Monday, November 7, 2016

20 Years Later: Vol-slayer Chris Powers

Posted By on Mon, Nov 7, 2016 at 8:00 AM

Chris Powers has been flying FedEx planes for six years now (and before that, with Continental Express). But over the last two decades, he’s yet to duplicate the lift he helped create for a long-suffering fan base at the Liberty Bowl on November 9, 1996. A sophomore tight end for an underwhelming University of Memphis football team that night, Powers caught a touchdown pass from Qadry Anderson with 34 seconds to play to give the Tigers a 21-17 upset of Peyton Manning and the 6th-ranked Tennessee Vols. It was the first time in 16 meetings Memphis had beaten UT and the Tigers haven’t taken down Rocky Top since (0-7). If it’s not the biggest win in Memphis football history, it’s likely the most memorable upset. The crowd that night — 65,885 — remains the largest in 51 years of football at the Liberty Bowl.

“It seems longer than that,” says a smiling Powers when the 20th anniversary of the upset is mentioned. “It was a lifetime ago. I’ve stayed pretty involved with the program, from tailgating to radio. I’ve known people on the administrative staff for years.”

Powers has made Memphis home since his playing days, living downtown for several years before getting married and moving to Collierville four years ago with his wife, Ashley (also a U of M alum). He enjoyed four years (2009-12) as Dave Woloshin’s partner on Tiger radio broadcasts, but stays busy these days — when not flying — helping raise his two sons, Harrison (2) and Hayes (nine months). He acknowledges Ashley might roll her eyes at another mention of his most famous catch, but he looks forward to soon sharing details of the moment — and all the joy that moment helped create — with his boys.

Powers never tires of recognition for the play. “It’s better than being remembered for dropping a pass and losing to Tennessee,” he says with a laugh. Powers recently contacted a fencing company about some work he needed done at his home and was asked if he was the University of Memphis Chris Powers. “I think I’m that guy,” he said. Alas, no discount on the fence.

“People who know me like to introduce me as ‘the guy who beat Tennessee,’” says Powers. “It’s part of my history. And it doesn’t get old because people get such a kick out of it, a positive event that happened to the program. The details, after 20 years, start to fade a little bit, but you remember the big plays. I played four years and that happened my sophomore year. I could have quit right then and it wouldn’t have mattered.” Powers chuckles when a reporter has to be reminded that he moved to the interior line and started at center his senior season (1998).

There was little reason to believe the Tigers could beat that Tennessee team. They entered the game with a record of 3-6 (UT was 6-1). They’d lost four straight and had scored as many as 20 points exactly once (a 37-20 loss at Houston). But as preached in locker rooms from coast to coast, you have to play the game. “It’s so different being inside, as part of a team every day,” says Powers. “If we truly believed we had no chance, then what’s the point of practicing? You put the preparation in, and you’ve got to believe you have a chance. You need to play well, limit mistakes, and all the clichés. We had a great defense that year; we just struggled up front [on offense]. We beat Missouri up in Columbia that year.”

The most famous play of the game is not Powers’s catch, but Kevin Cobb’s 95-yard kickoff return to tie the game at 14 midway through the third quarter. Cobb appeared to be tackled deep in Tiger territory — so much so that many of the players stopped running, or disengaged their blocks — only to spring to his feet and escape to pay dirt. Powers occupied the middle of the Tigers’ blocking wedge on the return. “There’s a pretty cool TV angle, from the end zone Kevin was running toward,” says Powers. “You can see the wedge set, Kevin disappears, and I’m there in the middle. I blasted a UT guy off the camera to the left and Kevin cuts right behind me. I like to say I threw the block that sprung him . . . but that acrobatic flip, I had nothing to do with that!” The play earned Cobb an ESPY for Play of the Year from ESPN.

Down 17-14 late in the fourth quarter, the Tigers made it to the Vols’ 3-yard line thanks largely to a 41-yard pass from Anderson to Chancy Carr, followed by a 13-yard run up the middle by freshman fullback Jeremy Scruggs. Next came . . . The Play.

“[Freshman receiver] Damien Dodson brought in the play from the sideline,” explains Powers. “Qadry looked at Damien in the huddle and said, ‘I’ll be looking for you, so be ready.’ I was lined up on the right, and Damien was split outside of me. I was the secondary [target]. When I released, I saw the safety starting to trail me, so I knew it was man to man. Damien was getting jammed at the line of scrimmage. When I turned around, the ball was already in the air. It was just react, throw your hands up. It stuck.” Powers says he caught the back half of the football, an epic play literally inches from being merely an overthrow.

