Other than the one-mile-per-hour traffic leading west to the Liberty Bowl, the last day of September had the makings of a near-perfect football Saturday in Memphis. (And if you wonder, football fans, why the NFL passed up Memphis 14 years ago, it has much to do with that kind of traffic lag.) With the 15th-ranked Tennessee Volunteers in town -- loved by thousands at the Liberty Bowl in orange, loathed by thousands more in blue -- the University of Memphis had a national stage (thanks to the ESPN cameras) for what has come to be called a "statement game." Still looking for its first 2006 victory over a Division I-A foe, coach Tommy West's Tiger squad had two weeks to prepare for the cross-state SEC behemoth that continues to be the dismissive big brother to the ever-aspiring local program. It was a game to narrow a gap, to open a few more eyes.
Then the Vols' James Wilhoit kicked off.
Forty-one points, 324 Erik Ainge passing yards, and but a single UT punt later, Memphis had suffered the second worst drubbing in the 21-game history of this one-way series. Only a touchdown pass from Martin Hankins to Duke Calhoun with less than four minutes to play prevented the first shutout in the six-year West era. And the game was every bit as ugly as the final score.
"This was on me," said a composed West after the game. "I did a very poor job of preparing our football team for this kind of game. The fact is, they were the more physical team, and we didn't help ourselves by a lot of missed assignments. I still think this can be a good football team, so I have to find a way to make it a good team, and bring them along."
It's never a good sign when the home team's punter is the star of the game. The Tigers' Michael Gibson booted his way closer to the Ray Guy Award by averaging more than 50 yards on his seven kicks, including two of 70 yards and three that pinned Tennessee inside its own five-yard-line. But the boost in field position wasn't nearly enough to slow the Vols' offensive attack.
Quite honestly, a football staff couldn't have picked a worse game to open the lid on a new defensive scheme. Having taken over the recently fired Joe Lee Dunn's chores, West's aggressive defense merely looked confused as one Vol receiver after another found gaps in coverage, all the while losing the struggle along the line as well. After the game, West admitted the defensive transition is an extra hurdle his team has to leap.
"In the first quarter, I tried to help them too much," said West. "I was dealing pretty good, bringing linebackers. But they hit some creases with their running game. Then when we went to more of a base defense in the second quarter, I thought we got a little better. But then we had busted coverages on the first two series of the second half. That's my job to make sure they can check. It was a 13-0 game, and we were a touchdown away from being right in the game."
Memphis fans would like to think the nullified touchdown scored by linebacker Quinton McCrary on a first-quarter interception return would have made a difference. (The touchdown, which would have given the U of M a 7-3 lead, was wiped out when defensive end Corey Mills was called offsides.) The play would have given the blue side of the stadium something to cheer -- other than a Gibson punt -- but it would merely have interrupted the romp.
Things don't get easier for West's bunch. If you think Memphis has had trouble with Tennessee (five straight losses now), remember the program's six-game skid against this weekend's opponent, the Blazers of UAB. And as a conference foe, UAB is actually a more critical rival than UT for the Tigers to confront. Unless his defense takes considerable strides in a week's time, and Hankins supplants Gibson as the most talked-about Tiger with a ball in his hands, West is staring at a 1-4 record before an October 14th "showdown" with Arkansas State at the Liberty Bowl.
"At least we have a game on tape now," noted West, "to show them how it works, and what needs to be done. You have to trust the defense, and run the defense. It can get worse before it gets better, but I stand by the decision [to dismiss Dunn].
"We're trying to find a way to win a football game. We have to find a way to get a win, and I think we'll do that. This was ugly, and it kills me. But we have to go to work now and get ready for the next one. We're not where we'd like to be, but I think we'll probably get some leaders out of this. When it's going good, it's easy."