You could have tracked the home team's performance today with weather updates. Kicking off at the Liberty Bowl (at 11 a.m.) under gray skies, the University of Memphis looked like one-win teams are expected to look in mid-October: a lifeless offense, porous defense, and large deficit (31-3 at halftime) on the scoreboard.
Then late in the third quarter, just as the sun finally burned the clouds away — creating a rather blinding sparkle off the Tigers' new chrome helmets — Memphis invigorated a small crowd (16,241) with opportunistic defense and special teams, falling a play or two shy of a season-changing comeback victory. Today's silver lining? The Tigers won the second half, 26-3.
Tiger coach Justin Fuente acknowledged his team being outplayed on both sides of the ball — and severely — over the game's first 30 minutes. "It's a combination of several things," he said. "A developing offensive line, young receivers and skill players. They'll make some plays, then they'll make you pull your hair out. We're not good enough at anything to dominate in one area or another."
On the game's second play from scrimmage, SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert found Keenan Holman for a 79-yard catch-and-run touchdown that put the Mustangs up, it turns out, for good. Down 7-3 late in the first quarter, the Tigers were unable to capitalize on a blocked punt, freshman kicker Jake Elliott pushing a 39-yard field goal attempt wide right for the first miss of his college career. Mustang tailback Traylon Shed scored a pair of one-yard touchdowns in the second quarter, one of them after SMU recovered a muffed exchange between Tiger quarterback Paxton Lynch and Marquis Warford. (The Tigers have fumbled the ball eight times over their last two games, losing five of them.) At the break, SMU had outgained Memphis, 282 yards to 116.
With the Tigers trailing 34-3 and just over a minute to play in the third quarter, junior linebacker Ryan Coleman stripped the ball from Shed and ran the ball in from 15 yards for the U of M's first touchdown in more than six quarters. Then with less than 10 minutes to play in the game, Coleman snapped up a fumbled punt at the Mustang 19 and pranced in for another six points. (A two-point attempt failed.)
SMU appeared ready to add to the lopsided score with just over seven minutes to play, but sophomore cornerback Reggis Ball stepped in front of a Gilbert pass at the Tiger three, sprinted down the right sideline and then across the field toward the left corner of the end zone. Clear of any Mustang tacklers, Ball chose to dive into the end zone anyway, drawing an excessive-celebration penalty that took the ball back to the Mustang 16-yard line. (Asked about the call after the game, Fuente said, "I like the rule. I'm a big fan of team celebrations. I'm not a fan of any more individualism out there.)
The Tiger offense was finally able to reach pay dirt when Brandon Hayes carried the ball in from the one-yard line with 5:23 left in the game, making the score 34-23, SMU. Despite a Lynch interception on their next possession, the Tigers were again able to close the gap — alas, as time expired — on an eight-yard pass completion from Lynch to Mose Frazier. After gaining 150 yards over the game's first three quarters, Memphis piled up 170 in the fourth period. Lynch completed 26 of 36 passes for 198 yards, while Gilbert was 27 of 43 for 321.
The loss drops Memphis to 1-5 for the season (0-3 in the American Athletic Conference), while SMU improves to 2-4 (1-1).
"I was disappointed with our perimeter game on both sides," said Fuente, "and I felt like, going in, it was an advantage. Defensively, we've been outstanding in our perimeter game. Since halfway through last season, I felt like we dominated the perimeter game. Little wide-receiver screens, we tackled. And on offense, when we did it, we were pretty good at it. I did not feel that way today. The [series] that sticks out in my mind is the one after the blocked punt. Poor execution."
The Tigers were hurt by nine penalties, including a hands-to-face infraction late in the fourth quarter that negated a 68-yard scoring pass from Lynch to Joe Craig. The offense converted only four of 14 third-down opportunities.
Memphis now begins a stretch in which they'll play one game in three weeks, a Wednesday-night tilt at the Liberty Bowl against Cincinnati on October 30th. The Tigers will need to go 5-1 over the season's second half to gain bowl eligibility.
