Saturday, November 29, 2014

Tigers Beat UConn, Clinch AAC Championship

Posted By on Sat, Nov 29, 2014 at 8:23 PM

In a game that completed a half-century of Memphis football at the Liberty Bowl, the Tigers made plenty of history in beating the Connecticut Huskies today. The final score of 41-10 is almost the direct inverse of last year’s meeting (a 45-10 UConn win) and completes a precise reversal of the Tigers’ 3-9 record last season. In winning their ninth game of the season — a total reached by only five other teams in U of M history — the Tigers clinched at least a share of the 2014 American Athletic Conference championship. It’s the program’s first league title since winning the Missouri Valley Conference in 1971.

Keiwone Malone

“I want to thank everyone who came out to tonight and supported this special, special group of kids,” said Tiger coach Justin Fuente of the 35,102 fans in attendance. “I don’t think I can say enough good things about them. The way they worked . . . . I don’t know if they’re the most talented team around, but they certainly played together. This was a fantastic all-around effort.”

The 2014 Tigers are just the second team in Memphis history to score 400 points in a season. With a total of 416, they could break the record of 430 (set in 2004) in their bowl game (still to be determined). The team’s current six-game winning streak is the program’s longest since 1969, and the nine wins this season match the total for the four-year seniors — honored before kickoff today — who played from 2011 to 2013.

The Memphis offense had difficulty gaining early traction against UConn (2-9), settling for a pair of Jake Elliott field goals in the first quarter. But late in the second quarter, quarterback Paxton Lynch found senior wideout Keiwone Malone on a six-yard fade pattern to complete an 80-yard touchdown drive and give the Tigers a 13-0 lead, all the points they’d need.

Lynch threw three more touchdown passes on three consecutive third-quarter possessions to fully prep Tiger fans for a championship celebration unlike any seen in these parts. He found Malone again (for nine yards), then Tevin Jones (for 12), and Phil Mayhue (for 21). For the game, Lynch completed 22 of 41 passes for 194 yards and did not throw an interception for the sixth straight contest. He also rushed for 56 yards in helping the Tigers score on all six entries into the red zone.

“After the Houston game [the Tigers’ last defeat], I made a bet with myself to not turn the ball over and hurt my team,” said a jubilant Lynch after the game. He finished the regular season with 18 touchdown passes and six interceptions (half of them in that Houston game).

Tailback Brandon Hayes had the unique experience of a second Senior Day, having been granted a sixth year of eligibility last spring (he missed the 2010 season due to a knee injury). Hayes gained but 65 yards today, but will lead Memphis in rushing yardage a third straight season. “After we beat Cincinnati, I knew we had the chance to be contenders, to win the conference,” said Hayes. “But Coach [Fuente] stayed on us, told us not to look past the next opponent. Just go 1-0. Everybody bought into it.”

Hayes and the 20 other Tiger seniors will be the faces of one of college football’s most remarkable recent turnarounds. “When I saw the confetti flying, I got choked up a bit,” he said. “I was just grateful to come back and showcase what I had. This is all bonus. It’s a great feeling. Going out with a bang like we did, the seniors deserve it. It means so much. We trusted in the coaches.”

Cornerback Bobby McCain is another senior grateful to be making plans for a bowl game and fully aware of the difference his class has made in Tiger football history. “We were just trying to get to a bowl game, do something special,” he said. “Coach Fuente told us during offseason workouts that we had the chance to do something special. He meant it. When we lost to UCLA, you could tell the way we came together. And then beating Middle Tennessee, a team we hadn’t beaten since I’ve been here. The seniors are great leaders. They come in ready to work. I’m gonna miss these guys. But I’ve got one more game to play.”

Fuente recognized the contributions — and not just this year’s — of the 2014 senior class. “They have set a great example for our young kids,” he said. “They’ve been selfless. Some of them don’t start, some play a lot on special teams. But they don’t do anything but try and help the team, every day. Think about what these kids have been through, and to achieve something a lot of people didn’t believe they could achieve. It speaks volumes about their character and work ethic. It will take them a long way in life. I think you’ll see them successful in whatever endeavor they choose.”

