Thursday, September 29, 2016

AAC Picks: Week 5

Posted By on Thu, Sep 29, 2016 at 8:00 AM

SEASON: 37-6

UConn at Houston

Memphis at Ole Miss
UCF at East Carolina
USF at Cincinnati
SMU at Temple
Navy at Air Force
Tulane at UMass

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 28, 2016 at 8:00 AM

• Since upsetting 6th-ranked Tennessee on November 9th, 1996 — 20th anniversary in a few short weeks — the Memphis Tigers are 3-26 against the SEC. By SEC, I mean Tennessee (0-7), Mississippi State (0-9), Arkansas (0-1), and Ole Miss (3-9). I've long contended that the U of M harms its football program (twice) by scheduling SEC foes. In addition to a mark in the loss column, the Tiger program is outed as inferior by measure of the region's recruits. Is such damage worth a packed Liberty Bowl now and then? A fat check for traveling to Oxford or Knoxville?
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell

The Tigers are, of course, 1-0 against the SEC since 2015. And Memphis played a 10th-ranked Rebel team much tighter than expected two years ago in Oxford, an early indication of the turn-around we've seen over the course of 26 games since. This Saturday's contest will be the most talked-about Memphis game of the season, and by some distance. We will — finally — see Mike Norvell tested as a head coach, his roster measured against players who have already gone rounds with Florida State, Alabama, and Georgia. Will this be good for the Memphis program? The Tigers really have nothing to lose. If they're beaten, it will be in the stadium of a Top-20 team and they'll open conference play next week with a 3-1 record, a mark rarely seen in these parts. Should the Tiger offense continue to sling points like Jackson Pollock in a paint shop, Memphis may come home with its first win at Oxford in 12 years. Either way, it'll be worth watching, and fuel more debate on the value of SEC villains on the Tiger schedule. [Memphis will play Missouri in 2018 and 2023, Mississippi State in 2021 and 2022, and Ole Miss again in 2019.]

• You approach a fellow Tiger fan in your favorite watering hole this week. You ask him, "Did you see the touchdown number 6 scored Saturday night?" That friend — if he's the Tiger fan you think he is — would then ask, "Which number 6?" And you would slap the table in front of you, smile from ear to ear, and answer, "Both!"

Yes, Memphis suits up two players in number-6 uniforms: linebacker Genard Avery and running back Patrick Taylor. And they both scored against the Bowling Green. The scoring became so crazed last Saturday night that the Tigers seemed to run out of distinct digits for those who reached the end zone. Go to enough football games and you'll see 77 points scored again. But don't count on seeing 11 different players scoring touchdowns in the same game. (The total matched the number of Memphis players to score in the entire 2013 season.) Three seniors, six juniors, and a pair of freshmen reached pay dirt in the "901" helmets. And if you wore number 6 in black-and-blue you finished the game tied . . . with six points each.

An early-season stat I like: +8 turnover margin. An early season stat I don't like: three sacks for the Memphis defense. It's an elementary football fact, but worth remembering: A turnover is a double bonus, as it provides one team an extra possession while denying the team's opponent a chance to score (offensively). The U of M leads the AAC in turnover margin, having picked off seven passes and recovered four fumbles while only conceding three turnovers (two of them interceptions). The Tigers' chances this Saturday would improve mightily with a margin of plus-two at Ole Miss. Memphis would also help its cause with pressure on Rebel quarterback Chad Kelly. The Tigers are 11th in the 12-team AAC in sacks. Jackson Dillon won't be walking through the door anytime soon. Time for other Memphis pass-rushers to seize a moment or two.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Tigers 77, Bowling Green 3

Posted By on Sat, Sep 24, 2016 at 11:50 PM

Ole Miss, here come the Tigers.

