• Hurts so good.
An interception on the opponent’s one-yard line. Fifteen penalties, one of them negating an 80-yard kickoff return. Two sacks allowed at the end of the game, preventing an attempt at a game-winning field goal. Let it be said that among Justin Fuente’s first 10 losses as a head football coach, last Saturday’s two-point defeat in Murfreesboro is the toughest to swallow. And folks, this is a good thing.
The average margin of defeat for the Tigers in their 10 losses in 2011 (under coach Larry Porter) was 26.2 points. And five of those losses were by more than 35 points. That team left nothing to wish for in the fourth quarter of ball games, let alone after the games had been completed. Had the Tiger defense been able to hold for two more plays — starting with Middle Tennessee’s third-and-14 at its own 31 with less than three minutes to play — the U of M comes home with a split of its first two games and a win over a team few expected them to beat. But the Tigers made mistakes and suffered breakdowns (on offense and defense) just damaging enough to cost them the game.
Absorb a 40-point beat-down and you know your team is inferior. You turn your attention to the next task at hand and find other sources for inspiration. Lose by a field goal (or less) and you have reason to believe victory awaits. Especially when a loss is riddled with so many correctible errors (15 penalties?!). It’s a good kind of pain.
• Trending upward?
The first three games of the Tiger season are rematches of games played in September 2012, the first month of Fuente’s Memphis coaching career. The games have offered the chance to compare and contrast figures, trends, and performances against programs not all that different from a year ago. Looking solely at scoring margin, the Tigers are moving in the right direction, having lost to Duke by 24 points a year ago and by 14 this month (+10). The loss to Middle Tennessee in 2012 was by 18, and this year just two (+16). Should this trend continue Saturday against Arkansas State — a team that beat Memphis by five last season — the Tigers may have their first victory of the season. Getting the Red Wolves at home should be another booster for a Tiger team desperately in need of a win before a bye week that only delays the visit of UCF — slayers of Penn State — for the first American Athletic Conference game at the Liberty Bowl. Fall to Arkansas State, and the Tigers are staring at an 0-4 record when they travel to Houston on October 12th.
• Taking attendance.
The Liberty Bowl welcomed 39,076 fans to the Tigers’ 2012 opener, when Justin Fuente made his coaching debut and UT-Martin handed the home team a 20-17 loss (only after a thunderstorm delayed the game more than two hours). Two weeks later, 27,113 fans showed up to see the 0-2 Tigers face Middle Tennessee.
It will be interesting to see if there’s a significant (12,000 fans?) drop-off from this year’s opener (44,237) to Saturday’s game with Arkansas State in town. Memphis is again 0-2. Arkansas and Tennessee will each be playing games that kickoff an hour before the Tigers and Red Wolves. Will there be a “same old” shrugging of shoulders among the U of M faithful? Or a return to see if the home team is, in fact, taking strides (however small and gentle) toward respectability? For what it’s worth, only two teams in the American Athletic Conference are averaging more than 40,000 fans after two home games: Louisville (54,490) and Rutgers (48,358). Each of those programs, of course, is one-and-done in the AAC. Your Memphis Tigers have the chance to pace this league in attendance. Imagine that.