The Tigers must wait to see if their conference championship is theirs alone. For such a scenario, East Carolina must beat UCF next Thursday and Houston must beat Cincinnati next Saturday. Meanwhile, the Tigers will relish the finest season in 50 years of football at the Liberty Bowl, and await the December 7th announcement of where they’ll be traveling for postseason football. Birmingham? Miami? Atlanta? Doesn’t matter so much, as long as that confetti is flying.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Tigers 72, Indiana State 62

Posted By on Fri, Nov 28, 2014 at 9:22 PM

In a town known for hangovers, the Tigers showed some strong recovery powers in beating Larry Bird's alma mater tonight in the consolation game of the Las Vegas Invitational. In spite of the game tipping off merely 18 hours after a drubbing at the hands of Baylor, Memphis surged over the latter 10 minutes of the first half, outscoring the Sycamores, 29-5, to take control of a game they'd lead the rest of the way.

Indiana State took an early 17-11 lead, but the Tigers tied things at 17 on a dunk by Shaq Goodwin with 8:53 to play before halftime. Back-to-back three pointers by guard Avery Woodson closed the first-half scoring at 40-22, Tigers.

The U of M extended the lead to 20 (46-26) before going cold in the second half. The Sycamores closed within seven points (56-49) on a three-pointer by center Jake Kitchell with 2:19 left to play. But Kitchell fouled out 20 seconds later and the Tigers hit their free throws down the stretch, outscoring Indiana State 10-8 over the game's final minute to even their record at 2-2.

The Tigers shot 46 percent from the field and limited the Sycamores to 33 percent. Goodwin led Memphis in the scoring column with a season-high 19 points. Trahson Burrell came off the bench to score 15 and was joined by Woodson (12), Nick King (11), and Austin Nichols (10) in double figures. Brenton Scott led Indiana State with 12 off the bench.

The Tigers will play their next nine games at FedExForum, starting next Tuesday when they host Stephen F. Austin. They won't play another road game until they visit SMU on January 8, 2015.

Baylor 71, Tigers 47

Posted By on Fri, Nov 28, 2014 at 8:15 AM

In a game that began late Thursday night and ended early this morning, the Tigers fell to Baylor in the semifinals of the Las Vegas Invitational. The U of M played well Thursday night (at least in the central time zone), taking a 32-29 lead over the Bears into halftime. But after midnight . . . all pumpkin. Baylor outscored the Tigers 42-15 over the game's final 20 minutes to improve to 5-0 on the season. Memphis dropped to 1-2 and will face Indiana State in tonight's consolation game.

The Tigers shot poorly (34 percent from the field, including a dreadful 4-for-21 in the second half) and again had trouble distributing the ball (eight assists against 14 turnovers). Baylor commanded the glass, too, pulling down 43 rebounds to the Tigers' 32.

Pookie Powell led Memphis with 13 points off the bench but was the only Tiger in double digits. Shaq Goodwin (1 for 6) and Austin Nichols (3 for 10) never found a rhythm on offense. Goodwin again came off the bench but contributed only two points and four rebounds in 24 minutes. The most encouraging figure for the Tigers was their 40-percent mark from three point range (6 for 15). Powell, Avery Woodson, and Markel Crawford each hit two from long distance.

The U of M has not started a season 1-3 since the 2000-01 season, John Calipari's first as head coach at Memphis.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

"American" Football Picks: Week 14

Posted By on Thu, Nov 27, 2014 at 8:00 AM

Last Week: 5-0
Season: 61-18


Houston at SMU
East Carolina at Tulsa

UConn at Memphis
Cincinnati at Temple

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

21 Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Nov 26, 2014 at 8:00 AM

The University of Memphis will conduct its annual Senior Day ceremony this Saturday before the Tigers kick off against Connecticut. Unlike the previous five such ceremonies, this one will not mark the final college game for the honorees. All 21 seniors will be in uniform for a bowl game and, with a win against the Huskies, would play that bowl game as champions of the American Athletic Conference. A win Saturday would also make this just the sixth Tiger class to win nine games as seniors.

Terry Redden

• You didn’t see five members of this class on the field all that much, unless you looked carefully at special teams. But they toiled through two-a-days in August, stretched muscles and tendons in the weight room, and devoted themselves to a football cause under coach Justin Fuente. Football’s too brutal a game for “role players.” These young men have earned — with sweat and grit — the ovation they’ll hear Saturday: Sam Billings (DS), Melvin Jones (DE), Larry Lawrence (DT), Kevin McIntyre (OL).