LAST WEEK: 3-1
UCF at Louisville
SMU at Memphis
UConn at Cincinnati
Army at Temple
BYU at Houston
LAST WEEK: 3-1
Rutgers at Louisville
Temple at Cincinnati
Memphis at Houston
USF at UConn
• Beyond wins and losses, it’s hard to quantify the rebuilding progress of a college football program. However you view the second year of Justin Fuente’s master project, more people are viewing it with you. Tickets sold for the Tigers’ first three home games of 2012 looked like this: 39,076 . . . 27,113 . . . 17,831 (total of 84,020). And this year’s numbers: 44,237 . . . 36,279 . . . 30,274 (total of 110,790). Using the clearest gauge we have for community interest, Tiger football is up 31 percent from this point a year ago.
Better yet, there’s the “feel” of progress. Every game Memphis has played has been competitive, save their blowout victory over Arkansas State. Freshman quarterback Paxton Lynch seems like the football equivalent of a Triple-A prospect at AutoZone Park: glimpses of raw talent, with the best yet to come. The Tiger defense (third in the American) has shown strength from the line to the secondary. The program is still closing a gap, to be sure, but there’s reason to believe victories are on the way. After the loss to UCF last Saturday, Fuente was asked how he would handle such a crushing loss, and he responded with what amounts to a summary of his program’s growth: “When we got here, there were no crushing losses. They were just getting crushed.”
• Before every season, we examine a schedule and mark what we consider “winnable” games. Then, of course, the season starts and what we saw on paper is chewed up and regurgitated by actual football teams, actual players. A month into the season, four American opponents the Tigers have yet to play have combined for a record of 2-17. Memphis will host SMU (1-4) and Temple (0-5); they’ll travel to USF (1-4) and UConn (0-4). Throw in UT-Martin, and today’s paper tells us a strong second half of the season could yield as many as six Tiger wins . . . and bowl eligibility. The midweek game against Cincinnati (at the Liberty Bowl on Wednesday, October 30th) could prove to be a season tipping point. Much to follow in the coming weeks.
• Memphis and Houston should be bitter rivals. Tigers vs. Cougars (cat fight!). Grizzlies vs. Rockets (NBA fight!). FedEx vs. NASA (flight fight!). Need more? In 1997, the NFL’s Oilers left the Astrodome for the Liberty Bowl (insert snicker). Yet despite 17 years in Conference USA together — and now a partnership in the American — Memphis and Houston don’t seem to rile one another all that much. The Cougars lead the series 12-9 (7-5 since the schools joined C-USA in 1996) and have won the last three meetings, putting up more than 50 points in 2009 (at Houston ) and 2010 (at Memphis). This is a game every Memphis fan should have circled in red(!) on their schedules.
Saturday could get ugly. Coach Tony Levine’s staff has had two weeks to prepare for the Tigers. One of the last two undefeated teams in the American (along with Louisville), the Cougars have averaged 43.5 points per game and lead the league in total offense (534.0 yards per game). After their last game, quarterback John O’Korn and cornerback William Jackson were honored with the American’s offensive and defensive player of the week, respectively. The game will surely tilt on Houston’s running attack. If the Cougars approach their average of 226.5 yards per game, the Tigers will come home for SMU with a 1-4 record. If the Memphis defense can keep things closer to the 81.3 yards its last three opponents have averaged on the ground, we might see another game decided in the fourth quarter.
Playing their first American Athletic Conference game, the Tigers came painfully close to their biggest win in several years. Had Memphis passes into the end zone — one by quarterback Paxton Lynch, another by tailback Brandon Hayes — landed in Tiger hands instead of those of their opponents from UCF, the U of M likely celebrates a second straight victory and a 2-2 record. But with those two interceptions, along with a bizarre sequence of close calls over the game's final four minutes, Memphis falls to 1-3 on the season and has now lost nine straight to the Knights.
"I couldn't be more proud of our kids," said Memphis coach Justin Fuente. "That's a group of men that went into battle for each other. We didn't make enough plays to win the game. It's nobody else's fault. It's on us." In all three Memphis losses this season, the Tigers have led or been tied in the fourth quarter.
After forcing UCF to punt after three plays on the game's opening possession, the Tigers drove 67 yards on just seven plays to take a 7-0 lead on a 16-yard scamper by Hayes. (It was the second straight game Memphis has scored on its opening possession.) The drive was highlighted by 26-yard pass from Lynch to tight end Alan Cross.
The Knights capitalized on an interception by Jacoby Glenn late in the first quarter to earn their first points: a 26-yard field goal by Shawn Moffitt. Glenn returned the pick 33 yards and was finally tackled at the Tiger 26-yard line by the man who threw the pass (Lynch).
