Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Tue, Sep 8, 2015 at 10:07 AM

• Saturday night was a wholesome welcome back to football season at the Liberty Bowl, and for a team gaining traction (finally) with a population of local sports fans accustomed to looking forward to basketball season in September. Excluding games involving Ole Miss or Tennessee, the crowd of 41,730 was the 12th-largest in 50 years (and one game) of football at the Liberty Bowl. It was the third time since Justin Fuente's arrival in 2012 that the Tigers have drawn more than 40,000 fans to a cavernous stadium that seats more than 60,000. (For some perspective, in last season's opener — against an FCS foe — the crowd topped out at 27,361.)

Over the three seasons before Fuente arrived (2009-11), the Tigers averaged 23,263 for home games. The empty seats were a direct reflection of miserable play on the field, the collective sense being a program could be dying right before the (precious few) eyes of its most devoted fans. Now, you'd be surprised if the Tigers don't have 40,000 in the seats on September 24th when a rival for the American Athletic Conference championship (Cincinnati) comes to town for a Thursday-night tilt. In a half-century of football at the Liberty Bowl, Memphis has averaged 40,000 fans only three times: 1976, 2003, and 2004. (The latter two were at the height of DeAngelo Williams's college career, and the average his senior year — 39,991 in 2005 — fell just short of the mark.) Football season has arrived for the University of Memphis.
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• Considering the shortcomings of the Tigers' opponent Saturday night, I'll refrain from measuring individual performance until Memphis takes the field this Saturday at Kansas. (If Missouri State had 63 players in uniform — the limit for FCS programs — the Tigers had 130.) But the most inspiring sight in the lopsided Tiger win was actually multiple sightings of tailbacks landing in the end zone. Doroland Dorceus and Jarvis Cooper each scored a pair of touchdowns, the latter gaining 102 yards on just 18 carries. Add Sam Craft to the mix (72 yards on 12 carries) and freshman Jamarius Henderson (73 yards on 15 carries), and the Memphis offense has four sturdy wheels for an offensive machine set up more for lengthy strikes than the quick variety. With holes carved by a veteran offensive line and multiple targets downfield for a veteran quarterback (freeing up space beyond the line of scrimmage), I don't see a ceiling for the Tiger ground game.

• This Saturday's game at Kansas will be just the fourth in Tiger history against teams currently in the Big 12. (Memphis beat TCU in 2002 and has gone 1-2 against Kansas State.) And the Jayhawks — losers to South Dakota State last weekend — may finish tenth in the Big 12 this season (that would be last). But the Tigers need to play motivated, to treat this game like one of two they'll play against "Power Five" competition. (Kansas would likely finish in the bottom half of the AAC.) 

Should the Big 12 expand in the near future to 12 teams (imagine that), Memphis wants to be on the radar. The Tigers' performance in Lawrence could help create a blinking red dot that grows into something larger than mere distraction on that radar screen. How best to motivate a heavily favored team? If I were Justin Fuente, I'd find time to run a clip of a certain basketball game played on April 7, 2008. Most of the current Tigers were in middle-school (or younger) when Mario Chalmers broke a region's heart. They play for that region now, though, and aim to become the first Memphis team in 11 years to open a season 2-0. Gloves off. 

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