Saturday, September 30, 2017

UCF 40, Tigers 13

Posted By on Sat, Sep 30, 2017 at 9:33 PM

No team in the American Athletic Conference has so thoroughly dominated Memphis as have the UCF Knights. With its thorough declawing of the Tigers Saturday night in Orlando, UCF has won 10 consecutive games in the series, many of the wins by similarly lopsided scores. (The Tigers' only win in the series came in 1990, before UCF was an FBS program.)
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Memphis actually led after the first quarter, thanks to a two-yard touchdown run by Patrick Taylor to culminate the Tigers' opening drive. But UCF took firm control of the game with a pair of touchdown strikes in the last five minutes of the first half. A 34-yard pass from Knight quarterback McKenzie Milton to Tre-Quan Smith made the score 23-7 at halftime, and the Tigers never mounted a comeback.

Senior quarterback Riley Ferguson personified the Tiger struggles, throwing three interceptions and losing a fumble in one of his worst performances at the FBS level. (Ferguson tossed a 14-yard touchdown pass to freshman Damonte Coxie on the game's final play.)

The Tiger defense continued to show serious flaws, allowing 603 yards (350 on the ground). Adrian Killins led the Knights with 115 yards rushing, most of them on a 96-yard touchdown gallop in the second quarter that gave UCF a 16-7 lead. Milton completed 19 of 31 passes for 253 yards and three touchdowns to help the Knights improve to 3-0 (1-0 in the AAC).

No Tiger ball-carrier gained as many as 50 yards and star receiver Anthony Miller was held to just three catches for 37 yards. Tony Pollard caught three passes for 75 yards.

The loss drops Memphis to 3-1 for the season (0-1 in the AAC). The Tigers travel north next week for a Friday-night tilt at Connecticut. The Huskies fell to 1-3 Saturday, losing 49-28 at SMU. The Tigers won their last meeting with UConn in 2014 (41-10) at the Liberty Bowl.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 27, 2017 at 8:00 AM

The Memphis program's kick-return desert has been transformed into the Tony Pollard Garden of Paydirt. After going two decades without a kickoff returned for a touchdown, Memphis has watched Pollard return four(!) in the last 12 games. No other player in the history of the program (dating back to 1912) has returned as many as two kickoffs to the end zone. Pollard is only a sophomore (he redshirted in 2015). After last Saturday's win over Southern Illinois, I asked Pollard if there's an extra gear he feels (or any kind of energy surge) when he recognizes the kind of opening that yields a 90-plus-yard return. "Once I see the end zone," explained Pollard, "I try to just look at the scoreboard [video]. I want to race myself. You have to have that second gear. You want to run full speed when you catch the ball, but you have to find another gear to kick in when you get through the crowd."
Jake Elliott
  • Jake Elliott

Jake Elliott may be the most humble Tiger football player I've interviewed. Kickers are a different breed, of course. When they walk in a room, you don't think, "Football Player." When Jake Elliott walks in a room, minus his jersey and shoulder pads, you might think, "Tennis Player." And you'd be right. Elliott was an exceptional high school player in Illinois. He attributes his mental strength — the singular focus required for success as a placekicker — to his days on a tennis court. That singular focus, along with the prodigious strength of his right leg, was on display last Sunday when Elliott connected on a 61-yard field goal as time expired to give his Philadelphia Eagles a victory over the New York Giants. In just the second professional game of his career, the 22-year-old holder of virtually every U of M kicking record won a game with a kick just three yards shy of the NFL record. It was especially gratifying to see the humble "kid" I knew for four seasons in Memphis being carried off the field by players 100 pounds heavier, but light as a feather for the breathtaking moment their rookie teammate had just delivered.