Memphis drove into the UCF red zone late in the first half, keyed by a 44-yard pass-and-run to Mose Frazier, a 14-yard run by tailback Jai Steib, and a 19-yard connection from Lynch to Joe Craig. A second-down pass from the 8-yard line was dropped in the front corner of the end zone by Adrian Henderson, then Lynch had a deflected pass intercepted by UCF's Terrance Plummer on the next play. Despite holding a dangerous UCF offense to 95 yards over the game's first 30 minutes, the Tigers led only 7-3 at halftime.
William Stanback finished a 12-play UCF drive with a one-yard run to give the visitors the lead with 5:48 left to play in the third quarter. But the Tigers answered with a 48-yard field goal by freshman kicker Jake Elliot to tie the game three minutes later.
With the ball at the UCF 48 early in the fourth quarter, the Tigers lined up in punt formation, only to have punter Tom Hornsey tuck the ball and dart through the right side of the line for a 14-yard gain. With the crowd of 30,274 fully energized, Lynch found Tevin Jones for 21 yards, then handed the ball to freshman Sam Craft, who ran around left end and through three UCF defenders for a touchdown that gave Memphis a 17-10 lead.
That lead appeared to be enough, right up to the 3:11 mark, when UCF faced fourth-and-ten from the Memphis 28-yard line. But Knight quarterback Blake Bortles completed a 15-yard pass to Breshad Perriman to keep the UCF hopes alive. Two plays later, Storm Johnson carried the ball from the one, fumbled, and watched tackle Chris Martin recover the ball in the end zone to tie the game at 17.
On the ensuing kickoff, Tiger freshman Marquis Warford was crushed at the 12-yard line, fumbled the ball, and lay prone as UCF's Drico Johnson picked up the ball and ran into the end zone untouched. Fuente asked for a booth review, but the play was upheld, despite some talk about a helmet-to-helmet hit that could have been penalized. The score gave UCF a 24-17 lead with 1:56 to play.
Junior wideout Joe Craig replaced Warford on the next kickoff and proceeded to dash 97 yards for what could have been a game-tying touchdown. The play was nullified, though, by an illegal Tiger block that brought the ball back to the Memphis 25-yard line.
Lynch led the first two-minute drill of his college career in style, completing passes to Craft, Frazier, and Jones on a march that took the Tigers to the UCF 6-yard line with less than 45 seconds to play. But on a halfback option play, Hayes lofted a pass toward the right corner of the end zone, where it was intercepted by Plummer, your leading candidate for American Defensive Player of the Week (he also had a sack of Lynch, one of five times the Tiger quarterback was dropped).
"We can't let this linger," said Fuente. "It's life, and life isn't always easy." When asked about how he would handle such a crushing loss, Fuente responded, "When I got here, there weren't crushing losses. They were just crushed."
The coach was pleased that his defense held a potent offense to 17 points, despite losing junior cornerback Bobby McCain to a left-knee injury in the first half. "Our kids understand the scheme," he said, "and they're flying to the football. When you're half a step off, it glares at you against a team like [UCF]."
Lynch completed 20 of 38 passes for 279 yards. (Bortles was 17 of 36 for 160.) Linebacker Tank Jakes picked up the only sack of the game for Memphis, which came into the game leading the American with 13 for the season. Hayes led the ground game with 73 yards on 12 carries.
Lynch saluted the conquering team, all the while turning his eye to next week's challenge at Houston. "This was one of the most diverse defenses we'll face," he said. "We know we can win now. We just have to go out and do it, and not hurt ourselves. When I make a mistake, it's rough. But after you mess up, you have to shake it off."
LAST WEEK: 5-1
UCF at Memphis
Cincinnati at USF
Louisville at Temple
Rutgers at SMU
Not a good week to be a home team in the American. — FM
• Let’s stop measuring the strength of the Memphis program relative to its neighbors in the SEC. (Remember, the Tigers have gone 2-25 against NFL Lite since beating Tennessee in that “program-changing” upset . . . 17 years ago.) If we’re trying to establish where Memphis might go, how prominent the Tigers might become on the college football landscape, we need to look at this week’s opponent at the Liberty Bowl. George O’Leary’s UCF Knights are the gold standard. Said Memphis coach Justin Fuente at his Monday press conference, “They’re fundamentally sound and they play hard, smart and tough. You very rarely see them hurt themselves or see them make silly mistakes.”