“I remembered it wasn’t over,” says Powers, when asked about the pandemonium that ensued. Manning would get another chance with the ball. Powers describes a tackle by Tavares Newsom (a freshman reserve linebacker) on the Tennessee kick return that may well have saved the game. “He transferred a year or two later,” says Powers. “That return would have gone a long way. It was a big play that nobody knows about.” Time expired when Manning was sacked a comfortable distance from the Tiger end zone.

Powers celebrated that night at Newby’s on the Highland strip, and later Neon Moon. He and a few teammates had gotten in trouble earlier that season for sneaking into the Liberty Bowl. (Imagine: Football players breaking into a football stadium.) They’d been under a strict curfew for several weeks, a curfew Memphis coach Rip Scherer removed after the goalposts came down.

The Tigers had two weeks to celebrate the takedown of mighty Tennessee, but came out flat in their season finale, losing to East Carolina. A 4-7 season followed in 1997, then a 2-9 struggle in 1998, the year a man still famous for playing tight end snapped the ball on Saturdays. Powers saw the move to center as a challenge, and still takes pride in having learned such a bruising position on the fly. He played the position at no more than 270 pounds. “My technique was pretty good,” he says, “and I was quick.”
Chris and Ashley Powers with sons Harrison (left) and Hayes.
  • Chris and Ashley Powers with sons Harrison (left) and Hayes.

Does Chris Powers miss football today? His answer echoes that of most men who once shared a uniform with teammates. “I miss the guys,” he says. “I miss the relationships with the guys. You’re in a situation where, like it or not, you’re with your best friends almost all the time, every day. I miss the process of everybody having a goal, and you get the feedback immediately, whether you won or lost.”
Powers remains close with Ron Sells, an offensive lineman in ’96, and Drew Pairamore, a punter (and now also a pilot).

Memphis will beat Tennessee on the gridiron again. (Yes, it will happen.) Powers likes the fact his 1996 Tiger team will always, though, be the first to beat the Volunteers. “I was part of that team, and played a significant role,” he says. “No matter what happens with Memphis football, that’ll always be the first time [we beat Tennessee]. With Peyton Manning, arguably the best quarterback to ever play the game. They were number six in the country. On national TV. Put it all together, and it’s one of those days I can look back on and enjoy the role I played. I made a play that helped all my buddies — my teammates — beat Tennessee.”

Cobb’s kickoff return recently aired during a Tiger broadcast, a game Powers watched at home with his family. Little Harrison pointed at the TV screen as he’s learning to recognize the look and sounds of football. Powers grabbed his remote, rewound the play, and paused as that wedge came into focus. He grabbed his firstborn, pointed at the screen himself this time, and shouted, “Look at Daddy!”

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Tigers 51, SMU 7

Posted By on Sat, Nov 5, 2016 at 6:21 PM

The Memphis Tigers are going bowling a third consecutive season. In thoroughly ruining SMU's homecoming today in Dallas, the Tigers earned their sixth win of the season and ended a two-game losing streak. Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson threw for 288 yards and four touchdowns (all of them in the first half) and junior wide receiver Anthony Miller followed up his record-breaking game last week against Tulsa with 102 yards and two touchdowns against the Mustangs.

The win improves the Tigers to 6-3 for the season (3-2 in the American Athletic Conference), while SMU falls to 4-5 (2-3), its two-game winning streak having ended with a thud.

The Tigers scored a pair of touchdowns in the game's first five minutes, the first a 50-yard Ferguson-to-Miller connection, followed by a four-yard toss from Ferguson to reserve tight end Joey Magnifico. After SMU closed within seven points (14-7), Darrell Henderson set a new Memphis record with a 99-yard kickoff return, the Tigers' third such touchdown this season after going nearly 20 years without one. Ferguson hit tight end Daniel Montiel and Miller for second-quarter touchdowns to put the game out of reach by halftime, 38-7.

Memphis rolled up 474 yards of offense for the game while holding the Mustangs to 305, the best defensive showing for the Tigers since a win over Bowling Green on September 24th. The Tigers forced three turnovers and sacked SMU quarterback Ben Hicks three times. (Memphis entered the game with seven sacks on the entire season.) Doroland Dorceus led the Tiger ground game with 77 yards rushing and a touchdown, the 22nd of his career.

