For the past few years, I've lived a mile east of the Liberty Bowl, and thus have made my way down Midland Avenue on foot or by car five or six times a season, en route to a Tiger football game at said bowl. As those of you familiar with the neighborhood know, there are railroad tracks running right along the south side of the football stadium, going across Hollywood, right as you turn off Midland.
Amazingly, in Murphy's Law fashion, I've found myself stalled in front of those tracks -- while a train goes by -- half the time or more that I've approached the Liberty Bowl before a game. It hasn't mattered if that kickoff has been at noon, three, seven, or whenever: a train comes rumbling by, and we, the loyal Tiger football faithful, sit silently in our cars, waiting for the train to move on by.
Last Saturday night was no exception. Like clockwork at 6:45 pm, a BNSF engine blew its horn and came rumbling across our path, forcing our own little group and a couple of thousand other folks to stop in their, um, tracks for five or so minutes.
"You know," observed one of my regular companions, equally familiar with this peculiar pre-game ritual, "you'd think RC (Johnson) or the President (of U of M) or somebody
y over there might just have enough influence with the train folks to call them up, explain what's happening, and get them to keep the tracks clear for an hour before game time. How hard is that?"
Evidently very hard. But then again, the inconvenience we all experienced at 6:45 Saturday evening was small potatoes compared to the train wreck of a football game that followed. The Tiger football program crashed and burned ignominiously last Saturday night, the U of M losing to Mississippi State, 29-17, in a game every bit as disheartening as any I've ever seen in that stadium.
I had been three weeks earlier to Birmingham, where I saw this Tiger football team shoot itself in the foot against UAB. But then I saw this same bunch play with grit and determination against a clearly superior Louisville squad here last week, and almost stage a historic comeback of the first order. So train delays notwithstanding, I showed up at the Liberty Bowl Saturday evening cautiously optimistic.
Silly me. We watched the Tigers "play" Mississippi State, the eleventh-best team (maybe) in the SEC. We watched the U of M gift-wrap a victory for a Bulldog program desperate for any kind of good news. I left, yet again, disappointed at and for the Tiger players. But my dominant emotion was anger: anger at a coaching staff that apparently hasn't a clue about how to keep such train wrecks from happening.
Don't take my word for this. Just listen to Jackie Sherrill. "The kicking game has been a downfall for them," the MSU coach said, speaking of the Tigers. "They've had some problems protecting the punter. The punter has been very erratic."
So this was Coach SherillÕs post-game observations? Not exactly. Believe it or not, this is what he had to say about the Tigers before
the game, not after, as printed in The Commercial Appeal
So Saturday night was, as Yogi Berra might say,dj vu
all over again. James Gaither's first punt was a low line drive with less hang time than an iron butterfly; it led to a 57-yard return that destroyed the Tigers' early-game momentum, after they'd scored a quick touchdown. A second shanked 27-yarder helped give the Bulldogs a chance to equalize in the second quarter, which is also when the U of M drove to the Mississippi State 2, before deciding to settle on fourth down for the "automatic" field goal. Just one problem: Stephen Gostkowski missed the sitter from the 18-yard line. When he did, the Tiger faithful exhaled en masse, almost audibly. That was the sound of the last air left in the 2002 Tiger football balloon rushing out into the cool night air.
Let me be blunt: Tigers' special-teams performance this even-more-painful-than-usual season has been a disgrace. A complete disgrace. Tiger radio commentator Bob Rush, in his post-game comments, jokingly suggested that the team might need to conduct campus-wide auditions next week for possible upgrades in the punting and field-goal kicking positions. Rush was being facetious; I'm not.
Change is urgently needed. Do something now, Coach West. Give those of us who have witnessed and winced ("Where have you gone, Jeff-y Buffaloe? A program turns its lonely heart to you...") some reason to think that you understand that the kicking game is the reason you're 2-5, not 5-2. Give those of us who call ourselves fans some reason -- any reason -- to come back to the Liberty Bowl two more times this season.
In recent times, excellent kicking has often been a Tiger football trademark. Not anymore. The school that gave the world All-American kickers such as Ryan White, Joey Allison and Jeff Fite (not to mention Jeff Buffaloe, who averaged a school record 43.5 yards per punt over his Tiger career in the early 1990s) has guys in these positions today that would be an embarrassment to a halfway decent high-school program. I have watched Tiger football for the best part of three decades, and can't remember a single season so dominated by kicking ineptitude.
Well, Coach West, at least you know what your recruiting needs are for next year. And yes, perhaps I'm being a little obsessive. After all, our rushing defense gave new meaning to the word "porous" Saturday, while if the NCAA had a statistical category for dropped passes, I feel confident we'd be leading the nation. And, yes, Danny Wimprine, the best quarterback we've ever had, had a stinker of the first order as well, particularly in the fourth quarter.
But none of this would have mattered -- certainly not against a team as mediocre as Mississippi State -- had we had any semblance of a special-teams game. Any semblance. How many times do our kickoff receivers need to catch the ball in the end zone and run it out to the eleven?
It may not be quite time to write off this season, but that time is getting close. For now, the coaching staff needs to focus upon the things that might bring much-needed progress in 2003. Insist upon playing a punter who can kick the ball at least 30 yards all the time. Make a rule for the clumsy receiver corps that if a guy drops a pass when he's wide open, he sits for a quarter. Hell, sit Danny Wimprine after he throws his third interception; despite his talent, the young man could sure use some thinking time. Meanwhile, get rid of this absurd no-huddle offense that continues, clearly, to confuse us more than it confuses our opponents.
The mood was decidedly ugly among the blue-clad masses filing silently and despondently into the parking lots after the game. I wouldnÕt be surprised if many of them donÕt return, at least during the 2002 season. I canÕt say as IÕd blame them at this stage; there's nothing all that pretty about watching a train wreck of a football team.