Progress can be a subjective unit of measurement. Until, that is, a 1-8 football team proceeds to score 125 points over its last three games for its first three-game winning streak in four years. (The last time Memphis finished a season with three consecutive wins: 2005.)
Wideout Marcus Rucker was one of 16 Tiger seniors saluted before today’s season finale against longtime rival Southern Miss. He may remember his two catches for 13 yards in the drubbing of the Golden Eagles. He’ll certainly remember leading the U of M band atop a stepladder during the postgame celebration, then being carried off the field by teammates (along with several of his classmates).
“I’m just thankful for the moment,” said one of those classmates, linebacker Akeem Davis, after the game. “I just want to cherish it. It’s the culmination of a lot of things, a great defense, a great group of coaches. It’s been a long road. I can honestly say that I left everything that I had out there.”
Davis forced a Southern Miss fumble late in the second quarter, leading to the third Tiger touchdown of the period and a 21-3 Memphis lead. Jai Steib’s second score of the game was merely a 13-yard jaunt on a day when the Tiger rushing attack accumulated 275 yards, a high for the season.
The Golden Eagles capitalized on a roughing-the-punter penalty and scored a touchdown four seconds before halftime. The tightened score was mere illusion, though, as the U of M added three more touchdowns in the third quarter to send Southern Miss into winter having lost all 12 games of its 2012 season.
Brandon Hayes scored two of those post-halftime touchdowns — one of them from nine yards, the other from 11 — on his way to 115 yards, his second straight game with more than 100 on the ground. In between came a 38-yard pass-and-run from quarterback Jacob Karam to Alan Cross. Karam finished the game with 162 yards on 12 completions, two touchdown passes and 42 yards rushing (on merely four carries). The Tigers’ junior quarterback finished the season with only three interceptions in 274 attempts.
When asked if he saw this kind of improvement coming, Karam smiled, nodded, and emphasized when the corner was turned. “It wasn’t just this season,” he said. “The improvement since I got here in January [after transferring from Texas Tech], including spring, has been amazing. It’s a collective mindset. Knowing what we need to do.”
More perspective on a season’s astounding turnaround? Junior Tom Hornsey became the first Memphis punter to accumulate 10,000 yards for his career. But he didn’t punt for the first time until the fourth quarter, when the Tigers were leading by 25.
“I’m pleased for our seniors,” said coach Justin Fuente, who finishes his first season in Memphis with a 4-8 record (4-4 in Conference USA play). “Couldn’t be happier for them. The way we finished the season validates the hard work we’ve put them through. This springboards us into our offseason program, which starts tomorrow.”
Fuente emphasized the importance of his team being able to run the ball, to control the line of scrimmage against what proved to be an inferior team. The Memphis defense allowed only 95 yards on the ground and picked up four quarterback sacks.
“It’s good to see the fruits of everybody’s labor,” said Fuente. “Don’t get me wrong. We have a long way to go. I’m glad for the kids to get some rewards. As coaches and adults, we know we’re doing the right thing and doing it the right way. I think the kids thought we were . . . and hopefully now, they’ll know we are.”
When asked what he’ll remember about his first team, Fuente didn’t hesitate. “Their resilience is the biggest thing,” he said. “Think back to UT-Martin [on September 1st] and all that went wrong that night. Then seeing us continue to get better as the season moved along. I wanted us to be better at the end of the year. I knew we were inexperienced. But if we could stay relatively healthy, we could get better.
“There is no easy fix to a football team,” Fuente emphasized. “That’s not the way it goes. It’s a lot of hard work, grinding away. But there are rewards at the end.”
Fuente was asked who this team’s MVP might be. Once again, he didn’t hesitate. “I don’t know how we’ll ever replace Akeem Davis. He was the emotional leader of this team. He’s a special, special young man.”