The Tigers return to the Liberty Bowl next Saturday to face USF, a contender for the AAC championship. The Bulls are 7-2 (4-1) and enjoyed a bye this week. Memphis now has the luxury of finishing a rugged schedule — against USF, Cincinnati, and Houston — without bowl eligibility in the balance.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

AAC Picks: Week 10

Posted By on Thu, Nov 3, 2016 at 8:00 AM

SEASON: 60-11

Temple at UConn

Memphis at SMU
Tulane at UCF
BYU at Cincinnati
East Carolina at Tulsa
Navy vs. Notre Dame

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Nov 2, 2016 at 8:00 AM

Something is rotten in the state of defense at the University of Memphis. The last two games — losses to Navy and Tulsa — have exposed weaknesses that lay dormant through the Tigers' 5-1 start. After allowing 6.8 yards per play (78 of them) in Annapolis, the Tigers gave up 6.8 yards per play (87 of them) last Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl. This is not the kind of consistency any Tiger coach is preaching. (In four of the Tigers' five wins, Memphis gave up less than 4.5 yards per play.) Combine a nonexistent pass rush with an inability to stop the run — 447 rushing yards by Navy, 362 by Tulsa — and you allow, on average, 50 points as Memphis has the last two weeks.

Here's the challenge for head coach Mike Norvell and defensive coordinator Chris Ball: Is the problem related to personnel or scheme? It's almost surely a combination of the two. Ernest Suttles, Jonathan Wilson, Donald Pennington and their friends on the Tiger defensive line are not pressuring opposing quarterbacks. Worse, they're not filling gaps when an opponent runs the ball. And the Tigers' 3-4 alignment is clearly not built to withstand the push from the best American Athletic Conference teams. Norvell is cutting his teeth when it comes to involvement on the defensive side of the ball. Over the next four games, we'll see if adjustments — large-scale — can be made to save a season currently in free-fall.

• One of the most famous records in sports history was the long-jump mark Bob Beamon established at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. When he flew through the air for 29 feet, two-and-a-half inches, Beamon broke the previous record by almost two feet, or seven percent. His record stood for 23 years.
Mike Norvell and Matt Dillon - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell and Matt Dillon

Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl, Anthony Miller broke a U of M record that had stood for 51 years . . . and by 34 percent. In catching 12 passes for 250 yards, Miller erased the single-game Tiger mark of 186 yards through the air, set by Bob Sherlag on October 23, 1965, against Mississippi State at the Liberty Bowl (during the stadium's inaugural season). Miller now needs just 178 yards to become the second Tiger receiver to top 1,000 yards in a season. (Isaac Bruce's U of M record is 1,054, set in 1993.)

But what about Mr. Sherlag? Not exactly a name that rolls off the tongue in casual chats about Memphis football history. I asked Tiger sideline reporter Matt Dillon — the Professor himself — about Sherlag, and enjoyed the lesson. Sherlag's heroics helped an 0-3 Memphis team upset an undefeated (4-0), 9th-ranked Bulldog squad, 33-13. Sherlag caught passes from Billy Fletcher, a graduate of Southside High School in Memphis who became the first Tiger quarterback to pass for 1,000 yards in a season. Three of Sherlag's ten catches that day were for touchdowns, which tied the Tiger record at the time. He was chosen in the sixth round of the 1966 NFL draft by Philadelphia, but saw his only action as a pro with the Atlanta Falcons, for whom he caught four passes for 53 yards.

Let's hope Saturday's game in Dallas isn't the crossing of two programs going in opposite directions. After a 2-4 start, SMU has won two straight, including a thorough (38-16) beating of once-mighty Houston on October 22nd. The Tigers and Mustangs have faced three common opponents. They've both beaten Tulane. SMU lost big at Temple, while Memphis beat the Owls at the Liberty Bowl. And they've both lost to Tulsa, though SMU fell in overtime to a team that just beat the Tigers like a yard dog (in their own yard). Memphis destroyed SMU in their last two meetings by a combined score of 111-10. I don't get the sense this Saturday's game will be a blowout, one way or the other. SMU remains two wins shy of bowl eligibility (4-4), so motivation will be at a premium on both sides of the field.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Tulsa 59, Tigers 30