Memphis coach Mike Norvell and his team can hardly be accused of looking a week ahead. Coming off a pair of lopsided wins (over SEMO of the FCS and Big 12 bottom-feeder Kansas), the Tigers tied a program record with 56 first-half points on their way to a school-record 77 and will enter next Saturday's showdown in Oxford with a spotless 3-0 record. This week's sacrificial lamb happened to have played for the MAC championship each of the past three seasons.
  • Larry Kuzniewski

"I'm proud of how we prepared, how we performed," said first-year Memphis coach Mike Norvell. "We talked about starting fast, going up against a high-tempo offense. I liked our first drive. Then our defense came out, gave up a play, but got acclimated and held them to a field goal. It was a dominant performance all the way around. It was the best week of practice we had. I was hoping we'd see a complete game. We were plus-four in takeaways. My biggest disappointment were the nine penalties. That's not who we are."

Junior quarterback Riley Ferguson accounted for seven touchdowns (one of them rushing) in the first half, completing 20 of 27 passes for 359 yards before being replaced by Jason Stewart after halftime. His touchdown passes went to six different teammates: Daniel Montiel, Phil Mayhue (40 yards), Sam Craft (43 yards), Tony Pollard, Anthony Miller (60 yards), and Roderick Proctor. The Tigers needed no more than 2:14 on any of their seven scoring drives in the first half and capitalized on three interceptions of Falcon quarterback James Knapke. Junior linebacker Genard Avery returned a pick 28 yards for a touchdown midway through the first quarter.

And the onslaught continued after halftime, Doroland Dorceus adding a touchdown (the 19th of his career) and the Tigers reaching 70 points for the first time since a win over Tampa on September 23, 1949. Eleven different Tigers scored the 11 touchdowns (a total not reached over the first six games of the 2011 season).

For the contest, Memphis totaled 635 yards of offense (8.2 yards per play) and held Bowling Green to 294 (3.9). Dorceus ran for 117 yards as the Memphis ground game gained some traction (240 yards). In addition to Avery's pick-six, Chris Morley and Dontrel Nelson had interceptions for the U of M. A crowd of 38,713 witnessed the scoring display.
Doroland Dorceus - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Doroland Dorceus

Norvell acknowledged growth in his quarterback, Ferguson adjusting nicely in his first year at the FBS level. "He was calm, patient, and went through his full progressions," said Norvell. "His confidence . . . he's improving, and we need to continue to have that to accomplish what we want to accomplish. Every week, they're going to get bigger and get better."

With 11 extra points, Memphis kicker Jake Elliott now has 357 for his career, 12 shy of Stephen Gostkowski's Tiger record. The Memphis offense was so surgical, so precise that Elliott did not attempt a field goal the entire game.

As for next week, Norvell noted that even in two losses (to Florida State and Alabama), Ole Miss had big leads. "They are arguably the most talented team in the country," he said. "It's going to be a great challenge. We'll come to work in the morning and focus on us." Memphis will be aiming to beat the Rebels in consecutive years for the first time since 2003 and 2004. Ole Miss beat Georgia handily earlier Saturday.

NOTE: Linebacker DeMarco Montgomery was ejected for targeting early in the second half. He will not be eligible to play in the first half at Ole Miss.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

AAC Picks: Week 4

Posted By on Thu, Sep 22, 2016 at 8:00 AM

SEASON: 28-4


Bowling Green at Memphis
UCF at Florida International
Miami (OH) at Cincinnati
Syracuse at UConn
East Carolina at Virginia Tech
Florida State at USF
Charlotte at Temple
Houston at Texas State
UL-Lafayette at Tulane
Tulsa at Fresno State

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 21, 2016 at 10:42 AM

• The Tigers are 2-0, having run roughshod over an FCS team and the hapless Kansas Jayhawks. When have we seen this before? Why, just last year, so you're forgiven the sense of deja vu. Are there any distinctions we can make, though, about this year's start, relative to the 2015 version (beyond a bye week splitting the two wins this month)? The Tigers won its first two games last year by a total of 88 points and averaged 585 yards in total offense. This year, the blowouts added up to "only" 54 points and Memphis averaged "merely" 400 yards of total offense. On the defensive side, the Tigers allowed an average of 242 yards last season and 283.5 this year.

