Thursday, September 26, 2013

"American" Football Picks: Week 5

Posted By on Thu, Sep 26, 2013 at 8:00 AM

LAST WEEK: 4-3
SEASON: 22-10

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SATURDAY
UConn at Buffalo
South Carolina at UCF
Houston at Texas-San Antonio
SMU at TCU
Miami at USF
Temple at Idaho

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Tigers 31, Arkansas State 7

Posted By on Sat, Sep 21, 2013 at 8:02 PM

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.

A jubilant football team (and band).
  • A jubilant football team (and band).

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."

Thursday, September 19, 2013

"American" Football Picks: Week 4

Posted By on Thu, Sep 19, 2013 at 8:00 AM

LAST WEEK: 5-3
SEASON: 18-7

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SATURDAY
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)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 18, 2013 at 8:00 AM

• 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.

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• 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.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Middle Tennessee 17, Tigers 15

Posted By on Sat, Sep 14, 2013 at 9:43 PM

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.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

"American" Football Picks: Week 3

Posted By on Thu, Sep 12, 2013 at 8:00 AM

LAST WEEK: 6-2
SEASON: 13-4

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SATURDAY
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

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 11, 2013 at 8:00 AM

• 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.

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• 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.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Duke 28, Tigers 14

Posted By on Sat, Sep 7, 2013 at 8:42 PM

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.

Tevin Jones hauls one in.

"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.

Paxton Lynch on the move.

"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."

Thursday, September 5, 2013

"American" Football Picks: Week 2

Posted By on Thu, Sep 5, 2013 at 9:43 AM

LAST WEEK: 7-2

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FRIDAY
UCF at Florida International

SATURDAY
Duke at Memphis
Montana State at SMU
Norfolk State at Rutgers
Houston at Temple
Eastern Kentucky at Louisville
USF at Michigan State
Cincinnati at Illinois

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 4, 2013 at 8:00 AM

• Big Game
It’s not Ole Miss or Mississippi State, but the Tigers’ opener against Duke is the first game we can truly call “big” since coach Justin Fuente arrived. The Tigers are not supposed to win. The Blue Devils cruised in Durham last year (38-14) and tuned up nicely last week with a 45-0 thrashing of North Carolina Central. Memphis will suit up for the first time Saturday and against the only power-conference team on its schedule. Duke’s the only team from a power conference the Tigers will play in either of Fuente’s first two seasons.

In the 16 seasons since Memphis upset Tennessee at the Liberty Bowl, the Tigers have exactly two victories over power-conference teams . . . both Ole Miss (in 2003 and 2004). Among ACC foes, Duke isn’t Florida State, Clemson, or Georgia Tech. But they are ACC. With a playmaker like Jamison Crowder in the fold (113 yards on five punt returns last week), the Blue Devils come to town with some bite. It will be interesting to see if the Tiger faithful top last year’s opening crowd (the UT-Martin game) of 39,076. I’m guessing they will. This is a big game.

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• Pay attention to pace.
A Tiger practice under Justin Fuente is built on frenetic rhythm. And it’s loud. A siren blares every five minutes, scattering football players at certain intervals from one station to another. Tiger players sprint from station to station, and they are led by assistant coaches and graduate assistants . . . and Justin Fuente. Last Wednesday, Fuente himself led a ball-carrying drill, screaming to those with pigskin in hand, “The most important thing we’ll do . . . take care of the ball!” The players dropped to the ground. No one fumbled.

Can the pace of a practice be translated to game day? This depends largely on the efficiency of the Tiger offense, of course. It’s easy to control the pace of a football game when chunks of yardage are being gained one snap after another. But whether or not freshman quarterback Paxton Lynch can rhythmically move the Tigers toward the end zone, I’m convinced Lynch and friends have been tasked with playing fast football. Not rushed football, which only leads to mistakes and turnovers. But fast football: to the line of scrimmage, play called . . . snap! A defense’s worst enemy is fatigue. Let’s see if the controlled frenzy that is a Tiger practice helps this year’s team win a game or two.

• Get your tickets!
I genuinely like the tickets-for-graduates program Tiger athletic director Tom Bowen has started: a pair of season tickets to the most recent class of U of M graduates. What a great way to engage those who should be the most important segment of the Tiger fan base. The more students and alumni cheering at a football stadium on Saturday afternoon, the stronger that football program will be.

But the program is also a statement on how large the Liberty Bowl (still) is, and how many more tickets there are to be sold, even with the positive buzz Fuente has delivered. The idea of such an outreach program at, say, Alabama is laughable. Here’s some amateur math to consider: $25 ticket (that’s a low figure) . . . two tickets per graduate . . . 5,000 graduates . . . six games = $1.5 million. The reigning national champs would essentially be giving away $1.5 million in value if they adopted the program Memphis graduates can now enjoy. Chump change in Tuscaloosa, perhaps, but the kind of revenue figure that would make a difference at the U of M.

Here’s hoping the day comes when demand for Tiger football tickets eliminates the need for donor programs. Until then, Tiger graduates, mark six (or seven) fall Saturdays on your calendars.

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