• You’ve probably read the Brandon Hayes story a few times now. After starring at White Station High School, Hayes endured a redshirt season and two seasons lost to injury before climbing his way up the depth chart to a starring role at tailback. He leaves the U of M as the eighth player in Tiger history to rush for 2,000 yards in his career. Linebacker Ryan Coleman transferred to Memphis from Idaho State after the 2011 season and has started 17 games over the last two seasons. Safety Fritz Etienne played a season at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas before transferring to Memphis. A reserve in 2013, Etienne has started every game as a senior. Cornerback Andrew Gaines has been one of three senior starters in the Tiger secondary and has three interceptions this season. Nykiren Wellington started 11 games on the offensive line as a junior and has been on the field as a reserve this season. Joe Craig and Adrian Henderson have been part of the deepest core of receivers the Memphis program has enjoyed in years. And linebacker Tank Jakes? Check out his numbers: 58 solo tackles, six sacks, 15 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, an interception, and a safety. Jakes is a lock for all-conference and will receive votes for the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year.

Charles Harris

• Nine Tiger seniors deserve an extended salute for having played in 2011, the dreadful 2-10 season under Larry Porter that resulted in Porter’s dismissal and the hiring of Justin Fuente. They are the only group in Memphis history to win but two games as freshmen and then reach a bowl game as seniors.

Linebacker Derek Howard has been a special-teams regular and played in at least 10 games each of his first three seasons, just like defensive lineman Kendrick Golden, who has played in more than 40 games over his career. Right tackle Al Bond will make his 41st career start against the Huskies Saturday. Over one stretch this season, Bond was on the field for 401 consecutive offensive snaps. Mitchell High alum Keiwone Malone transferred from Alabama before the 2011 season and has caught 113 passes over his career, tied for 8th in Tiger history. Bakari Hollier has been a regular in the much-improved Tiger secondary and leads the team this season with eight pass break-ups.

Bobby McCain

Nose tackle Terry Redden — a graduate of Whitehaven High School — has started 28 games as a Tiger and made life miserable for opposing interior linemen. Before the season began, Fuente suggested Redden could be the most valuable member of his defense. Linebacker Charles Harris — another Whitehaven alum — has started every game since his sophomore season and is one of two current Tigers (along with Jakes) with more than 100 solo tackles in his career. Defensive end Martin Ifedi earned first-team all-conference honors as a junior and will leave the program with the most sacks (22.5 through last Saturday) in Memphis history. And finally, cornerback Bobby McCain. The closest thing to an offensive force on the Tiger defense, McCain will make his 42nd career start against UConn. He has 11 career interceptions and returned a fumble 59 yards for a touchdown in the September win over Middle Tennessee.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Tigers 77, Prairie View A&M 49

Posted By on Mon, Nov 24, 2014 at 10:15 PM

The Tigers won their 12th straight home opener tonight, easily handling Prairie View A&M in front of a relatively sparse FedExForum crowd. (If there were 14,412 fans in attendance, as announced, many of them spent the entire game at concession stands.) The Panthers scored the first field goal of the game before falling behind 15-2. With less than 12 minutes played, Memphis had a 26-11 lead and room to experiment with a rotation still to be determined in the young season.

Shaq Goodwin

With a 22-6 edge on the boards, the Tigers led 38-23 at halftime, shooting proficiently from the field (60 percent) and the free-throw line (85 percent). By game's end, those percentages had dropped to 50 and 75, respectively, but the U of M (1-1) had secured its first win of the season and sent the Panthers to their fifth loss in five games.

Shaq Goodwin led the Tigers with 16 points in 23 minutes, hitting all six of his shots from the field. Junior forward Trahson Burrell contributed 9 points and 9 rebounds. They were two of nine Tigers to play between 16 and 28 minutes as coach Josh Pastner explores the strengths (and discovers the frailties) of a team still getting to know one another.

Freshman Markel Crawford and sophomore Avery Woodson started in the backcourt and each drained a pair of three-pointers, Crawford finishing with 9 points in 20 minutes and Woodson with 8 in 18. After a horrid 4-assist, 24-turnover showing in their opener last week against Wichita State, the Tigers dished out 15 assists tonight against 16 turnovers.