Posted By on Sun, Oct 30, 2016 at 12:11 AM

Halloween arrived two days early for the Tiger football team, particularly those players responsible for slowing an opponent's offense. A week after being gashed by Navy for 532 yards, the Memphis defense allowed 596 to Tulsa and made a star of Golden Hurricane tailback James Flanders. Filling in for the injured D'Angelo Brewer, Flanders ran for 249 yards and set a Tulsa record with five touchdowns. (Flanders and Brewer now each have more than 800 yards rushing on the season.) Tulsa improves to 6-2 on the season (3-1 in the American Athletic Conference) and virtually eliminates Memphis (5-3, 2-2) from contention for the AAC West division title. The Tigers have lost consecutive games for the first time under rookie coach Mike Norvell.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Trevon Tate

"Congratulations to Coach [Philip] Montgomery and his team," said Norvell after the game. "They dominated in every phase. Tonight, we're not a very good football team. We had a lot of mistakes, a lot of things to correct. That starts with me. The only thing I know to do is focus and get back to work. I believe in the young men in [that locker room], but you can't go out and play like we did tonight and be very successful."

The Tigers turned the ball over four times (two fumbles and a pair of Riley Ferguson interceptions) and committed 12 penalties for 115 yards. Just as damaging, the U of M defense put no pressure on Tulsa quarterback Dane Evans, who completed 20 of 33 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns. In eight games this season, Memphis has a total of seven sacks. The Tigers had two tackles behind the line of scrimmage compared with eight such hits for the Golden Hurricane.

"We gotta win gaps, both offensively and defensively," said Norvell. "We didn't get that done tonight. We turned the ball over. Mistake after mistake. And it's a good team we played; they capitalized."

The Tigers played from behind throughout the game, down 14-0 barely five minutes into the game and 28-14 after a 1-yard Flanders run midway through the second quarter. The only consecutive scores Memphis enjoyed flanked halftime, a 40-yard field goal by Jake Elliott with 1:31 left in the first half, and a 3-yard touchdown reception by Anthony Miller early in the third quarter that closed the Tulsa lead to 35-30 (after a failed two-point attempt).

The Tigers held Tulsa to a field goal after the Miller score, but were forced to punt on their next two possessions. Flanders galloped 48 yards for his fourth touchdown with 3:06 left in the third quarter, then scored for the final time on a 7-yard run after Tulsa recovered a Tiger fumble, putting the game out of reach at 52-30.

The lopsided defeat made a footnote out of a historic night by Miller, who broke a 51-year-old Memphis record with 250 receiving yards. (Bob Sherlag had a 186-yard game in 1965.) The junior from Christian Brothers High School caught 12 passes, scored two touchdowns, and now has 822 yards for the season. Only Isaac Bruce has reached the 1,000-yard milestone for Memphis (in 1993), and his season-record of 1,054 yards is well within Miller's reach with at least four games left to play.

The Tigers went pink with their logo in support of the fight to beat breast cancer. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • The Tigers went pink with their logo in support of the fight to beat breast cancer.
Ferguson completed 19 of 41 passes for 349 yards and three touchdowns, though he lost a fumble, threw the two picks and was sacked three times. Freshman Patrick Taylor led the Tigers' ground attack with 92 rushing yards.

"It's a challenge," emphasized Norvell, "when you have a plan and you go out and don't execute to the level that's necessary to be successful. Our guys are sick; I'm sick. Opportunities are there, and we have to capitalize. I felt confident. They jumped up 14-0. A key play early: we had a personal-foul penalty on a third-down stop on their first drive. We did not play the way I expected we would. Each man — including myself — needs to get better. All the things that are the true core of who we are . . . we didn't get done tonight."

The Tigers will travel to Dallas next Saturday to face SMU, winners over Tulane Saturday and Houston on October 22nd. They remain a win shy of bowl eligibility with four games (two at home) left to play.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

AAC Picks: Week 9

Posted By on Thu, Oct 27, 2016 at 8:00 PM

SEASON: 54-11

Navy at USF

Tulsa at Memphis
UCF at Houston
Cincinnati at Temple
UConn at East Carolina
SMU at Tulane

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Oct 26, 2016 at 8:00 AM

• On October 6th at the Liberty Bowl, the Tigers' opponent ran 88 plays (to the Tigers' 58) and held the ball for 38:15 (essentially two-thirds of the game). The Memphis defense allowed 531 yards (208 more than the Tiger offense gained) . . . and Memphis won the football game. Last Saturday in Annapolis, the Tigers' opponent ran 78 plays and held the ball for 39:48. The Memphis defense allowed 532 yards . . . and Memphis lost the football game.

