Monday, November 3, 2014

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Mon, Nov 3, 2014 at 9:36 AM

• Go ahead and say it: “November’s here and the University of Memphis football team is tied for first place.” After two rather seismic upsets last Saturday in the American Athletic Conference — Temple over East Carolina and UConn over UCF — five teams find themselves atop the league standings with 3-1 records, including the Memphis Tigers. (Making the loss to Houston on October 11th sting a little extra.) Several dominos must fall precisely for the Tigers to win their first conference title in memory, but how nice to have the conversation, to speculate about a championship — in football! — as the leaves turn red and orange.

Late last Friday night — Halloween, remember — Memphis coach Justin Fuente said that, after East Carolina, “there isn’t a nickel’s worth of difference between anyone else” in the American. By the time the Owls finished off the 21st-ranked Pirates the next day, Fuente had some believers. (And Tiger fans had a new reason to fret over this Friday’s tilt in Philadelphia.) Memphis has a distinct advantage over the season’s final four weeks in that the Tigers do not play ECU or UCF, until last Saturday the American’s standard bearers. (UCF’s loss to the Huskies was the Knights’ first defeat in league play. Ever.) You have to believe that the league champion will be the team — among those 3-1 now — that wins its remaining four games. UCF and ECU play each other. Houston and Cincinnati play each other. That leaves Memphis as the league-leading outlier, tasked with facing three teams already saddled with at least six losses . . . and Temple. Big game this Friday night. Huge.

Justin Fuente

• The story of the season remains the Tiger running game. Memphis rushed for 243 yards against Tulsa, the fifth time this season the U of M has topped 200 yards on the ground, all victories. Brandon Hayes galloped for 197 yards — a career high — and is now within 35 yards of becoming the eighth Tiger running back to gain 2,000 yards for his career. Hayes’s 51-yard jaunt late in the first half against Tulsa gave Memphis the lead in what had become an uncomfortably close game. His 30-yard touchdown with 10 minutes left on the clock clinched the win for the Tigers and the first wining streak (if but two games) of the season.

And Saturday night was simply Hayes’s turn in the spotlight. Jarvis Cooper and Sam Craft each had 100-yard efforts before Hayes. And sophomore Doroland Dorceus was on his way before a season-ending injury against Ole Miss in the fourth game of the season. The ball carriers may change, but the offensive line has remained a constant, particularly the four Tigers who have started every game: tackles Al Bond and Taylor Fallin, guard Tyler Uselton, and center Gabe Kuhn. It’s no coincidence that the same team that leads the American in scoring (36.2 points per game) also leads the league in rushing (206.0 yards per game). Memphis and Cincinnati, it should be noted, have allowed the fewest sacks (10) among AAC teams. Particularly with cold weather’s arrival, the strength of an offensive line is a premium component to winning football games. Memphis seems to be in good hands (at least ten of them).

• Cold, blustery weather, Friday night, and (maybe) Halloween limited attendance at last week’s game to 26,846. (The lure of national TV trumps any concession to local high school football competition.) But the Tigers’ attendance average after four home games — 33,342 — ranks third in the American, behind only East Carolina (44,755) and UCF (40,156). If the figure holds through the end of the season, it would be the program’s largest attendance average since 2005, when the Liberty Bowl hosted an average of 39,991 for DeAngelo Williams’s final college season. With the Tigers all but certain to secure bowl eligibility (one more win) and possibly competing for a conference championship, the games against USF (November 22nd) and UConn (November 29th) become more and more attractive. The trick, of course, will be convincing local basketball fans that late November is still football season.

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