Monday, December 1, 2014

Memphis Tiger Football: A Roaring Engine

Posted By on Mon, Dec 1, 2014 at 8:00 AM

As far as three-year rebuilding plans go, we have a new standard. In December 2011, Justin Fuente was given the keys to a rusty, oil-burning pile of scrap with (maybe) one partially inflated tire. Today — three regular seasons later — Fuente is behind the wheel of a machine Matthew McConaughey would be pleased to drive. The 9-3 Memphis Tigers — read that record again — will play in a bowl game, to be announced this Sunday. They’ll take the field for that postseason tilt — the program’s first in six years — riding a six-game winning streak, something not seen in these parts since 1969. For a long-suffering Memphis football fan base, the wait (’til this year) is over.

Ironically, the first signs of legitimate progress for the Tiger program were the team’s first two losses of the season. Memphis traded punches with 11th-ranked UCLA on September 6th, tying the game at 35 early in the fourth quarter when senior safety Fritz Etienne returned an interception for a touchdown. Three weeks later in Oxford, the Tigers trailed 10th-ranked Ole Miss, 7-3, entering the fourth quarter. Coming up short in these two games seemed merely to fuel the motivational fire, particularly for a defense that — led by defensive coordinator Barry Odom and eight senior starters — climbed its way to elite status, surrendering only 17.1 points per game.

The last Memphis team to win nine games (2003) featured the greatest player in Tiger history (DeAngelo Williams) and, not incidentally, the program’s most accomplished quarterback (Danny Wimprine). According to Fuente, this year’s team lacks a definitive headliner: “There’s no superstar on either side of the ball. This group is selfless, and they’re good listeners. That’s an important trait.” The lack of a season-long headliner didn’t mean the 2014 Tigers were starless. They just shared the spotlight, one week to the next.

Paxton Lynch passed for 305 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for another score in the loss at UCLA, enough to earn him American Athletic Conference Player of the Week honors. He hasn't thrown an interception in six games.
Tank Jakes had a game (against Middle Tennessee) that would have made Jack Lambert proud: two sacks (one for a safety), a forced fumble (that led to a Bobby McCain touchdown), and an interception.
• Sophomore kicker Jake Elliott split the uprights as time expired at Temple on November 7th, culminating a 66-yard drive over the game’s final 2:40 to clinch bowl eligibility for the Tigers.
• After injuries sidelined running backs Doroland Dorceus and Sam Craft, senior Brandon Hayes took over, rushing for 199 yards against Tulsa and 189 against USF. Once a walk-on, the White Station alum personifies his team’s rise from irrelevance to conference champions for the first time in 43 years.

What’s the difference in the culture of Tiger football today and that of 2011, Larry Porter’s last as head coach? Best to ask a four-year senior who has experienced both. “Maturity,” says defensive end Martin Ifedi, now the Tigers’ alltime sacks leader. “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]. [Coach Fuente] doesn’t tolerate certain things. We understand what he wants. We play hard on the field for each other."

You’ll hear the Tigers caught a break by not having East Carolina or UCF (both AAC heavy hitters) on the schedule. But there’s a corollary: The Pirates and Knights each caught a break by not having Memphis on their schedule. The first test of any champion is beating the teams you’re supposed to beat. The Tigers were undefeated in such games this fall, and added tough wins at Cincinnati and Temple to their ledger. With nine wins, they are already in the Memphis history books (only five Tiger teams have won as many). Should they win their bowl game, the 2014 Tigers will join the 1938 team (10-0) as the only 10-win clubs in the program’s history. Worry about the newly popular Fuente’s future after that bowl game. For now, relish a singular football team with an engine humming on all cylinders.

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