What gives? I'm vexed by time of possession, at least when it comes to this Memphis team. The difference between the 7-point win over Temple and the 14-point loss to Navy (which seemed worse): three turnovers forced by the Tiger defense against the Owls, including a pick-six by linebacker Genard Avery. The Tigers only forced one turnover against the Midshipmen, that bizarre play on which Navy quarterback Will Worth fumbled as he attempted to reach the ball into the end zone (he dropped the pigskin when it hit the front pylon). Memphis somehow snapped the ball 71 times in its 20 minutes of possession time, a reflection of the speed coach Mike Norvell insists upon. But you have to wonder: Is the speed — frequency of plays — truly tiring defenses? Or might the Tiger defense be suffering from spending two-thirds of a game in the trenches (or chasing down triple-option quarterbacks)?

"I have been really pleased with the way our defense has played," said Norvell at Monday's press luncheon. "I think stats don't always tell the full story. When you look at the Temple game I thought our defense was dominant, while being put in tough situations. Temple threw the ball around and had some yards passing but for the majority of the game, even though they weren't put in the best situation, I thought our defense did a really nice job." As for the Navy game? "Last week was a setback," he said. "We stubbed our toe a little bit and didn't play up to the standards of what I think our guys are capable of and I know they are going to respond."
  • Larry Kuzniewski

Tulsa is going to score a lot of points. Head coach Philip Montgomery has some of the American Athletic Conference's most dangerous offensive weapons at his disposal, including the AAC's leading rusher: D'Angelo Brewer (114.7 yards per game). Toss out a blowout loss to Ohio State and the Golden Hurricane (5-2) has hit the following point totals: 45, 58, 48, 43, 31, 50. Tulsa's only other loss came at Houston (that 31-point game). With only one AAC loss and Navy still on its schedule, Tulsa retains hope for reaching the league championship game. So how might Memphis slow this storm system? Let's go back to that first thought: Seems the Tigers would do well to keep the ball away from the Tulsa offense, meaning control the ball for lengthier (in terms of time) possessions. You gotta believe Tulsa remembers the 66-42 embarrassment the U of M administered last season in Oklahoma. Could get nasty — one direction or another — Saturday night.

• By one statistical measure — sacks — the Tigers are losing battles at the line of scrimmage. The Memphis defense has sacked the opposing quarterback only seven times (11th among 12 AAC teams). This is particularly troubling when you consider the defense spent almost 40 minutes on the field against both Temple and Navy. And on the other side of the ball, U of M quarterback Riley Ferguson has been sacked 22 times, the most in the AAC. And Ferguson is not exactly stationary in the pocket. The Tigers' remaining schedule does not include a weak sister. The trenches figure to be brutal against the likes of Tulsa, USF, and Houston. Memphis needs to flex muscle between the tackles for the Tigers to win as many as eight games.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

#24 Navy 42, Memphis 28

Posted By on Sat, Oct 22, 2016 at 6:30 PM

For a series that goes back all of two games, Navy-Memphis sure feels lopsided. A year after the Midshipmen gashed an undefeated (8-0) Memphis team for 459 yards in a 25-point beatdown at the Liberty Bowl, quarterback Will Worth led the nation's 24th-ranked team in a 14-point victory that was that close only because the Navy quarterback fumbled a ball as he entered the end zone in the second quarter.

Ignore that miscue and Worth was flawless in steering Navy's triple-option offense down the field at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. He rushed for 201 yards and three touchdowns on 31 carries and tossed two touchdown passes despite going to the air only four times the entire game. Overall, Navy gained 532 yards, 447 on the ground. The victory gives Navy sole possession of first place in the American Athletic Conference's West division with a 4-0 record (5-1 overall), while Memphis falls to 2-1 in the AAC (5-2 overall). 

The Tigers missed a pair of chances to swing the score. They drove to the Navy 1-yard line following Worth's second quarter fumble, the game tied at 14. But on fourth down, Tiger quarterback Riley Ferguson took the snap in shotgun formation and attempted to run the ball into the end zone, coming up two yards short. A three-yard run by Worth late in the quarter gave Navy a 21-14 lead at halftime.