Tigers QB Riley Ferguson - GOTIGERSGO.COM
  • Tigers QB Riley Ferguson
The Tiger ground game hasn't gained traction yet this season, most of its 205 yards against Kansas coming after halftime with the outcome already decided. Even with Paxton Lynch calling the signals last year, the Tigers ran for 317 yards against Missouri State and 281 at Kansas. Let's keep an eye on the Memphis offensive line and see what kind of push it can create in the next two games. If Sam Craft (hamstring) can return to action and supplement the efforts of Doroland Dorceus, Patrick Taylor, and a presumably healthy Darrell Henderson, the Tigers may ease the pressure on quarterback Riley Ferguson and the air attack.

• The most memorable game of the Tigers' 2015 season was the win over Ole Miss, but the victory at Bowling Green was the first indication that Memphis had a special team developing. The Tigers fell behind the Falcons on the scoreboard five different times (7-0, 14-7, 21-17, 34-27, and 41-34), before taking the lead on a Jake Elliott field goal with 7:35 to play and somehow holding BG quarterback Matt Johnson and friends scoreless the rest of the way. The Tigers 541 yards of offense were impressive until you considered the Falcons' 579. Johnson and Lynch combined to throw 84 passes without a single interception. Neither team lost a fumble. It was that great a football game.

Johnson will not be in uniform Saturday at the Liberty Bowl. Bowling Green's new quarterback, senior James Knapke, has completed barely 50 percent of his passes and thrown twice as many interceptions (6) as touchdowns (3) over the Falcons' first three games (two of them losses). The Falcons have allowed an average of 48 points and 533 yards to Ohio State, North Dakota, and Middle Tennessee. (A 77-10 loss to the Buckeyes skewed these numbers to "extra ugly.") Don't look for the kind of game we saw last season between Memphis and Bowling Green. But the Falcons will be superior to the Tigers' first two foes and, for good or ill, the team's best tune-up for Ole Miss on October 1st. 

• Quarterback Riley Ferguson appears to be where a talented-but-raw signal-caller should be in his first season at the FBS level. He's completed 64 percent of his passes for 484 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions. He also landed on his back more than he'd like in last Saturday's win over Kansas. "I don't like seeing our quarterback on the ground five times in a game," noted Tiger coach Mike Norvell at Monday's press luncheon.

After the game, Ferguson told me he's still working on achieving the high-speed tempo Norvell is preaching, starting with the relay of signals from the sideline after a play is blown dead. (Easier to do when not on your back.) Don't underestimate the offensive line's role in achieving this tempo. From tackle to tackle, five players must receive, understand, and execute their assignments — in sync — for the offense to gain full (and steady) speed. This brings us back to the need for progress with the running game. Ferguson will be tested in the weeks ahead and he'll determine how dangerous the Memphis offense can be. But that O-line, people. It will determine how dangerous Mr. Ferguson can be.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Tigers 43, Kansas 7

Posted By on Sat, Sep 17, 2016 at 3:52 PM

Rock, chalk, cake walk.

There was irony in the Tigers' thorough man-handling of Kansas Saturday afternoon at the Liberty Bowl. The University of Memphis — along with virtually its entire fan base — continues to aspire admission into one of college football's elite "Power Five" conferences. One of those leagues, of course, is the Big 12, longtime home to KU. But the Jayhawk football team, let it be said, displays nothing that remotely suggests "power." Woody Allen would appreciate the blurred standard between the club of Big 12 schools and one that would boast Kansas football as a member.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson

Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson connected with Anthony Miller for an 84-yard touchdown along the left sideline just over four minutes into the game and the rout was on. Two Jake Elliott field goals and a Doroland Dorceus touchdown run of six yards made the score 19-0 two minutes into the second quarter. The Jayhawks' only highlight of the contest came on a 66-yard dash by Khalil Herbert with 12:28 to play before halftime. But the Tigers responded with two more touchdowns before the break, one a Ferguson-to-Phil Mayhue timing route in the right corner of the end zone and then a 61-yard interception return by freshman defensive lineman Jonathan Wilson. 