O’Leary took over the program in 2004, only its ninth in Division I. And UCF stunk up the place (0-11) for exactly one season. In 2005 — playing in Conference USA for the first time, which helps — UCF went 8-5 and played in its first bowl game (a loss to Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl). The Knights have since had three 10-win seasons, played in the C-USA championship game four times (winning twice), and played in four more bowl games (they’re 1-1 in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl). This year they’ve already beaten Penn State and made South Carolina sweat considerably. With Louisville leaving the American next season, UCF will be the face of this new football conference. The Tigers’ annual meeting with this team is a new and valuable litmus test for a program seeking relevance.
• Among several promising sights in the Tigers’ win over Arkansas State two weeks ago, one stood out: the pass rush. Led by junior end Martin Ifedi (2.5 sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss), the Tigers tied a program record with seven sacks, all but grounding the Red Wolves’ passing game. Despite playing only three games, Memphis leads the American Athletic Conference with 13 sacks for the season (the rest of the league has played four games each). Compare this total with 29 in 12 games last season, and you have the kind of trend that could impact a won-lost record. Andre Arnold holds the program’s single-season record for sacks with 13 (in 2000). Ifedi (5.5 through three games) could reach that mark by Halloween.
• Entering the season, Fuente emphasized that this year’s team has the kind of depth that will allow the coaching staff to make choices when it comes to attacking an opponent. There are multiple weapons along the defensive line (five players were in on the seven sacks against ASU) and, after what we saw two weeks ago, there may be a threatening tandem of Tiger tailbacks. Senior Brandon Hayes is the top returning rusher (576 yards in 2012), so his 114 yards — and 6.3 average on 18 carries — was pleasant, but can’t be called a surprise. But freshman Marquis Warford? Who had the diminutive Texan (he stands 5’8”) averaging 15.7 yards on 11 carries in his third college game? No way do these kind of numbers repeat themselves Saturday against UCF. But if the Tigers’ current version of Thunder & Lightning (my buddy Greg Gaston prefers to keep it local and call them “Hustle & Flow”) can find holes through a still-evolving Tiger offensive line, Memphis can control the clock to a degree, and limit the chances Knight quarterback Blake Bortles has to light up the scoreboard.
LAST WEEK: 4-3
UConn at Buffalo
South Carolina at UCF
Houston at Texas-San Antonio
SMU at TCU
Miami at USF
Temple at Idaho
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."
LAST WEEK: 5-3
Arkansas State at Memphis
Houston at Rice
Florida International at Louisville
Arkansas at Rutgers
SMU at Texas A&M
Michigan at UConn
Cincinnati at Miami(OH)
• 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.
Growing pains. The day may come when Justin Fuente looks at tonight's loss in Murfreesboro as a necessary lesson in the construction of a winning football program. For now, though, just pain.
Cody Clarke drilled a 40-yard field goal with 1:42 to play in Murfreesboro to give Middle Tennessee the win, its fifth in the last six meetings between two programs scratching for recognition in a state dominated by its two SEC representatives. Memphis seemed on the verge of its first win of the season with the Blue Raiders facing third-and-14 at their own 31-yard line with less than three minutes to play, but quarterback Logan Kilgore connected with Marcus Henry across the middle for an 18-yard gain. A 25-yard completion to Tavarres Jefferson followed, gaining enough yardage to set up Clarke's game-winner.
The Tigers overcame a miserable first half, one in which they had 11 penalties (for 114 yards) compared with just five first downs. Freshman quarterback Paxton Lynch threw a pair of costly interceptions, one at the Middle Tennessee one-yard line, another that set up the Blue Raiders' second touchdown of the game, a one-yard run by Jordan Parker that gave Middle a 14-3 lead 3:39 before halftime.
Tiger kicker Jake Elliot's three field goals kept Memphis in the game as Lynch and the offense found a rhythm for the first time this season shortly after halftime. A 15-play, 70-yard drive culminated in a 27-yard field goal by Elliot that closed the Tiger deficit to 14-9 with 5:50 to play in the third quarter. After the Tiger defense held the Raiders to three-and-out, Memphis put together a 10-play drive over 5:08, the final yard of the 69-yard drive coming on a roll-out pass from Lynch to tight end Alan Cross. The Tigers' first lead of the young season remained 15-14 after a two-point conversion attempt failed.
