. “I think we’re getting better. We played a real good football team tonight, and we had our chances. But we made too many mistakes to win the game.”
Typical of the game’s pattern was a two-play sequence early in the third quarter. On fourth down from their own 27, the Tigers faked a punt, Tom Hornsey running for 21 yards and a first down near midfield. But on the next play, Karam hurled the ball downfield toward Marcus Rucker, only to see it picked off by Bouye. (Look for Bouye when C-USA announces its defensive Player of the Week.)
The Tigers managed to outgain UCF, 361 yards to 351. (The Knights lead C-USA in total defense.) Steib ran for 88 yards on 13 carries before leaving the game with an injury in the fourth quarter. (Fuente was unsure of the severity.) Hayes added 83 yards on 17 carries and was saluted by his coach for his “dedication and work ethic.” Karam completed 20 of 28 passes but for only 121 yards. He scored his first rushing touchdown of the season with 39 seconds to play.
The Tigers fall to 1-6 on the season and will travel for their next two games (at SMU and at Marshall). UCF improves to 5-2 and is one of two teams still undefeated in C-USA play (along with Tulsa).
Progress is hard to measure in an 18-point loss, but the Tigers’ rookie coach is convinced he sees it. “At times, we’re playing really good football,” said Fuente. “Our margin for error is small, and we know that.”
LAST WEEK: 5-1
Houston at SMU
UCF at Memphis
East Carolina at UAB
Marshall at Southern Miss
Rice at Tulsa
Tulane at UTEP
• “I think it’s important to not get too high after the successes while managing the lows as well . . . . The best part and the worst part of this business is you don’t have a lot of time to celebrate and you don’t have a lot of time to feel sorry for yourself.” Two days after the first real blowout loss of his head-coaching career, Justin Fuente provided his latest dose of perspective on the construction project he’s taken on. You can imagine the words spoken in the Tiger locker room as easily as they were delivered at the coach’s weekly press luncheon.
Tiger fans were able to relish the first win under Fuente — over Rice on October 6th — for precisely a week. Then the East Carolina Pirates did what East Carolina Pirates do to the Memphis Tigers. The 41-7 loss was the U of M’s seventh straight in the series with ECU, matching the longest such streak of the program’s time in Conference USA. (UAB won seven in a row from 2000 to 2006 and UCF — this Saturday’s opponent — has won seven straight since 2005.) The Tigers find themselves in the toughest stretch of their season: three of four games on the road, with the only home game against the top team in C-USA’s East Division. And no time to feel sorry for themselves.
• At the midpoint of the 2012 season, the Tigers have been outscored 190-110. At the same point a year ago, the aggregate score was 220-81. Marginal gain. (The Tigers were 1-5 a year ago, just as they are today.) The U of M remains starless on offense, without a player in C-USA’s top 10 for rushing or receiving yardage. (Jacob Karam ranks 10th — in a 12-team league — with 156.7 passing yards per game.) But the Tiger offense has avoided calamity, giving up a moderate number of sacks (14) and only one interception thrown by Karam. (That one pick, of course, was returned for a touchdown by Middle Tennessee.)
Defensively, the Tigers are in the middle of the C-USA pack, allowing 423.3 yards per game. (The average last year was 491.) But it was the defense that won the Rice game (allowing only a field goal) and the Tiger pass rush picked up more sacks last Saturday at ECU (5) than it had the previous five games combined. Let’s keep our eyes on sophomore end Martin Ifedi the rest of the season.
• The good news this weekend is that the Tigers will be playing UCF in C-USA play for the last time. (The Knights own a 7-1 lead in the series and have scored at least 28 points in every meeting.) The bad news . . . UCF will be joining Memphis in the Big East for 2013 and beyond. Coach George O’Leary’s program has played in the C-USA championship game three times, winning twice (2007 and 2010). And they’ve made Bright House Networks Stadium in sunny Orlando a fun place to be on fall Saturdays. (The capacity at BHN: 45,000.) U of M athletic director Tom Bowen would be smart to have his counterpart at UCF (Todd Stansbury) on speed dial. UCF has shown football can be done well at a school surrounded by national powers.
LAST WEEK: 6-2
UTEP at Tulsa
Memphis at East Carolina
UAB at Houston
UTSA at Rice
SMU at Tulane
Southern Miss at UCF
• At halftime of last Saturday’s game against Rice, Tiger coach Justin Fuente must have paced the home team’s locker room wondering what he’d done to deserve this. Despite giving up only a field goal to the Owl offense, Memphis found itself down 10 points (the result of a fumble being returned for a touchdown on the Tiger offense’s opening play). The U of M had not scored a single point against a team that had allowed an average of 43.6 entering the game. Making matters worse, a cold rain (and lightning storm) had emptied the stadium and forced the second weather delay in the new coach’s first three home games.