This Saturday's game (finally) with UCF could get away from the Tigers. Knights quarterback McKenzie Milton is an early-season candidate for American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year. He leads the AAC in pass efficiency and is second with an average of 269.0 yards per game. In UCF's beating (38-10) of Maryland last week, Milton ran for 94 yards on just six carries. Based on what I've seen the last two weeks (I missed the Harvey Bowl to open the season), the Tiger defense has gaps to fill. Memphis ranks 10th in the AAC (out of 12 teams) in pass defense, allowing an average of 344.0 yards per game. They've been opportunistic, though, the two game-shifting interceptions against UCLA being the prime examples to date. The Tigers will need to force some turnovers in Orlando, it would seem, to gain a possession advantage against Milton and friends.(With defensive backs Tito Windham and Shaun Rupert nursing injuries, we'll learn a lot about depth on the Tiger D this Saturday.) But the UCF defense (second in the AAC, allowing 266.0 yards per game) must stop Riley Ferguson, Anthony Miller, Darrell Henderson, Joey Magnifico, and Patrick Taylor, to name just five offensive threats in blue. And let's remember: whenever the Knights score, they must kick off. Which means Tony Pollard Time.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Tigers 44, Southern Illinois 31

Posted By on Sun, Sep 24, 2017 at 12:07 AM

"As long as they keep kicking 'em to me, I'm gonna keep returning 'em." Memphis sophomore Tony Pollard — a proud alum of Melrose High School — said this with a smile shortly after his Tigers completed their third victory of the season Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl. And why wouldn't Pollard be smiling? His 100-yard kickoff return near the end of the third-quarter erased any momentum the Salukis thought they'd gained by closing the Tiger lead to three points (27-24). Pollard's second touchdown on a kick return this season — and the fourth of his two-year college playing career — proved to be the difference in a game tighter than many of the 41,584 fans in the stadium would have preferred.
Riley Ferguson looks downfield. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson looks downfield.

"That's one of the biggest momentum swings you can have in a game," said a relieved Tiger coach Mike Norvell. "Our entire return unit takes a lot of pride in that. When you see them get the chance to impact a game like that, it gives a huge boost to our team. There were actually a couple of returns I would have liked to see go better, but they came to the sideline, made corrections, went back out and executed."

Entering the 2016 season, no player in Memphis Tiger history had returned as many as two kickoffs for touchdowns (and 20 years had passed since the last one). Pollard's record of four now looks as unreachable as Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak. "Our guys did a good job of holding their blocks," explained Pollard, "I bounced to the outside and I just saw green grass. In a game like this, it gave us an extra boost of confidence, got us over the hump."

The Salukis presented a larger hump than your typical Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) program. SIU quarterback Sam Straub threw a pair of touchdowns as Tiger pass-rushers leveled him in the first half and the visitors enjoyed leads of 7-0, 14-7, and 21-17 at halftime. (A missed tackle along the right sideline allowed the third Saluki touchdown with just 36 seconds remaining in the second quarter.)
Mike Norvell - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell

"We knew it was a 60-minute game," said Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson. "We knew they were a good team, that we couldn't take them lightly. It was about staying focused, playing better as a whole [in the second half]."

Ferguson led a four-play, 75-yard drive to open the second half, highlighted by a 55-yard pass completion to sophomore Pop Williams. Sophomore tailback Darrell Henderson scampered 14 yards for a touchdown to seize the lead back for Memphis, one the Tigers would not relinquish, thanks largely to Pollard's heroics.

"We knew this was going to be another battle," said Norvell. "They had a great game plan. All that matters is that you're one point better. One of our goals this season was to go undefeated in nonconference games, and we've done that. Our guys fought hard. There are some things we have to clean up. I keep talking about penalties. We are going to fix the personal foul penalties. I don't know how, but we're going to fix it."

Norvell continues to experiment with his placekickers. Spencer Smith — a Ray Guy Award candidate as one of the country's best punters — connected on a pair of field goals (35 yards and 31 Yards) and freshman Riley Patterson converted a third (30 yards). The Tigers scored on each of their seven possessions in the red zone (inside the opponent's 20-yard line).