There was a common word mentioned by players after the game, an ingredient that can only be found through winning basketball games. "It feels good to finally get a win with this new team," said Goodwin. "To see [Crawford and Woodson] have the confidence to keep shooting was amazing. That means a lot to this team. Hopefully it will bring up their confidence, they'll keep shooting, and we'll be fine."

Added Crawford, "Confidence has probably been the biggest issue, only because we've been thinking too much. We have to play through the post, and seeing our big men do the job boosts our confidence." Sophomore forward Austin Nichols had 7 points and 3 blocks in 16 minutes.

"It's nerves," said Woodson, when asked about the confidence factor. "We're trying to form a team. We have individual talent, but we need to get more games under our belt and get a good feel for each other. We all have to be productive for us to be a great team. For some of us, it's our first time playing at this level. It's a matter of being comfortable out there."

With a confidence-boosting first win under their belt, the Tigers will head to Las Vegas, where they'll face Baylor Thanksgiving night (tip-off at 11 p.m.) in the first of two games in 24 hours.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Tigers 31, USF 20

Posted By on Sat, Nov 22, 2014 at 7:57 PM

Tiger coach Justin Fuente calls it a weekly "quest to go 1-0." With their win today over the South Florida Bulls at the Liberty Bowl (in front of 34,635 fans), Fuente's Tigers have fulfilled that quest five weeks in a row, earning the Memphis program eight wins for the first time since DeAngelo Williams's junior campaign of 2004. It's the program's first five-game winning streak since Williams was a sophomore.

Paxton Lynch (12)

After spotting the Bulls an early 3-0 lead, the Tigers scored on consecutive first-quarter possessions, quarterback Paxton Lynch running the ball into the end zone to culminate each drive. (Lynch's 10 rushing touchdowns this season ties a Memphis record for quarterbacks set in 1961 by James Earl Wright.) In addition to the two touchdowns on the ground, Lynch passed for a pair, a 42-yarder to Mose Frazier in the second quarter and an 11-yard toss to senior tailback Brandon Hayes in the third. This was the sixth game of the season Lynch has both run and passed for touchdowns. Hayes rushed for 189 yards on 21 carries, the second-highest total of his career.

Down 28-13 midway through the third quarter, USF drove the ball inside the Tigers' 20-yard line, only to turn the ball over on a fumble forced by sophomore linebacker Jackson Dillon. It was the last time the Bulls threatened before scoring in garbage time.

The victory improves the Tigers' record to 8-3 and secures a tie atop the American Athletic Conference with a league record of 6-1. Memphis will clinch at least a tie for the AAC championship with a win next Saturday against Connecticut.

"There's no superstar on either side of the ball," said Fuente after the game when asked how the 2014 Tigers will be defined. "This group is selfless, and they're very good listeners. That's an important trait."

Martin Ifedi

Among the faces of the team will be senior defensive end Martin Ifedi. With the game in hand, Ifedi broke through the USF line in the fourth quarter to sack USF quarterback Mike White. The tackle gives Ifedi 22.5 sacks for his career and places him alone atop that chart in the Memphis record book. "It's a great feeling," said Ifedi. "[My teammates] knew how much this meant to me. We've joked around since the offseason. I was kind of afraid we'd get a penalty for excessive celebration."

The sack was but one of eight tackles-for-loss accumulated by the Tiger defense, which still allowed 396 yards for the game. (The Tigers gained 470 on 19 fewer plays.) Senior linebacker Tank Jakes contributed eight solo tackles.

Lynch completed 18 of 23 passes for 232 yards and didn't throw an interception for the fifth straight game. "The past two weeks, Mose has managed to slip by the defense and I've been able to find him," said Lynch. "We're gonna enjoy this tonight, but tomorrow we'll get right back to work. UConn got us pretty good last year.

With one home game left in his college career, Ifedi smiled when asked to reflect on the growth he's seen since the Tigers went 2-10 his freshman season (2011). "The young guys know what it takes now. We have great coaches who came in and showed us the vision. We implemented the plan in the offseason, and were consistent [with our work] in the offseason. [Coach Fuente] doesn't tolerate certain things. We understand what he wants. We play hard on the field for each other."

