• I hope the Tigers have started a new tradition with the post-victory love fest between team and band we witnessed Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl. Junior defensive lineman Johnnie Farms climbed the stepladder to lead the Sound of the South in playing the U of M fight song while every last one of his teammates gathered in the southeast corner of the Liberty Bowl to celebrate the taste of victory. (The same gathering took place on the rainy night of October 6th, when quarterback Jacob Karam conducted things from atop the ladder after the Tigers beat Rice.)
Over the top for a team in the midst of its fifth straight losing season? Maybe. But precisely what this football program needs: good cheer. Consider your very favorite dessert. That key lime pie at the coffee shop? Now, imagine going six months without a slice. Make it a year. Then . . . imagine the first bite after ending the fast. That’s where the Tiger football program finds itself. Let the football factories across the country act like a win is no big thing, merely a release of pressure before the next week’s game. For the Memphis Tigers, every win is worth celebrating. No more so than for the players and their marching band.
• Here’s a stat to love: Memphis has converted 19 fourth-down plays this season, easily tops in Conference USA (Tulsa is second with 14). The Tigers remain a run-first offense (44 carries compared with 20 passes against Tulane), but to call the Tiger offense timid would be unfair. Two scoring drives last Saturday were sustained by converting fourth-down plays, one of them a 19-yard pass completion on fourth-and-one. (The number of Memphis fourth-down conversions in 2011? Four.)
Then you have the end-around pass wideout Keiwone Malone threw (Tulane was penalized for roughing the passer) and the touchdown toss from tailback Brandon Hayes to Reggie Travis. Justin Fuente arrived here with credentials as a play-caller for a powerful TCU offense. You get the sense that, once Fuente has the right players secured, the Tiger offense will move the needle on the thrill-o-meter. And a fun offense sells tickets.
• There are two C-USA foes I will distinctly miss when the Tigers move to the Big East next season. And one of them is UAB. The annual Battle for the Bones — an enormous, too-heavy rack of bronze barbecue ribs — has been a worthwhile (if new) tradition. (Remember Will Hudgens lifting that trophy above his head after the Tigers’ win in 2007? Probably the most athletic feat the young man performed on a college football field.)
The Blazers have a 10-4 lead in the series and have won the Battle three straight years (with two of their victories coming at the Liberty Bowl). They enter Saturday’s game with a 3-7 record, but with two straight wins, over Southern Miss and Marshall. Sophomore tailback Darrin Reaves carried the ball 32 times for 180 yards and a pair of touchdowns last weekend in the win over the Thundering Herd. And freshman quarterback Austin Brown is fourth in C-USA with an average of 228.3 yards passing per game. UAB’s defense gives up an average of 35.5 points per game, a tad more than the Memphis D (33.0). As we learned (again) Saturday at the Liberty Bowl, pay attention to turnovers. The Tigers have a turnover margin of -1 while the Blazers are -7 for the season.