Ferguson completed 22 of 36 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns. Henderson gained 71 yards on the ground and Patrick Taylor added 77 and a late touchdown to close the scoring. Wideout Anthony Miller was held to six catches for 47 yards but managed to move into second place on the Tigers' all-time receiving yardage list. (He needs 599 more yards to surpass Duke Calhoun's record.)

The victory improves Memphis to 3-0 for the second straight season, something no Tiger coach had accomplished since Zach Curlin in 1927 and 1928. Memphis opens conference play next Saturday in Orlando against UCF in a game that was rescheduled after being cancelled during Hurricane Irma's assault on Florida. (The Knights beat Maryland Saturday to improve to 2-0.) Count on this: When the Tigers are set to receive the ball, Tony Pollard will be in position to receive the kickoff.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 20, 2017 at 8:00 AM

• A nationally televised college football game is a recruiting tool. The significance of the Tigers' upset of UCLA in front of the ABC cameras last weekend should only grow with coach Mike Norvell's next recruiting class. The two biggest plays in the Memphis win were interceptions of Bruin quarterback Josh Rosen. The first was by redshirt-freshman Tim Hart, who returned his third-quarter pick 60 yards to extend the Tigers' lead to 41-31. The second was by true freshman T.J. Carter, a snag that ended a UCLA threat with the Tigers clinging to a 48-45 lead. Since the day he arrived at the U of M, Norvell has said the best players on his roster will be on the field come game day. High school players seeing freshmen star on national television are that much more inclined to consider wearing the same uniform when it comes to their own commitment.
Isaac Bruce (1992-93)
  • Isaac Bruce (1992-93)

• This has become an annual gripe (apologies), but will remain so until we see the right kind of action. There is no visible tribute at the Liberty Bowl for the six Tiger greats who have had their jerseys retired. It mystifies me. We're not talking about statues or engraved numbers under the sky boxes. How about a single banner? One that reminds Tiger fans of the names (and numbers) of those to have received the program's ultimate honor: John Bramlett (64), Isaac Bruce (83), Dave Casinelli (30), Charles Greenhill (8), Harry Schuh (79), and DeAngelo Williams (20). If this isn't a priority for Norvell or U of M athletic director Tom Bowen, I'm surprised it hasn't become one for alumni and boosters of the program. Such a banner could be created with what amounts to pocket change in a football budget. And it would lift hearts and spirits during every home game. Simply has to happen.

I can't see Southern Illinois being a trap game for the Tigers. Not this early in the season. Sandwiched between the "statement game" against UCLA and the rescheduled conference opener against UCF (September 30th), the contest won't stand out in any season wrap-ups . . . unless the Salukis pull off an upset. There was a time (as recently as 2013) when an FCS opponent would be welcomed as a nice break on the Tiger schedule, a game Memphis might, you know, win. (Memphis handled UT-Martin four years ago, one of three wins that season.) Today, it's a chance for Norvell and offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey to work out kinks in their scheme, for reserves to get off the bench for a few snaps, and for a little stat-padding among the Tiger skill-position players. (Anthony Miller needs only 30 yards receiving to move into second place on the Memphis career chart.) With three of the Tigers' following four games on the road, Saturday night should be a football party at the Liberty Bowl. And no injuries, please.

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

Tigers 48, #25 UCLA 45

Posted By on Sat, Sep 16, 2017 at 5:28 PM

"One game cannot define a season," said Memphis football coach Mike Norvell shortly after his Tigers had beaten the 25th-ranked UCLA Bruins at the Liberty Bowl. "But one game can be remembered."

