Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Nov 2, 2016 at 8:00 AM

Something is rotten in the state of defense at the University of Memphis. The last two games — losses to Navy and Tulsa — have exposed weaknesses that lay dormant through the Tigers' 5-1 start. After allowing 6.8 yards per play (78 of them) in Annapolis, the Tigers gave up 6.8 yards per play (87 of them) last Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl. This is not the kind of consistency any Tiger coach is preaching. (In four of the Tigers' five wins, Memphis gave up less than 4.5 yards per play.) Combine a nonexistent pass rush with an inability to stop the run — 447 rushing yards by Navy, 362 by Tulsa — and you allow, on average, 50 points as Memphis has the last two weeks.

Here's the challenge for head coach Mike Norvell and defensive coordinator Chris Ball: Is the problem related to personnel or scheme? It's almost surely a combination of the two. Ernest Suttles, Jonathan Wilson, Donald Pennington and their friends on the Tiger defensive line are not pressuring opposing quarterbacks. Worse, they're not filling gaps when an opponent runs the ball. And the Tigers' 3-4 alignment is clearly not built to withstand the push from the best American Athletic Conference teams. Norvell is cutting his teeth when it comes to involvement on the defensive side of the ball. Over the next four games, we'll see if adjustments — large-scale — can be made to save a season currently in free-fall.

• One of the most famous records in sports history was the long-jump mark Bob Beamon established at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. When he flew through the air for 29 feet, two-and-a-half inches, Beamon broke the previous record by almost two feet, or seven percent. His record stood for 23 years.
click to enlarge Mike Norvell and Matt Dillon - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell and Matt Dillon

Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl, Anthony Miller broke a U of M record that had stood for 51 years . . . and by 34 percent. In catching 12 passes for 250 yards, Miller erased the single-game Tiger mark of 186 yards through the air, set by Bob Sherlag on October 23, 1965, against Mississippi State at the Liberty Bowl (during the stadium's inaugural season). Miller now needs just 178 yards to become the second Tiger receiver to top 1,000 yards in a season. (Isaac Bruce's U of M record is 1,054, set in 1993.)

But what about Mr. Sherlag? Not exactly a name that rolls off the tongue in casual chats about Memphis football history. I asked Tiger sideline reporter Matt Dillon — the Professor himself — about Sherlag, and enjoyed the lesson. Sherlag's heroics helped an 0-3 Memphis team upset an undefeated (4-0), 9th-ranked Bulldog squad, 33-13. Sherlag caught passes from Billy Fletcher, a graduate of Southside High School in Memphis who became the first Tiger quarterback to pass for 1,000 yards in a season. Three of Sherlag's ten catches that day were for touchdowns, which tied the Tiger record at the time. He was chosen in the sixth round of the 1966 NFL draft by Philadelphia, but saw his only action as a pro with the Atlanta Falcons, for whom he caught four passes for 53 yards.

Let's hope Saturday's game in Dallas isn't the crossing of two programs going in opposite directions. After a 2-4 start, SMU has won two straight, including a thorough (38-16) beating of once-mighty Houston on October 22nd. The Tigers and Mustangs have faced three common opponents. They've both beaten Tulane. SMU lost big at Temple, while Memphis beat the Owls at the Liberty Bowl. And they've both lost to Tulsa, though SMU fell in overtime to a team that just beat the Tigers like a yard dog (in their own yard). Memphis destroyed SMU in their last two meetings by a combined score of 111-10. I don't get the sense this Saturday's game will be a blowout, one way or the other. SMU remains two wins shy of bowl eligibility (4-4), so motivation will be at a premium on both sides of the field.

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