But fortune finally turned. Thanks to a second-half shutout by the Memphis defense and a pair of short touchdown passes (from two different quarterbacks), the Tigers earned Fuente his first win as a head coach. The beautiful irony, of course, is that the defense was the star of the former offensive coordinator’s first victory. Check out these numbers:
• The Tigers had given up at least 25 first downs in each of their first four games. They allowed Rice 12.
• The Tigers had yielded 5.8 yards per play entering the Rice game. They allowed the Owls 3.8.
• The last time a Memphis team won a game when scoring as few as 14 points? November 13, 1999 (a 14-10 win over Army).
It’s a shame more fans weren’t on hand to celebrate with the players (and marching band) after the win. But Fuente will take it, for now. As he said during his postgame remarks, “[The players] need to enjoy this and represent the university. Then show up tomorrow and get back to work.”
• Hold on to your seat cushion, but the Tigers are tied for first place in Conference USA’s East Division. (Memphis and UCF are both 1-0 in league play.) Only once has the U of M started 2-0 in league play, and they finished 2-3 in C-USA’s inaugural season of 1996. But let’s play some fantasy football and consider an upset this Saturday at East Carolina. Presuming UCF beats Southern Miss in Orlando (the Golden Eagles are 0-5), the Knights would visit the Liberty Bowl on October 20th for what could legitimately be called a C-USA showdown.
• About those Pirates. East Carolina has three lopsided losses on its record (to mighty South Carolina, North Carolina, and UCF). The Pirates have beaten Appalachian State, Southern Miss, and UTEP (now 1-5). So it’s hard to measure the strength this year of what has been a traditional C-USA standard-bearer. ECU is averaging 348.5 yards on offense (compared with the Tigers’ 289.6). Defensively, ECU is allowing 409.8 yards per game (compared with the Tigers’ 434.2).
The series hasn’t been good to the Tigers. ECU has prevailed in the last six meetings, with no win coming by less than two touchdowns. Consider East Carolina’s football program Reason No. 842 the U of M will be happy to bid C-USA farewell.
This Thursday night, the entire country will have the chance to do something far too few Memphians have done: see Christabel Oduro and the U of M women's soccer team in action.
The Tigers host Rice Thursday night (kickoff is 7 p.m. at the Mike Rose Soccer Complex) in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America "Game of the Week." The contest will be televised live on the Fox Soccer Channel. The five-time defending Conference USA champions will enter the game with a record of 9-4 (5-1 in C-USA).
As for Oduro, the junior from Brampton, Ontario, has scored 11 goals this season and has tallied a goal or assist in 10 straight games, a Tiger record. With 30 career goals, Oduro ranks fourth in Memphis history (she's two shy of Ashley Berra for third place). Her 78 career points are also fourth in Tiger history.
The Tigers play their final home game of the season (Senior Day) this Sunday at 1 p.m. against Houston.
“It wasn’t pretty, but we found a way to get it done.” Justin Fuente was strangely subdued shortly after his first victory as a head football coach. And the trouble was, his comments could barely be heard over the joyous screams from the Tiger locker room next door. “These kids have been through a lot the last two years,” said Fuente. “And this year, for that matter. They deserve this. I’m proud of them.”
On a raw, wet night at the Liberty Bowl, in front of a sparse crowd (likely half the announced attendance of 17,831), the Tiger defense played like those longtime fans might recall from the Rip Scherer era of the late Nineties. Three-and-out on the opening Rice series. Seven tackles for loss. Two quarterback sacks (twice the team’s total over its first four games). Best of all, the defense held a Rice offense that had been averaging 30 points a game to merely three. (The Owls scored a touchdown on the recovery of a Tiger fumble just two minutes into the game.) Having allowed 487.5 yards per game entering tonight’s contest, the Memphis defense held Rice to 221. The Owls gained only 12 first downs and were four of 16 in converting third downs.
“The defense kept us in the game,” said Fuente, “so we were able to keep running the ball. We put them in some bad spots, but they came through, every single time.”
Rice led the game at halftime, 10-0. An Owl defense that had given up an average of 43.6 points per game in starting 1-4 confounded the Tigers, who turned the ball over twice in trying to establish that running game.