Saturday's nationally televised game featured a combined 93 points and 1,193 yards of offense, but may come to be remembered for the final 10 minutes, during which neither team managed a point. Senior receiver Phil Mayhue caught a three-yard scoring strike from senior quarterback Riley Ferguson to give Memphis a 48-45 lead with 9:56 to play. It was Ferguson's sixth touchdown pass of the day, the game's sixth lead change, and, as it turned out, the final points of the contest.
Riley Ferguson - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson


"That was an exceptional game," said Norvell. "We talked all summer about this game being a showcase game. Memphis showed well today. Not just our football team, but the community support, every aspect of what we're trying to do. We didn't play a perfect game; there were mistakes we made. And against a really good football team. But our guys continued to push, continued to battle. I'm so proud, top to bottom." A crowd of 46,291 attended the game despite the ABC broadcast and the visiting team traveling across two time zones (with a relatively small traveling party in the stands).

The Tigers had a chance to increase their three-point lead with the ball inside the Bruin 30-yard line with just under four minutes to play. Norvell called a fake field-goal attempt, but freshman kicker Riley Patterson's pass was intercepted in the end zone. On its ensuing possession, UCLA was hit with an offensive pass-interference penalty. The Bruins' final breath was extinguished when a Josh Rosen pass on fourth down was deflected by freshman cornerback Jacobi Francis.

An All-America candidate, Rosen completed 34 of 56 passes for 463 yards and four touchdowns, but tossed a pair of critical interceptions to Tiger freshmen Tim Hart and T.J. Carter. Hart returned his 60 yards for a third-quarter touchdown and Carter's erased a fourth-quarter drive that could have given the Bruins the lead.

A graduate of Memphis University School, Hart was especially pleased to grab some spotlight after being redshirted last year. "I've grown a lot," he said. "It's a mindset. By coming here, you put your trust in the coaches. Memphis football is at a level it's never been before. I never took a day off."
Anthony Miller - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Anthony Miller

Senior wideout Anthony Miller had his first star showing of the season, catching nine passes for 185 yards. Ferguson completed 23 of 38 passes for 398 yards and six touchdowns (tying a career high, one shy of the Memphis single-game record). Tailback Darrell Henderson galloped 80 yards on the Tigers' first play from scrimmage and finished with 105 yards on the ground.

"We knew we wanted to be balanced," said Norvell. "We played 76 snaps on offense and 91 on defense. That was a grind, and against a top-25 opponent."

Ferguson relished the victory over a high-profile opponent (and high-profile quarterback). "We have to go out and try to score every time we take the field," emphasized Ferguson. "No matter if the other team scores or punts us the ball. Every time. Nothing changes for us. We believe in our defense. Don't worry about what the score is."

As for his favorite target, Ferguson delights in what he's come to expect as normal. "[Anthony Miller] is so good. If you throw him the ball, he's gonna make a play. I love having him on any defensive back in the country. It gets the juices going, seeing Ant make a big-time play." Miller caught consecutive passes — one a 41-yard, diving catch and the other for 33 yards into the end zone — to give Memphis a 27-24 lead just before halftime.

Linebacker Austin Hall and safety Jonathan Cook led the Tiger defense, each with nine tackles and one behind the line of scrimmage. Sophomore defensive tackle Jonathan Wilson sacked Rosen in the second half after serving a suspension in the first half for a targeting penalty in the Tigers' opener against Louisiana-Monroe.

The win improves the Tigers to 2-0 after a pair of hurricane-related false starts to the season. Memphis has started each of the last three seasons 2-0, a streak unmatched since 1959-61. The Tigers will host Southern Illinois next Saturday at the Liberty Bowl in their final nonconference game of the season.


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Friday, September 15, 2017

Memphis Tiger Basketball: 2017-18 Schedule

Posted By on Fri, Sep 15, 2017 at 11:52 AM

The American Athletic Conference has released its 2017-18 basketball schedule, finalizing the Memphis Tigers' slate of games for year two of the Tubby Smith era.