With Navy leading 35-28 and just under six minutes to play in the game, Navy kicker Bennett Moehring missed a 32-yard field goal attempt, drilling the left upright. But after converting on fourth down in Navy territory, the Tigers gave up the ball when receiver Roderick Proctor fumbled after taking in a Ferguson pass near midfield. (Proctor limped off the field with a lower-body injury.) Worth tumbled into the end zone for the third time with 1:38 left to play to clinch the victory.

Ferguson completed 25 of 40 passes for 333 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He gave the Tigers an early lead with a 33-yard connection to Anthony Miller just 2:34 into the game. But Navy answered on its first possession, culminating in a four-yard run by Shawn White. The Memphis defense was only able to force two punts, one in each half. The Tigers punted but twice themselves, but held the ball for only 20:12, the result of Navy's ground game chewing up (and rather digesting) the game flow.

Miller caught nine passes for 134 yards while senior Daniel Hurd pulled down five passes for 78 yards and a touchdown.

Two weeks after returning a kickoff for a touchdown to end a Memphis drought of almost 20 years , freshman Tony Pollard returned a Navy kick 100 yards to pay dirt in the first quarter. Like the Tigers' initial lead, it was short-lived, Navy scoring on its next possession with a Worth-to-Jamir Tillman touchdown pass. 

The Tigers return to the Liberty Bowl next Saturday to face Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane beat Tulane, 50-27, today to improve to 5-2 on the season.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

AAC Picks: Week 8

Posted By on Thu, Oct 20, 2016 at 8:00 AM

SEASON: 50-9

USF at Temple

Memphis at Navy
UCF at UConn
East Carolina at Cincinnati
Houston at SMU
Tulane at Tulsa

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Oct 19, 2016 at 8:00 AM

• What an opportunity the Tigers have Saturday afternoon at Annapolis. There's no better way to build credibility in college football than to beat a Top-25 team on the road.  (It's been 23 years since the Tigers pulled this trick, an upset of 24th-ranked Mississippi State in the 1993 season opener.) Navy vaulted into the rankings (now 24th in the AP poll) by virtue of its upset of Houston on October 8th. The Midshipmen are 4-1, their only loss at Air Force. They have a pair of close wins over AAC rivals — UConn and Tulane — to their credit, but the Tigers will be a bigger test, one for which they've had two weeks to prepare.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell

Navy is ranked behind Memphis in both total offense (392 yards per game to the Tigers' 438.5) and total defense (398.6 yards allowed per game to the Tigers' 388.2). But toss the stats. We saw what the wishbone can do to a very good Memphis team just a year ago when touchdown-machine Keenan Reynolds came to town and helped carve the U of M defense for 374 rushing yards. (Navy has thrown a total of 60 passes this season.) Reynolds, of course, is now a receiver with the Baltimore Ravens. Will Worth now steers the Navy ship. He ran for 115 yards and a touchdown in the win over the Cougars and tossed a pair of touchdown passes in only five attempts. If the Tiger defense can't better control this head-spinning scheme, last year's 25-point beatdown could be repeated.

Welcome to the spotlight, Austin Hall. The Tigers' redshirt freshman — a Collierville High alum — earned Defensive Player of the Week honors from the American Athletic Conference after making 12 tackles (three behind the line of scrimmage) and recovering a fumble in the win at Tulane. Hall plays the critical STAR position (half-linebacker, half-safety) in defensive coordinator Chris Ball's scheme, meaning he'll be in the opponent's backfield as much as the Tiger secondary depending on down and yardage variables. It should be noted that Hall was not on the field last season when Navy's offense partied at the Liberty Bowl. Perhaps his presence this weekend will be a swing factor in the Tigers' favor. Tiger coach Mike Norvell sung Hall's praises at Monday's press luncheon: "He added some communication responsibilities this week. For a redshirt freshman against a very challenging offense, who presented so many formations and motions, he played at an extremely high level. He capitalized on his opportunities."

• There was a time when 5-1 starts (or better) were fairly regular in the Tiger program. It happened to be a half-century ago. Memphis had no more than a single loss through six games in 1961, ’62, ’63, ’66, and ’67. Over the 49 seasons since 1968, though, Memphis has been 5-1 (or better) exactly three times: 2004, 2015, and now. With Navy, USF, Cincinnati, and Houston left to play, the second half of the 2016 season will be a steeper challenge for the U of M than the first. But let's not take 5-1 starts for granted. There are 13-year-old Tiger fans who have seen as many of these as those with gray in their beards.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Tigers 24, Tulane 14

Posted By on Fri, Oct 14, 2016 at 10:33 PM

Freshman tailback Darrell Henderson scored a pair of touchdowns — each covering more than 40 yards — and the Tigers earned their tenth straight win over the Green Wave in a series that dates back to the teams' longtime memberships in Conference USA. The victory improves Memphis to 5-1 on the season and 2-0 in American Athletic Conference play, setting up a showdown at Navy (3-0 in the AAC) next Saturday for first place in the league's West division. The win is the Tigers' first of the season away from the Liberty Bowl.