Tiger defensive end Martin Ifedi picked up his third sack of the season on the Raiders' next possession, but Kilgore's clutch third-down delivery to Henry proved to be the difference.
There were some promising numbers for Memphis. After rushing for only 89 yards in their opener against Duke, Memphis gained 180 yards on the ground tonight, led by Brandon Hayes with 81 on 15 carries. Overall, the Tigers outgained Middle Tennessee, 350 yards to 284 . . . until you factor in penalties, where the Tigers gave up 145 yards on 15 calls, compared with the Raiders being penalized only three times for 30 yards.
Lynch finished the game with 164 yards passing (18 for 26) with the two picks and lone touchdown pass. Kilgore completed 22 of 36 for 224 yards, with a touchdown and one interception (by junior Bakari Hollier).
The Tigers return to the Liberty Bowl next Saturday to face another regional rival — Arkansas State — that has won four of the teams' last five meetings. Memphis has started its season 0-2 for the sixth straight season.
LAST WEEK: 6-2
Memphis at Middle Tennessee
Eastern Michigan at Rutgers
Fordham at Temple
UCF at Penn State
Northwestern State at Cincinnati
Florida Atlantic at USF
Maryland at UConn
Louisville at Kentucky
• Third Down Stinks
Compare the numbers from last year’s Duke game and last Saturday’s, and there’s one stat line that is particularly ugly (and familiar): the Tigers’ conversion rate on third down. In 2012, Memphis converted but one of 11 third-down opportunities at Duke. This year, the figure was two for 13. Related to these numbers, a year ago Memphis made only nine first downs against the Blue Devils. This year: 12. Throw the figures in a bag, shake it and this is what you get: Duke ran 84 plays against Memphis in 2012 and 82 this year. The Tigers ran but 50 plays a year ago and 57 last Saturday. Forget the disparity in overall strength, speed, and talent. If I let your team run 25 plays more than I get to run . . . I lose the game.
Memphis faced too many third-and-longs in its opener, partly the result of its running game averaging 2.7 yards per play. The Blue Devil front seven is a veteran unit, one of the best the Tigers will face this season. So credit to a defense for making third down so uncomfortable. But the U of M will have to improve its third-down conversion rate before the numbers that matter — on the scoreboard — show improvement.
• Fourth Down Ain’t That Bad
There are football fans who will tell you “star punter” is an oxymoron. Very few of those fans (none?) look forward to seeing the guy with the big leg trot on the field after another failure on third down. Here in Memphis, though, we should enjoy the Tom Hornsey Show while we can. For the Tigers are suiting up the best college punter on (at least) two continents.
Following the Tigers’ second drive of the season last Saturday (yep, a three-and-out), Hornsey trotted onto the field, the ball on his team’s 18-yard-line. By the time he finished his work, Duke had possession . . . on its own 3-yard-line. The 79-yard punt was the second-longest in Memphis history (Roland Eveland kicked one 85 yards in 1950). Now remember, a punt’s distance is measured from the line of scrimmage, though the punter stands roughly 15 yards behind the line when the ball is snapped. Last Saturday at the Liberty Bowl, an Australian punter with a leg that would be the envy of any kangaroo essentially punted a football the entire length of the field. Those who saw it will remember it. And Hornsey will help the Tigers win football games this year. Cheer him while you can.
• A Raider Rivalry
The best college football team in Tennessee plays in Nashville these days. The historical power in Knoxville is scratching its way back to respectability. But neither Vanderbilt nor Tennessee is on the Memphis schedule, making it imperative that the Tigers win their game in Murfreesboro this Saturday. Lose to Middle Tennessee — from Conference USA! — and the Tigers will spend the next three months knowing they are the fourth-ranked team in the Volunteer State.
Don’t like the concept of Memphis-Middle being a “rivalry game”? Perhaps it’s worth reconsidering. Since renewing a long-dormant series in 2007, the Blue Raiders have won four of five meetings, including two at the Liberty Bowl. Quarterback Logan Kilgore will be familiar to Memphis fans, having thrown for 253 yards and a pair of touchdowns in last year’s game. Sophomore tailback Jordan Parker has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the Raiders’ first two contests. Saturday night will be a battle, one worthy of intrastate rivals.