But after halftime, Memphis took control of field position thanks to a series of strong Tom Hornsey punts, one of which was fumbled by the Owls’ Dennis Parks and recovered by Tiger safety Cannon Smith. Memphis wideout Keiwone Malone made an acrobatic catch of a five-yard Jacob Karam pass in the back of the end zone — keeping one foot barely in bounds — for the Tigers’ first touchdown exactly halfway through the third quarter.
Then with 3:01 to play in the third, reserve quarterback Eric Mathews found tight end Alan Cross wide open on play action, lofting the ball into Cross’s hands for a 14-10 lead and what turned out to be the final points of the game.
A committee of four Tiger running backs combined for 165 yards with freshman Carl Harris leading the way (68). Brandon Hays had a key 29-yard gain on third-and-two midway through the fourth quarter to keep a Memphis drive alive and kill valuable time on the clock.
“It was a big team win,” said Karam after the game (and after leading the band during a postgame celebration). “I’m really happy for the guys. We’ve worked so hard since January. We’re excited to get back to work. This group’s gone through a lot. But we’ve never really gotten down. We didn’t panic.”
Karam completed eight of 12 passes for 70 yards without an interception. “Credit should go to the offensive line,” he said. “They did a great job of opening holes for our running backs. And when we ran the quarterback draw, there were tons of real estate out there.”
The win is the Tigers’ first to open Conference USA play since 2000, and ends an eight-game losing streak dating back to the 2011 season. Among the stars on defense was end Martin Ifedi with two tackles for loss and a key fourth-quarter sack of Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue. Tank Jakes added six solo tackles, including a sack.
Memphis (1-4) travels to East Carolina next Saturday. The Tigers’ next home game will be on October 20th when UCF visits the Liberty Bowl during homecoming weekend.
LAST WEEK: 7-1
East Carolina at UCF
North Texas at Houston
Tulsa at Marshall
Rice at Memphis
SMU at UTEP
Boise State at Southern Miss
Tulane at Louisiana-Lafayette
Southeastern Louisiana at UAB
• The best thing that could happen to the Tiger program — shy of a mass transfer from that program in Tuscaloosa — is the start of Conference USA play. There are eight winless teams remaining in the FBS and four of them reside in good ol’ C-USA: Tulane, UAB, Southern Miss, and you-know-who. The combined record of the eight teams left on the Memphis schedule is 9-26. The only team left on the schedule with a winning record today? Mighty East Carolina at 3-2.
Last week during our radio chat, Dave Woloshin asked me what a good finish to the season for the Tigers might look like. And I told him three wins in C-USA play. The truth is, the number isn’t exactly a stretch when you consider the performances to this point by C-USA teams. It’s hard to envision Memphis winning on the road against East Carolina or Marshall. And UCF (now 2-2) may be better than their record. But the other five games? Hope, thy name is C-USA.
•This Saturday’s tilt with Rice will be the Tigers’ 17th and final C-USA opener. Know how many of these Memphis has won? Three. None since they beat Army in 2000, Rip Scherer’s final season as head coach. It’s a lengthy trend that doesn’t make much sense. The Tigers fielded good, bowl-bound teams in 2003 and 2004. They beat Eli Manning and Ole Miss to open the ’03 season 2-0, then got whipped by Southern Miss. In 2004, Memphis beat Ole Miss (again), then scored a combined 99 points to beat Chattanooga and Arkansas State. But when they opened C-USA play at UAB, they fell to the Blazers, 35-28.
It’s as though the Tigers are afraid of first place in this second-tier league. Only once has Memphis started 2-0 in C-USA (they beat Tulane and Cincinnati in 1996). Since 2006, the only league opener the Tigers have lost by fewer than 10 points came in 2008, a 42-35 loss at the Liberty Bowl . . . to Rice.
• Rice may be the finest academic institution in C-USA, but should the Owls lead the series with Memphis on the gridiron? (Okay, they’ve only played three times, but Rice has won the last two.) They’ll enter Saturday’s game with a single win (by a single point, at Kansas on September 8th). In their four losses, the Owls have given up 49, 56, 54, and 35 points. (Only Marshall has given up more points among C-USA teams.) On the other hand, the Rice offense has averaged 30.2 points, tied for third in the league.
Saturday’s game may be one in which the Tiger offense has to trade punches with the Owl attack, and take advantage of a special teams play or two (as they did at Duke and Arkansas State). Rice has given up the most first downs (138) in C-USA and is allowing a whopping 559 yards a game. (The Tiger offense averages 300.8.) Come Saturday night, we’ll see how much action the Liberty Bowl’s fancy new scoreboard can take.