Among the Jayhawks' ten first-half possessions, they had four three-and-out "drives," three lost fumbles, and the Wilson interception. It was as ugly as football often is at basketball schools. But it counts in the win column and gives Memphis consecutive 2-0 starts for the first time since the 2003 and 2004 seasons.

"We were coming off a bye week, and we've practiced 38 times," said Tiger coach Mike Norvell in opening his postgame press conference. "You can try and simulate the game, but you really can't get to that point until you kick it off. We talked a lot about starting fast. The defense did an incredible job; totally dominated. We got beaten on one unique play; they got us. Six take-aways. That's who we want to be as a football team. I was really pleased by the way the guys worked."
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Anthony Miller

When asked if the Tiger offense had made progress since the opener two weeks ago, Norvell noted the larger impact of his running game. "We ran the ball better, and it showed up. There are still some things we have to correct. Our tempo is not where it needs to be, [not fast enough]. I don't think we protected as well as we can. We're playing a lot of young faces. It's probably where we should be [at this stage of the season]." Ferguson was sacked five times and Kansas had ten tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

The Tigers gained 205 yards on the ground (much of it after the game was decided as a clock-eating device) and 189 through the air. Freshman Patrick Taylor led the running game with 88 yards on 13 carries. (Fellow freshman Darrell Henderson was sidelined with an illness.) Miller caught five passes for 93 yards.

Freshman linebacker Austin Hall and junior safety Jonathan Cook led the Memphis defense with eight tackles each, two of Hall's coming in the Jayhawk backfield. Senior defensive tackle Michael Edwards recovered two Kansas fumbles. Norvell said he hopes his defense can achieve a form of swagger, that the combination of fundamentals, technique, and belief in the system could distinguish the group.

"I want these guys to push," said Norvell. "I want them to be the best they've ever been. You have to put guys in adverse situations. The game of football is so wonderful; you see the highs and the lows. How do you respond? Today it was the defense. The defense had to step up after some miscues by the offense."

Ferguson agreed with his coach, that there's work to do in achieving the offense's desired tempo. "We need to make sure we're getting the signals faster from the sideline," said the junior quarterback after completing 15 of his 24 passes. "That's mostly on me, making sure the linemen are down, getting us going. There were times the defense was tired. We could have gone faster."

The early connection with Miller sparked Ferguson, and he suggests there's more to come. "I just put it up where he could go get it," said Ferguson. "He made an unbelievable play. Since I've been here, Anthony and I have had a really good connection, going all the way back to spring. We've built on that. It's going to get even better."

The Tigers return to the Liberty Bowl next Saturday night to host Bowling Green. The Falcons (1-2) lost to Middle Tennessee (at home) today, 41-21

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Thursday, September 15, 2016

AAC Picks: Week 3

Posted By on Thu, Sep 15, 2016 at 8:00 AM

SEASON: 19-3

Houston at Cincinnati

Kansas at Memphis
Maryland at UCF
Virginia at UConn
East Carolina at South Carolina
USF at Syracuse
Temple at Penn State
Navy at Tulane
Liberty at SMU
North Carolina A & T at Tulsa

Monday, September 12, 2016

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football: Week 2 - Kansas

Posted By on Mon, Sep 12, 2016 at 8:33 AM

• Kansas. Hmmm. Interesting opponent this week. This is the school that, on the hardwood, broke the hearts of Memphians worldwide in 2008. Perhaps even more sensitive to the Bluff City touch these days, Kansas is a member of the "Power Five" conference that earlier this month summarily rejected the University of Memphis as a viable candidate for expansion. Whether or not the players in uniform this Saturday are motivated to beat the Jayhawks, you can count on a motivated fan base showing up or tuning in.