The American Athletic Conference logos on the field were new. The Tiger stripes in the end zone — blue and black — were new. And the home team's chrome helmets were as new as they were shiny. Alas, this was a Memphis Tiger football season opener, and the final score was not new. The Duke Blue Devils scored a pair of touchdowns inside the game's final ten minutes to break a tie and give the Tiger program its ninth consecutive opening-game loss. A crowd of 44,237 at the Liberty Bowl — the largest for a Tiger game since the 2009 opener — watched a Memphis team much improved from the one that fell at Duke last season (38-14) but not quite ready to finish off a Blue Devil team (now 2-0) growing under coach David Cutcliffe.
"I'm not happy," said Tiger coach Justin Fuente after the game. "Just playing a team well — and losing — is not what we're shooting for. But I'm not frustrated either. That's the wrong word. There are a lot of teaching points we have to make. A lot of growing up we have to do. As a program, we have to learn how to finish against a good team."
Duke opened the scoring early when quarterback Anthony Boone pranced into the end zone from 23 yards just 3:15 after the opening kickoff. (Memphis went three-and-out on the opening possession of the game.) Tiger punter Tom Hornsey "flipped the field," as they say, by drilling a 79-yard punt — the second longest in the history of Memphis football — after another three-and-out. Senior tailback Brandon Hayes appeared to score on a 30-yard touchdown that would have tied the game late in the first quarter, only to be called for stepping out of bounds (untouched) at the 18-yard-line. The Tigers failed to convert on fourth-and-one and trailed 7-0 after the first period.
Junior cornerback Bobby McCain intercepted a deep Boone pass and returned it 75 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the second quarter to tie the game at 7. Boone was forced to leave the game midway through the second quarter with what was described as "an upper-body injury." His replacement, Brandon Connette, proved integral to the Duke attack, completing 14 of 21 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns.
Duke regained the lead on an 8-yard run by Juwan Thompson just over five minutes into the second half. With the Tigers at the Duke 24 early in the fourth quarter, freshman quarterback Paxton Lynch fumbled on fourth-and-short, returning the ball to the Blue Devils with the score still 14-7. Lynch responded on the next Memphis possession, though, completing a 45-yard pass to sophomore wideout Tevin Jones for the Tigers' biggest offensive strike of the day. Freshman Sam Craft followed the Jones reception with a 14-yard run around left end after a double reverse, then senior tailback Jai Steib carried the ball up the middle for an 11-yard touchdown that tied the game at 14 with 11:38 to play.
Connette connected with junior Jamison Crowder for deep passes on each of the next two Duke possessions, both leading to touchdowns: a 22-yard reception by Issac Blakeney and a 12-yard reception by Brandon Braxton.
"Against good teams, you can't make little mistakes," said Fuente. The coach seemed generally pleased by the play of Lynch in his first college game, but stressed the importance of protecting the football, especially on short yardage downs, plays he said "you have to make." Lynch completed 14 of 24 passes for 148 yards. Lynch acknowledged some nerves early in the game, noting it was the largest crowd he'd ever played before. But he added that he felt comfortable and in command as the game developed.
"I want to play perfect," said the Florida native, who redshirted last season behind Jacob Karam. "But I didn't, so I don't think I played well."
As they did a year ago, the Blue Devils ran considerably more plays than the Tigers (82 to 57) and won despite being sloppy with the ball (three turnovers). The Memphis ground game wasn't strong enough to sustain drives (89 yards on 33 carries). Duke converted 10 of 18 plays on third down, while the Tigers were but two for 13.
In addition to his interception, McCain recovered a fumble to lead the Tiger defense. Junior end Martin Ifedi added two sacks and three tackles for lost yardage.
Crowder stood out among the Blue Devils, catching 11 passes for 140 yards.
The Tigers play their first road game of the season next week in Murfreesboro, where they'll face a Middle Tennessee team that's won four of the last five meetings between the schools.
The lasting impression from today's loss may be that crowd, a swollen mass of blue willing to sit in 93-degree heat at kickoff to cheer a team coming off a 4-8 season. "I want to thank everyone for coming out," said Fuente. "Keep coming out, because we're going to get better."