The Tigers return to the Liberty Bowl next Saturday to host the Huskies on Senior Day. Kickoff is scheduled for 3 p.m.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"American" Football Picks: Week 13

Posted By on Thu, Nov 20, 2014 at 8:00 AM

Last Week: 4-1
Season: 56-18


USF at Memphis
Tulane at East Carolina
Cincinnati at UConn
Tulsa at Houston

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Tigers Fall to Wichita State in Season Opener

Posted By on Tue, Nov 18, 2014 at 3:36 PM

The Tigers confirmed some early-season worries this afternoon in their season-opener in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Facing the 11th-ranked Wichita State Shockers (a team that didn't lose last season until the NCAA tournament), Memphis trailed throughout, shot the ball woefully, and suffered poor guard play from a collection of rookies that combined for two assists and 13 turnovers in 40 minutes of basketball. (Tiger forwards combined for 11 more turnovers. And two assists.) Final score: Wichita State 71, Memphis 56.

Ron Baker led the Shockers with 21 points, while Fred VanVleet added 15 and Darius Carter 12. Nick King paced the Tigers with 16 points while Austin Nichols and Avery Woodson (one of those rookie guards) added 10 each.

The loss is the first to open a Tiger season since the 2003-04 campaign, though it came against the highest-ranked opening opponent since Memphis faced 8th-ranked Louisville to start the 1975-76 season.

Both teams shot like it was their first game of the season, the Tigers missing ten of their first twelve attempts from the field and the Shockers not separating until the final minute of the first half when the Wichita State lead was stretched to seven (29-22). The Shockers pulled away over a two-minute stretch early in the second half, extending a 35-29 lead to 44-29 on a jump shot by Tekele Cotton.

Memphis shot 40 percent from the field and missed seven of nine attempts from three-point range. King led the Tigers with seven rebounds and Nichols blocked six shots. Limited by foul trouble, junior forward Shaq Goodwin was held to four points and six rebounds.

The Tigers return to FedExForum next Monday night when they'll host Prairie View A & M at 7 p.m.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Mon, Nov 17, 2014 at 8:00 AM

• When the 7-3 Memphis Tigers — riding a four-game winning streak — take the field this Saturday at the Liberty Bowl, local football fans will witness something seen but once in that stadium since 1970. The only time the Tigers have played at home with so many wins (and on such a lengthy winning streak) since Richard Nixon was in the White House was on November 22, 2003, when sophomore DeAngelo Williams helped Memphis beat Cincinnati to improve to 8-3. Having beaten Temple and Tulane on the road the last two weeks, the Tigers will aim for the program’s fifth five-game winning streak over the same period. (The streaks came in 1972, 1975, 1992, and 2003.)

In case you haven’t noticed, this isn’t your big brother’s Memphis football program. The Tiger defense ranks eighth in the country in points allowed (17.5 per game). You’ve heard of the teams in front of them: Ole Miss, Alabama, Wisconsin, Penn State, Marshall, LSU, Stanford. Led by eight senior starters, the Memphis defense encapsulates coach Justin Fuente’s remarkable three-year transition. The 2011 Tigers allowed 35 points per game with some of this year’s seniors on the field as freshmen. Those seniors — and all their teammates — are now making Memphis history when they take the field. Here’s hoping space is limited at the Liberty Bowl Saturday afternoon.

Paxton Lynch

The statistic that continues to jump off the screen for this team is the offense’s performance in the red zone (inside the opponents’ 20-yard line). Memphis has entered scoring territory 43 times this season and come away with points on 40 of those occasions. Only four teams in the country have a higher red-zone percentage and the Tigers actually have a higher touchdown percentage (65 percent) than the top two teams (UCLA and Missouri). Why the remarkable efficiency? Three reasons.

The Tigers have the deepest running attack in the American Athletic Conference. Doroland Dorceus and Sam Craft had their star turns before injuries sidelined them. But senior Brandon Hayes, freshman Jarvis Cooper, and last Saturday, freshman Robert Davis, have carried the ball for the most critical yards on the field. Secondly, the Tiger attack continues to be fueled by its best offensive line in years. Among AAC teams, only Cincinnati has allowed fewer than the 14 sacks allowed by Memphis. And finally, sophomore quarterback Paxton Lynch has played like a senior in the red zone. Lynch has thrown but six interceptions in 303 attempts and leads the Tigers with eight rushing touchdowns.

