Having come of age in the 1980s, I had a (now old) Scorpions tune playing in my head throughout the Tigers' beat-down of Arkansas State: "Blackout."
Dressed in black from neck to toe (their helmets were chrome), the Tigers thoroughly dominated a Red Wolves team that a year ago compiled 619 yards in a win at Jonesboro. The Memphis defense limited ASU to 255 yards this afternoon, while the Tiger offense piled up 505, no fewer than 329 of them on the ground. Senior Brandon Hayes (114 yards) and freshman Marquis Warford (173) became the first Tiger tandem to reach 100 yards rushing in five years. Warford's 16-yard scamper to complete the game's scoring late in the third quarter had press-box denizens bringing up a sacred name in these parts: DeAngelo Williams.
"I'm proud of the way we conducted ourselves," said Tiger coach Justin Fuente after the game. "I'm proud of the level of discipline we showed, our ability to bounce back when things didn't go our way [in the season's first two games]. It's only one victory. Our focus is to smile a little bit, then go get better." A week after committing 15 penalties in a two-point loss at Middle Tennessee, Memphis was called for only four infractions and suffered only one turnover, a Warford fumble after the outcome had been decided.
The Tigers received the opening kickoff and marched an efficient 77 yards (on seven plays), Hayes running the last six with less than three minutes having ticked off the clock. Sacks by Martin Ifedi and Terry Redden squeezed ASU's opening drive and set the tone for the rest of the game. Memphis tied a school record with seven sacks, two-and-a-half coming from Ifedi, who now has five-and-a-half for the season. (The Tiger record is 13 by Andre Arnold in 2000.) Ifedi had seven solo tackles for the game.
"Every time I looked up, [number] 97 was in the backfield," said Fuente. "I just focus on the man in front of me," added Ifedi. "Coach tells me, 'Nobody can block you but yourself.' As a defense, we have to come out and set the tone, every game. We take pride in playing with enthusiasm. Momentum is great whenever we get a three-and-out."
As they have since Fuente took over before the 2012 season, the Tigers gambled on fourth down throughout the game, twice losing possession within field-goal range, but also scoring on a six-yard pass from Paxton Lynch to Alan Cross (a touchdown that extended the Memphis lead to 14-0 midway through the first quarter). The Tigers were a combined seven for 17 on third and fourth downs (the Red Wolves were four for 17).
Warford found "big-chunk" yardage, averaging 15.7 yards on 11 carries, his longest jaunt being a 63-yarder that followed a Bobby McCain interception in the second quarter. "We were able to run it inside and outside," noted Fuente. "We haven't had those long runs in the past. It was nice."
"The offensive line opened a lot of holes for me today," said Warford. "They allowed me to do what I had to do. The coaches believed in me a lot, giving me the rock. The chunk plays let us be who we are [as an offense]. We have a lot of weapons. Coach Fuente calls the right plays, and we have to execute."
Lynch completed 17 of 26 passes for 176 yards to win his first game as the Tigers' starting quarterback. Yet another freshman, Sam Craft, scored his first college touchdown on a five-yard scamper with 5:25 to play before halftime.
The win allows the Tigers to enjoy a bye week as they prepare to host UCF on October 5th. The Knights have already beaten Penn State this season and have beaten Memphis every year since 2005.
Will the black uniforms be back? Fuente emphasized the program will not stray from the team colors of blue and gray. But ask a Tiger player what he thinks of the dark duds and you'll likely hear the same response Warford gave: "I love the black."
New theme song, I'm telling you: "Blackout."