Kansas blew out FCS foe Rhode Island in its opener then, last Saturday, fell behind Ohio 25-0 and lost at home, 37-21. The Bobcats carved up the Kansas defense, rushing for 329 yards. KU's offense was quarterback Montell Cozart (198 yards and two touchdown passes) and not much else (26 yards on the ground). Last year, you'll recall, the Tigers had their way in Lawrence with a 55-23 win, merely an early slap for Kansas in an 0-12 season. This is a program desperate for merely the scent of a victory over an FBS team. There's no reason the Tigers should give them one at the Liberty Bowl.

By the way, the last time Memphis enjoyed 2-0 starts in consecutive seasons: 2003 and 2004.

• Much has been said and written about the speed of the Tiger offense, and rightfully so. Against SEMO, the Tigers ran 73 plays in 27:59 of possession time. But speed could be an equally valuable component of the Memphis defense. No fewer than seven Tigers had tackles behind the line of scrimmage against the Redhawks. Linemen got through for these takedowns (Michael Edwards and Donald Pennington), but so did linebackers (Genard Avery and DeMarco Montgomery) and even defensive backs (Jonathan Cook, Dontrel Nelson, and Austin Hall). Swarming would be a good word to describe what we saw from the Memphis defense on September 3rd. As with every stat or observation from the opener, though, this comes with a qualifier: FCS opponent. Can the Tiger defense keep up with offenses like Bowling Green's, Ole Miss's, or (gulp) Houston's? I continue to believe it will be the Memphis defense that determines how far the 2016 Tigers rise. More backfield meetings with players in other colors would be a healthy trend.

• Pardon this annual gripe if you've read it before. But it's an oversight the U of M needs to correct (and I'm convinced it will be corrected, when the right stars align). There is no visible recognition of the Tigers' six retired jerseys at the Liberty Bowl. The stadium being a city-owned facility, I can understand a possible issue with something permanent (read: paint) saluting Dave Casinelli, John Bramlett, Harry Schuh, Charles Greenhill, Isaac Bruce, and DeAngelo Williams. But can a banner not be raised? Perhaps a flag (or six)? Tiger football is gaining traction in these parts, but has a ways to go before it can be considered a strong regional draw amid SEC programs in all directions. There actually has been very good football played at the Liberty Bowl (and before 1965, Crump Stadium). Why retire jerseys at all if you're not going to have the names (and numbers) in front of the faithful on fall Saturdays? Let's make this happen while I continue the campaign for a Larry Finch statue.

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Thursday, September 8, 2016

AAC Picks: Week 2

Posted By on Thu, Sep 8, 2016 at 8:00 AM


UCF at Michigan
Cincinnati at Purdue
UConn at Navy
NC State at East Carolina
Northern Illinois at USF
Stony Brook at Temple
Lamar at Houston
SMU at Baylor
Southern at Tulane
Tulsa at Ohio State

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Tigers 35, SEMO 17

Posted By on Sat, Sep 3, 2016 at 10:58 PM

It took 32 years, seven hires, and a university name change, but a man can walk the earth — at least for two weeks — and tell anyone who will listen that he is undefeated as the head football coach at the University of Memphis. Mike Norvell (two years old when Rey Dempsey won his Tiger debut in 1984) paced the Liberty Bowl hatless, unlike his recent predecessors Justin Fuente, Larry Porter, and Tommy West. But he delivered on a fast-paced offense and quick-to-close defense, the Tigers easily handling FCS foe Southeast Missouri State. It may not have been Ole Miss or Mississippi State on the other sideline, but Norvell likes the sound of "1-0."