• Should two (or three) teams tie atop the American Athletic Conference standings at season’s end, the league will declare co-champions. Which means Memphis is two home wins from its first conference title in 43 years. (The Tigers earned the 1971 Missouri Valley championship by going 3-1 in league play. The team finished that season 5-6, winners of something called the Pasadena Bowl.) Adopting the team’s current philosophy, the Tigers must go 1-0 against South Florida (a team that snuck by winless SMU last Saturday) and then 1-0 against Connecticut (2-7) two days after Thanksgiving.

As for the teams currently tied with Memphis with one league loss, Cincinnati (a team the Tigers have beaten) plays at Connecticut, at Temple, and hosts Houston, while UCF (not on the Tiger schedule) hosts SMU, then travels to USF and East Carolina. With only two regular-season games left to play, and both at home, the Tigers have a decided inside track to the AAC championship . . . and any consideration given for a spot in the “New Year’s Six” bowl games. One more reason to rub your eyes in wonder at the fortunes of a long-beleaguered program.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Tigers 38, Tulane 7

Posted By on Sat, Nov 15, 2014 at 6:10 PM

The Tigers capitalized on a turnover-prone Tulane squad to win their fourth straight game and retain a hold on first place in the American Athletic Conference. The winning streak is the program's longest since 2003. With an overall record now of 7-3, Memphis has clinched its first winning season since going 7-6 in 2007.

Memphis scored the only ten points of the first half, the first touchdown coming on a 15-yard interception return by senior cornerback Bobby McCain just 1:55 into the game (the 11th pick of McCain's career). Sophomore kicker Jake Elliott connected on a 22-yard field goal in the second quarter, a rare highlight in a half that featured a total of nine punts, four turnovers, and two missed field goals.


The Tigers extended the lead to 17-0 a little over five minutes into the second half on a 38-yard pass from Paxton Lynch to Mose Frazier. Lynch later scored on a four-yard run, his eighth rushing touchdown of the season. This was the fifth game of the season Lynch has both passed and run for touchdowns.

A week after upsetting Houston, Tulane (3-7) turned the ball over five times. Sophomore cornerback Dontrell Nelson picked off a Tanner Lee pass late in the third quarter and returned it 58 yards for a touchdown. Those turnovers were the difference in a game that the Green Wave offense actually outgained the Tigers (351 yards to 334). Brandon Hayes and Robert Davis led Memphis on the ground with merely 47 yards each. (Davis scored the game's final touchdown with just over a minute to play.) Lynch completed 14 of 25 passes for 178 yards and moved into third place on the Memphis career passing-yardage chart (behind Danny Wimprine and Martin Hankins).

Now 5-1 in conference play, Memphis can clinch the AAC title with wins at the Liberty Bowl the next two weeks. South Florida (3-6 entering tonight's game at SMU) visits next Saturday and Connecticut travels south for the regular-season finale on November 29th. The last time the Tigers won nine games in a regular season: 1963. (The 2003 team finished 9-4 after winning the New Orleans Bowl.)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"American" Football Picks: Week 12

Posted By on Thu, Nov 13, 2014 at 8:00 AM

Last Week: 2-2
Season: 52-17


East Carolina at Cincinnati

Tulsa at UCF

Memphis at Tulane
Temple at Penn State

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Tigers Drop Exhibition to CBU

Posted By on Wed, Nov 12, 2014 at 10:55 PM

I'll resist snark. It's too easy tonight. The Tigers lost their first exhibition game in 18 years (not since Larry Finch's last as head coach at his alma mater). For Trey Casey, Ryan Fleming and the rest of the CBU Buccaneers, it's a game they'll recall for grandchildren 30 and 40 years from now. The only silver lining for the U of M: No matter what happens the rest of the 2014-15 season, the Tigers' most embarrassing loss is behind them.

Wondering if Tiger sophomore Kuran Iverson might have made a difference in the overtime loss? Memphis coach Josh Pastner described the forward's not playing as "coach's decision." Perhaps a lesson was taught before the games count in the standings. Plenty of other lessons were, at the least, introduced tonight. Here are four big-picture thoughts as the season-opener against (gulp) Wichita State next Tuesday approaches.