Fri. Nov. 10 — Alabama, Veterans Classic,  Annapolis, MD (5:30 p.m.)
Tue. Nov. 14 — Little Rock (7 p.m.)
Tue. Nov. 21 — New Orleans (7 p.m.)
Sat. Nov. 25 — Northern Kentucky (TBD)
Thur. Nov. 30 — at UAB (TBD)
Tubby Smith - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tubby Smith

Sat. Dec. 2 — Mercer (4 p.m.)
Tue. Dec. 5 — Samford  (7 p.m.)
Sat. Dec. 9 — Bryant (12 p.m.)
Tue. Dec. 12 — Albany  (8 p.m.)
Sat. Dec. 16 — Louisville, Gotham Classic, New York, NY (11 a.m.)
Wed. Dec. 20 — Siena (7 p.m.)
Sat. Dec. 23 — Loyola-MD (11 a.m.)
Thur. Dec. 28 — LSU (7 p.m.)
Sun. Dec. 31 — at Cincinnati (3 p.m.)

Wed. Jan. 3 — at UCF (6 p.m.)
Sat. Jan. 6 — Tulsa (3 p.m.)
Tue. Jan. 9 — Tulane (6 p.m.)
Sat. Jan. 13 —  at Temple (1 p.m.)
Tue. Jan. 16 — UConn (8 p.m.)
Sat. Jan. 20 — at Tulsa (7 p.m.)
Sat. Jan. 27 — Cincinnati (5 p.m.)
Wed. Jan. 31 — at USF (6 p.m.)

Sat. Feb. 3 — at East Carolina (1 p.m.)
Tue. Feb. 6 — Wichita State (8 p.m.)
Sun. Feb. 11 — UCF (3 p.m.)
Wed. Feb. 14 — at SMU (8 p.m.)
Sat. Feb. 17 — at Tulane (2 p.m.)
Thur. Feb. 22 — Houston (8 p.m.)
Sun. Feb. 25 — at UConn (TBD)

Thur. Mar. 1 — USF (8 p.m.)
Sun. Mar. 4 — East Carolina (2 p.m.)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 13, 2017 at 8:00 AM

There's no feel to this season. Not yet. No rhythm (if such can be felt in a sport with weekly games). The star of the Tigers' opener — two weeks ago — was Hurricane Harvey, or at least the last vicious breaths of that ravaging storm that so thoroughly drowned parts of Texas. Memphis escaped with a win over Louisiana-Monroe, but in front of no more than 10,000 drenched fans. Then last week's game at UCF was mercifully cancelled, this time a hurricane proving too much, even for a football game. So we're left with what many consider the Tigers' biggest game of the year — UCLA and a forecast of sunshine! — and very little sense of how strong this year's Memphis team might be. Quarterback Riley Ferguson and his band of talented receivers were declawed by the weather system on August 31st. Will they be ready to counterpunch a Bruin attack led by NFL-bound Josh Rosen under center, an offense that erased a 34-point lead in less than 20 minutes against Texas A & M? Sixty minutes of football at UCF — in reasonable conditions — would have suggested an answer. Until 11 a.m. Saturday morning, no one really knows, including the Memphis coaching staff. We'll have a feel for the 2017 Memphis Tigers by mid-afternoon Saturday.

"Our guys, I have to give them a compliment for the maturity they've shown," said Memphis coach Mike Norvell during his weekly press conference Monday. "They've handled a lot of different things and quite a good deal of adversity here early when it comes to the schedule and their routine. They're definitely looking forward to this Saturday."
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When I think of Memphis-UCLA I think of basketball. The Tigers have played in three Final Fours and faced the Bruins in two of them. Most famously, Bill Walton became a household name in the 1973 championship game, beating what remains the most famous team in Memphis sports history, one led by Larry Finch, Ronnie Robinson, and Larry Kenon. Thirty-five years later, the U of M (with Derrick Rose) whipped UCLA (with Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook) in San Antonio.