Tulane drops to 3-3 with the loss (0-2 in the AAC).

The U of M trailed 7-6 with just over a minute to play before halftime when Henderson took a short pass from Tiger quarterback Riley Ferguson then cut across the field and down the right sideline for a 46-yard touchdown. On the Tigers' third possession of the second half, senior kicker Jake Elliott connected on a 50-yard field goal, extending the Memphis lead to 16-7 and tying Stephen Gostkowski atop the U of M career field goals chart with 70.

Just over three minutes into the fourth quarter, Henderson took a handoff and pranced down the right sideline once again, this time from 45 yards. Sam Craft took a shotgun snap and ran into the end zone for a two-point conversion to give the Tigers an insurmountable 24-7 lead.

Henderson finished the game with 142 total yards (75 on the ground, 67 on four receptions). Doroland Dorceus ran for 81 yards on just seven carries, 61 coming on a jaunt from the Tiger one-yard line in the fourth quarter. Ferguson completed 21 of 34 passes for 236 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. 

The U of M outgained Tulane, 413 yards to 318. Each team turned the ball over three times.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

AAC Picks: Week 7

Posted By on Thu, Oct 13, 2016 at 9:04 AM

SEASON: 46-9

Memphis at Tulane

Temple at UCF
UConn at USF
Tulsa at Houston

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Oct 12, 2016 at 8:00 AM

Tony Pollard's epic kickoff return against Temple would not have happened with Justin Fuente on the sideline. Fumbling the football was a hate crime under Fuente, and Pollard coughed up his first return last Thursday night, inside the Tigers' 10-yard line. The Memphis defense rose to the occasion and minimized the damage, holding Temple to a field goal (and a 6-0 lead at the time). One reporter Tweeted, "Freshmen who fumble on kickoff returns don't become sophomore kickoff returners." (That wise guy was me.) Ask Brandon Hayes or Doroland Dorceus — starting tailbacks both — about the Fuente's wrath when the pigskin gets slippery. And for a redshirt-freshman to commit the crime?

Pollard, of course, returned to the field for Temple's very next kickoff. And he now lives in Tiger history for ending a kickoff-return-touchdown drought that stretched 19 years and 11 months, since Kevin Cobb's ESPY-winning return in the upset of Tennessee on November 9, 1996. In addition to his 95-yard jaunt, Pollard had 46 yards on three other returns. He was an integral part of the Tigers' 7-point win. Better yet, Pollard's heroics prove there is, in fact, a place for forgiveness in college football.

  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Anthony Miller
• Remember when the Tigers could win a football game if they played a perfect game? Mistake-free in all three phases, with a big play here or a key turnover there. As recently as 2013, Memphis needed what amounts to an A+ performance to earn a W.

Last week at the Liberty Bowl, the Tigers beat a solid Temple team . . . and didn't play anywhere near a perfect game. The first half featured four punts, a missed field goal (by Jake Elliott!), Pollard's fumble, and three consecutive series that ended after three plays. For the game, Temple ran 88 plays to the Tigers' 58. The Owls accumulated 531 yards of offense to the Tigers' 323. Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson had a pedestrian outing (17 completions, 174 yards, no touchdowns, sacked four times) and the U of M's top playmaker, Anthony Miller, caught exactly one pass . . . for a single yard. Stack up all those numbers . . . and we have a Memphis victory? This is big-picture progress. Coaches like to teach — and players like to learn — after wins.