• The Tiger backcourt is a time-share, and I'm not convinced Pastner knows any more than we do about the production he'll receive this season. Pookie Powell played so poorly in the first half, he was given but two minutes of playing time in the second. Pastner described Vanderbilt transfer Kedren Johnson as "not good, whatsoever" after the game. Johnson had six turnovers, including a critical one with the game tied and 14 seconds left in regulation. Avery Woodson played 30 minutes, part of a seven-man rotation in the second half. But he missed eight of 11 shots (six of eight from three-point range). There were a lot of slings and arrows aimed at the four senior guards that shaped last season's squad. With this year's team, there may be a new target for criticism, one game to the next.

Markel Crawford

Markel Crawford is the best athlete on the team. And I think he'll lead the guards in minutes played this season. He's active defensively, appears unafraid with the ball in his hands (both inside and on the perimeter), and seemed to play with a confidence few other Tigers showed tonight. (Remember, he was with the team last season as a redshirt.) He led the team with five assists in 29 minutes. Of course, he missed four of five three-point attempts, which means he blended well tonight. (Sorry . . . snark.)

• This team is in dreadful need of a shooter. And Pastner knows it. ("There's a question mark with our shooting," he said after the game.) They will not win games from the perimeter, meaning they have to feed the ball to forwards Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols, which furthermore means they have to push the ball up the floor . . . prevent defenses from collapsing around the Tiger twin towers. "In my six years as coach here," said Pastner, "this was the slowest pace we've ever played." Here's where we have to watch how Pastner coaches, how he teaches. Shooting can't be taught once a player reaches college. (Fine-tuned, yes. But shooting can't be learned when you're 18 or 20 years old.) But Pastner can teach his guards how to play faster, to pressure defenses with ball movement, and feed the big men before defenders have established position.

• Nichols is supremely talented, but I think Goodwin will be the pulse of this team. He has the chance to be a version of Hall of Fame-bound Kevin Garnett, the rare forward who can will his teammates to wins through emotional impact. Goodwin has to play with fire; this much is a given. There's not enough talent around him for anything less. But he must also show the fire. There was a stretch tonight — midway through the second half — when Goodwin hit a pair of baskets (one an alley-oop dunk on a feed from Nichols) and captured the FedExForum crowd. The Tigers went up 50-43 with 8:35 to play and seemed to have the game (finally) in hand. Then he (and his teammates) faded.

An entire season remains to be played. You'd like to say the Tigers can start from scratch in South Dakota next week. It just doesn't feel that way.

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Nov 12, 2014 at 9:02 AM

The Tigers are having a good season, but they have the chance to make it historic. Between 1960 and 1963 — the program’s true golden era — the U of M won at least eight games (and lost no more than two) every season. Those were the Tigers of Dave Casinelli, John Bramlett, Harry Schuh, and Russ Vollmer, coached by Spook Murphy. Never before or since have the Tigers even approximated a four-year record of 33-5-1. And since 1964 — a half-century — the Memphis program has a total of four 8-win seasons.

The 1969 Tigers went 8-2, losing only to Ole Miss and Tennessee. In 1973 — Fred Pancoast’s second as coach — Memphis went 8-3. (It should be noted that none of these teams, including those from the early Sixties, played in a bowl game. There weren’t 35 of them way back when.) The 2003 Tigers — led by record-breaking quarterback Danny Wimprine and All-America tailback DeAngelo Williams — went 9-4 (only the fourth 9-win season in program history) and followed up with an 8-4 season in 2004. This year’s team would have to suffer an ugly collapse to fall short of eight wins. The question seems to be whether or not nine (or even 10) enters the record book.

I continue to be amazed by the Tigers’ depth at wide receiver. Eight players caught passes from Paxton Lynch against Temple . . . and Lynch only completed 21. Tailback Brandon Hayes caught two, as did tight end Alan Cross. Then there was Mose Frazier (a whopping eight catches for 110 yards), Keiwone Malone, Adrian Henderson, Tevin Jones, Phil Mayhue, and Roderick Proctor (the last two are freshmen). Somehow senior Joe Craig missed out on the aerial fun (he returned three kickoffs). For the second straight season, Memphis may not have a receiver accumulate 600 yards (Jones leads the team with 374). But the number of talented options at the disposal of Lynch and offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey is an extraordinary luxury. Imagine the pressure to catch any pass thrown your way if you’re a Memphis receiver hungry for playing time. Competition shapes champions, especially when it’s internal.