The Tigers and Bruins have only played once before on the gridiron, a 42-35 UCLA win in Los Angeles in 2014. That was the Tigers' second game of the season, Paxton Lynch's second start at quarterback, and the first real indication that a corner might be turned for the Tiger program. Memphis had a chance in the fourth quarter to knock off the country's 11th-ranked team. There seemed to be a renewal of hope two weeks later when Memphis handled Middle Tennessee at the Liberty Bowl. They went on to win eight of their last ten games and earn a ranking of 25 in the final AP poll. Here's hoping this week's game deepens the association of these two schools on the football field.

• AAC commissioner Mike Aresco likes describing his league — and the programs that comprise it — as "Power Six." The implication is that the AAC deserves equal standing with the likes of the SEC, Big 10, and Pac-12 . . . the fabled "Power Five" that centers college football. Since the Tiger program's revival in 2014, Memphis has played seven games against Power Five teams and won three of them. Two of those victories came against Kansas, though, one of the weakest programs in the classification.The 2015 upset of Ole Miss was historic (it extended a Tiger winning streak to an astounding 13 games). The four Power Five losses during this period: UCLA, Auburn (in the 2015 Birmingham Bowl), and Ole Miss twice. A win over UCLA — as televised live by the ABC cameras — would be a significant step in the right direction for Mike Norvell and this program. And it would give a little more credence to the notion of a "Power Six" league.

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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 6, 2017 at 9:58 AM

• Football games should not be played in hurricane conditions. My wife and I were stuck in the Philadelphia airport last Thursday as the lingering – and quite damaging — effects of Hurricane Harvey virtually shut down Memphis International Airport. Despite the weather being too violent for airplanes to land, the game between Memphis and Louisiana-Monroe at the Liberty Bowl played on. Who can we blame for such madness? The players? (Guffaw.) Coaches? (Chuckle.) U of M athletic director Tom Bowen? (Barely 10,000 fans — devoted and somewhat careless — showed up for the event. Not the kind of number that keeps an A.D. employed.) No, we have to, as always, follow the money . . . to CBS Sports. The cable network had a time slot sold, live football being one of the few remaining bankable ventures in mass media. Sponsors and advertisers craved the programming they supported, so the Tigers and Warhawks took the field. What a sad start to a promising season for Memphis. With more than 22,000 season tickets sold, at least 12,000 devoted Tiger fans chose to stay home, tickets in hand. (The brutal irony: These fans surely watched the CBS Sports telecast at home, at least if their electricity stayed on.)
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And this brings us to the Memphis-UCF game in Orlando, moved up a day to Friday with the hope of minimizing the exposure to Hurricane Irma. As I write (Wednesday), the forecast is for thunderstorms Friday, meaning it's likely the Tigers will have a second straight "bad-weather game" to endure. Football's a brutal sport in the best of conditions. When (or if) games are played in violent weather needs to be examined more carefully, with the wellbeing of players and fans taking priority over broadcast schedules.

No American Athletic Conference foe should motivate the Tigers any more than UCF. Dating back to their time as members of Conference USA, the Tigers have lost nine games in a row to the Knights. (The only Memphis win in this series happened in 1990, when UCF was a Division I-AA program.) Most of the losses haven't been all that close. (UCF won the last meeting in 2013, 24-17 at the Liberty Bowl.) The Tigers haven't scored as many as 25 points in any of the nine losses. The Knights put 61 points on the scoreboard in their season-opening win over Florida International. Perhaps a sloppy track will turn the game into a run-first confrontation, which could benefit Doroland Dorceus, Darrell Henderson, Patrick Taylor and friends.

"We understand the importance of this game," said Memphis coach Mike Norvell at his weekly press conference on Labor Day. "This is a game that we have spent a lot of time on this summer as a staff, making sure that we had our advanced scouting and work, preparing for this opportunity."

Should the Tigers beat UCF, it will be the third straight season Memphis has started (at least) 2-0. You have to go back to the JFK administration (and latter part of the Eisenhower era) to find a similar such streak for this program: 1959-61. This would be quite an achievement for players like Dorceus, Anthony Miller, and Genard Avery who have been key members of the team for at least three seasons.
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