• With his 71-yard touchdown gallop against Temple, Doroland Dorceus moved into a tie for sixth place in Memphis history with 21 career touchdowns. With three more, he'll pass Carlos Singleton and Curtis Steele and move into fourth on the chart. (He's reached the end zone in each of the Tigers' five games this season.) His 1,414 career yards now rank 18th in Tiger history and he can crack the top 10 with 400 more this season. Look for a big game from Dorceus Friday night at Tulane. He was born in New Orleans.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Tigers 34, Temple 27

Posted By on Fri, Oct 7, 2016 at 12:14 AM

Had you sent your first email on November 9, 1996? Placed your first call with a cell phone? Let it be said technology has evolved a few generations since Kevin Cobb's epic kickoff return for a touchdown to help the Memphis Tigers upset mighty Tennessee during Peyton Manning's junior season. Thursday night at the Liberty Bowl — almost precisely 19 years and 11 months later — a Tiger finally returned another kickoff to pay dirt. After fumbling his first return of the night, redshirt-freshman Tony Pollard galloped 95 yards to answer a Temple touchdown that had closed a Tiger lead to 27-20 with 6:47 left to play. The drought-ending jaunt provided the winning margin as the Tigers won their American Athletic Conference opener and improved to 4-1 on the season.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson
"Hats off to Temple," said Memphis coach Mike Norvell following the game. "They played extremely tough. We had some setbacks in the first half; wasn't the way we wanted to start the game. But our defense battled. We talk all the time: it matters how we start, but it's all about how we finish. We came out in the second half and played at an exceptionally high level."

Norvell acknowledged Pollard's touchdown was the biggest play of the game as it answered the previous scoring punch by Temple. But it was a game — particularly a second half — of big plays for Memphis. With just over two minutes to play in the third quarter and the Tigers trailing 13-6, junior tailback Doroland Dorceus took a hand-off around the left tackle and broke through for a 71-yard game-tying touchdown, the 21st score of Dorceus's college career.

"We ran a play to the [left] edge," said Dorceus, "and we saw the look they gave us. Coach called the same play, they showed the same look, I saw the hole, made a man miss, and got up the field. We needed a big play. It's no-panic mode at all times. Something's gonna pop. Nobody's gonna stop us. Only we stop us."

On Temple's next possession, Memphis defensive tackle Jonathan Wilson flattened Temple quarterback Phillip Walker inside the Owls' 10-yard line, a play that may or may not have contributed to Walker's next pass being intercepted by linebacker Genard Avery, who returned the pick 23 yards for a touchdown to give the Tigers their first lead of the game (20-13).

"They did what they had to do in the first half," said Avery. "We answered in the second half and came up with the win." Avery led Memphis with eight solo tackles and added a sack to the interception on his stat line. Haason Reddick led Temple with 11 tackles (8 solo) including five tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

A 28-yard touchdown run by Darrell Henderson extended the lead to 14 (27-13) midway through the fourth quarter, but Pollard's kickoff return would still be needed to seal the Tigers' fourth home victory of the season. Punter Nick Jacobs drew a running-into-the-kicker penalty late in the fourth quarter to extend a Memphis drive and senior cornerback Chauncey Lanier picked off Walker's final pass of the night to clinch the win.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Genard Avery

"Our defense was put in some tough situations early," said Norvell, "and to hold them to a couple of field goals allowed us to stay in the game. We used a lot of different faces. Our defense played 38 minutes, and that's difficult. And Chauncey Lanier, what a big play by an incredible young man. So proud of him."

In the first half, the Tiger offense looked like a unit playing its second game in six days. The Tigers managed only five first downs, 111 yards, and three points over the game's first 30 minutes and trailed by 10 (13-3) at the break. Jacobs and Spencer Smith combined for seven punts in the game and Memphis ran a total of 58 plays, compared with 88 (for 531 yards) by Temple. Tiger quarterback Riley Ferguson (17 of 26 for 174 yards) was outplayed by Walker (36 of 59 for 445) and the Owls' Jahad Thomas caught six passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns, one of them a 61-yarder. Dorceus finished with 93 yards on seven carries.

"We've got to clean up our mistakes," emphasized Norvell. "We've got to do better with our execution. This was a championship-level game. Their quarterback has been struggling early, but he made some plays, played like a four-year starter. I'm so proud of our guys, the way they finished."

In scoring 10 points, senior kicker Jake Elliott broke Stephen Gostkowski's career scoring record at Memphis. Now with 371 for his career, Elliott — twice the AAC's Special Teams Player of the Year — will likely become the first Tiger to reach the 400-point mark.

The Tigers will have seven full days to prepare for their next game, at Tulane on Friday, October 14th.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

AAC Picks: Week 6

Posted By on Thu, Oct 6, 2016 at 8:00 AM

SEASON: 43-7

Temple at Memphis

SMU at Tulsa

Cincinnati at UConn
East Carolina at USF
Houston at Navy


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