I like the Memphis-Tulane series. The two programs don’t exactly qualify as historic rivals, having met but 30 times on the gridiron. But among American Athletic Conference foes, only Cincinnati has faced Memphis more times (32). A college in Memphis and a college in New Orleans: longtime river-city rivals, if not the kind of football series that draws ESPN’s “Game Day.”

The Tigers have won their last seven games with the Green Wave. Tulane was the only FBS team Memphis beat in 2011, and in New Orleans. Tulane enters Saturday’s game with a nice win (at Houston) on its resume, but with losses to two teams Memphis has beaten (Tulsa and Cincinnati). The Green Wave averages a paltry 19.6 points per game (115th in the country), though they put up 31 against the Cougars last Saturday. The Tigers aim to secure their first in-season four-game winning streak since 2003. Nothing’s automatic in the Big Easy, but it’s always fun.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Tigers 16, Temple 13

Posted By on Fri, Nov 7, 2014 at 10:22 PM

For the first time in six long years, the Memphis Tigers are bowl-bound. When Jake Elliott's 31-yard field goal attempt just cleared the left upright as time expired tonight in Philadelphia, the U of M secured its sixth win of the season and retained a portion of first place in the American Athletic Conference. Better yet, the Tigers avenged perhaps the ugliest defeat in coach Justin Fuente's three years at the helm, a 41-20 loss to Temple last November at the Liberty Bowl.


After the Owls tied the game with a 45-yard field goal by Austin Jones with 2:46 to play, the Tigers drove the ball 66 yards to set up the winning kick. Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch completed short passes to Mose Frazier, Tevin Jones, and Keiwone Malone around ground gains by tailback Brandon Hayes. (In rushing for 75 yards on 26 carries, Hayes became the eighth Tiger to rush for 2,000 yards in his career.) Elliott's winning field ended one of only two second-half drives that didn't culminate in a punt for Memphis, the other being a 27-yard field goal that gave the Tigers a 13-10 lead late in the third quarter. (That field goal was set up by a fumbled punt recovered by the Tigers' Regis Ball at the Temple 10-yard line.)

With the exception of a 75-yard touchdown run by the Owls' Kenny Harper late in the first quarter — a score that gave Temple an early 10-0 lead — the Memphis defense contained an offense commanded by dual-threat quarterback P.J. Walker. Several Walker passes hit targets, only to be dropped or deflected (one of them intercepted by Tiger cornerback Andrew Gaines in the second quarter, deep in Memphis territory). The Tigers held Temple to 308 total yards (4.4 yards per play), enough for them to win their first game of the season without gaining 200 yards on the ground (81).

The Tigers also protected the ball against an Owl defense that forced seven turnovers in an upset last Saturday of East Carolina. The only Memphis miscue came on a Temple punt that deflected off B.J. Ross before being recovered by the Owls. Temple was unable to score despite taking over at the Tigers' 25-yard line.

The Tigers' lone touchdown came shortly after a shanked punt by Temple's Alex Starzyk. From the Temple 41, Lynch completed a 24-yard pass to Frazier, then a 17-yarder to Hayes who entered the right corner of the end zone untouched to tie the game at 10 with just under four minutes to play before halftime. After the break, the teams combined for eight punts and three field goals, the Tigers' game-winning drive the only steady display of offense.

Now 6-3 (4-1 in American play), Memphis has a chance to make a good season rather special. The Tigers' three remaining games are against AAC bottom-feeders Tulane (next Saturday in New Orleans), USF (November 22nd at the Liberty Bowl) and UConn (November 29th at the Liberty Bowl). Two more wins would give the program just its fifth 8-win season in more than 50 years. Memphis also remains in the hunt for the American championship, currently a five-team race alongside ECU, UCF, Houston, and Cincinnati.

For now, there's plenty to celebrate in merely gaining bowl eligibility. One year after finishing 3-9, three years after finishing 2-10, the University of Memphis is riding a three-game winning streak toward postseason football. Wait 'til this year, indeed.

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