"We started really fast," Norvell said to open his postgame comments. "I liked the way the guys competed. We turned the ball over three times in the first half, and we can't do that. It looked like a Game 1. We've got a bye week with plenty of things to work on. I like the way we started the game; we just have to make sure we maintain that for a full 60 minutes."

  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell
With the fan base's collective mood sagging after a Friday report that Memphis has been removed from consideration for Big 12 expansion, the Tigers delivered some temporary salve with the win. Led by junior quarterback Riley Ferguson — making his FBS debut — Memphis drove 75 yards in just 2:17 after receiving the opening kickoff to take an 8-0 (yes, 8-0) lead. Ferguson hit another Tiger rookie — freshman running back Darrell Henderson — on a 15-yard pass play for the season's first touchdown. The Tigers followed with a trick play, wideout Anthony Miller tossing a short pass to tight end Daniel Montiel for a two-point conversion. You had the impression that if an option for three points after the touchdown existed, Norvell would have taken it. 

Tailback Doroland Dorceus scored two touchdowns in the final two minutes of the first quarter, the first on a 3-yard run to complete a 73-yard drive, then a 13-yard reception after Tiger cornerback Arthur Maulet intercepted a pass by SEMO's backup quarterback, Dante Vandeven. (Jesse Hoskett re-entered on SEMO's next series and played the rest of the game.) A 23-yard Ferguson-to-Henderson connection midway through the second quarter essentially put the game away for Memphis. SEMO's Ryan McCrum hit a 26-yard field goal to make the score 29-3 at halftime, and Will Young galloped for a 61-yard touchdown early in the third quarter, but the Redhawks didn't close within 20 points until an Adrian Davis touchdown catch with 3:25 left on the clock.

Ferguson finished with 26 completions in 40 attempts for 295 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. "We executed pretty good at the beginning," he said. "I made some mistakes, made some throws I shouldn't have. We'll be fine. It felt good being back on the field. I had a little bit of nerves, but that first drive helped. We're 1-0 and that was our main goal. Just gotta get read for Kansas [on September 17th] now. I'm blessed to be here. It's an unbelievable opportunity."

Junior wideout Anthony Miller led the Tigers with nine catches for 103 yards. (He also averaged 11.0 yards on three punt returns.) The Memphis rushing attack was supplementary at best, a late 51-yard jaunt by Patrick Taylor almost doubling the team's total.

Defensively, the Tigers held SEMO to 253 yards and allowed only four third-down conversions on 15 such plays. When asked about the unit's focus entering the game, Maulet emphasized "execute." "Get the play and communicate," he added. "When we communicate and all 11 are on the same play, we're gonna stop everybody. That was the biggest thing."
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson
Maulet also acknowledged the boost the Tiger defense gets from the pace of the team's offense. "It helps us. I don't know how many plays the other team had [63], but we weren't even tired because how high the tempo is in practice."

The Liberty Bowl crowd of 42,876 was actually larger than the the one that saw last year's opener (41,730). After a bye week, the Tigers will host their next two games, against the Jayhawks (of the Big 12, mind you) and Bowling Green (September 24th). The Mike Norvell Era has officially begun in Memphis. Whatever the conference affiliation, winning sells tickets. So consider the 2016 season off to the right start.

"I'm so very grateful for this opportunity," said Norvell. "If you want to see what college football is all about, come to the Tiger Walk. That was one of the most impressive things I've ever been a part of, and I've coached at many places. You pull up and see a sea of blue. We understand everything we do on the field represents this community."

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Thursday, September 1, 2016

AAC Picks: Week 1

Posted By on Thu, Sep 1, 2016 at 8:00 AM

2013 record: 57-23
2014: 67-21
2015: 71-24

UT-Martin at Cincinnati
Maine at UConn
Tulane at Wake Forest

SEMO at Memphis
South Carolina State at UCF
Western Carolina at East Carolina
Towson at USF
Army at Temple
Oklahoma at Houston
Fordham at Navy
SMU at North Texas
San Jose State at Tulsa


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