Friday, October 27, 2017

#24 Tigers 56, Tulane 26

Posted By on Fri, Oct 27, 2017 at 11:50 PM

On a raw, cold Friday night at the Liberty Bowl, the Memphis Tiger offense stayed red hot. At least for the first 20 minutes against Tulane.

Having scored touchdowns on their last six possessions of their previous game (at Houston on October 19th), the Tigers scored on five of their first seven drives Friday to take a 35-0 lead against their longtime rivals from New Orleans. Despite a midgame lull that allowed Tulane back in the contest, the Tigers secured their fourth straight win to improve to 7-1 overall and 4-1 in the American Athletic Conference, still in command of the league's West Division.
Riley Ferguson - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson

"We knew we had to start fast tonight," said Memphis coach Mike Norvell. "This Tulane club presented so many challenges. That's a good football team that's getting better. We had to have balance, be able to run the football. Our offensive line did a great job, our backs did a phenomenal job. Our guys prepared this week with a purpose. They know that every challenge we see will continue to get bigger."

Sophomore Darrell Henderson led the ground attack with 112 yards on 10 carries, highlighted by an 82-yard touchdown scamper early in the second quarter that gave Memphis a 28-0 lead. Another sophomore, Tony Pollard, scored the game's first touchdown when he took a reverse pitch and carried it 58 yards to pay dirt just 4:18 into the game. When Tiger quarterback Riley Ferguson connected with sophomore Kedarian Jones for a 37-yard touchdown pass, the Tigers seemed to have locked up the victory, leading 35-0 with 11:20 to play before halftime.

Memphis then played more than 25 minutes of football without scoring. Ferguson tossed an interception — his seventh of the year — in Tulane territory shortly before halftime, a turnover that led to a Tulane touchdown at the other end on the last play of scrimmage in the second quarter. The Tigers were then forced to punt on their first three possessions of the third quarter. The Green Wave had closed the margin to 16 points (35-19) until Tiger linebacker Austin Hall recovered a fumble in the Tulane end zone for a Memphis touchdown not quite three minutes into the fourth quarter. A pair of Ferguson touchdown runs in the game's final 10 minutes completed the scoring and gave the Tigers their second-largest point total of the season.

"Our guys played fast," emphasized Norvell. "They had a lot of confidence in our plan. I was pleased to see the big plays. I'd like to see us sustain it a little better. We had that turnover late in the first half. When you're able to score 56 points, it's a good night. But we have to be more consistent with what we're doing."

Linebacker Genard Avery had a stellar game to lead a much-improved Memphis defense, accumulating 5.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, including 3.5 sacks of Tulane quarterback Jonathan Banks. The win gives Avery and other four-year Memphis seniors a new program record for career victories with 34. (The previous record of 33 was held by the 1963 senior class.)
Anthony Miller - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Anthony Miller

Senior receiver Anthony Miller made an acrobatic catch in the first quarter for his tenth touchdown of the season and the 32nd of his remarkable career. He pulled down the 200th reception of his career and, with 75 yards for the game, surpassed Duke Calhoun for the most receiving yards in Memphis history (now 2,987).

"Anthony is a special player, a special person," said Norvell. "His work ethic is truly what separates him. He's the best, hardest-working player I've had the opportunity to coach. You watch him at a Tuesday practice and he plays just like he did tonight. The passion. The energy. He helps develop the culture we have here. It's a special night for him. His picture will be up on our walls.

The Tigers finished with 557 yards of total offense despite having the ball only 22:32. Tulane was held to 325 yards on 83 plays, the best showing for the Tiger defense this season.

Memphis travels to Tulsa next Friday to face the Golden Hurricane. Tulsa is 2-7 after losing to SMU Friday night.

NOTE: The Liberty Bowl has added a lengthy banner, directly beneath the press box, displaying the names and numbers of the six former Tigers who have had their jerseys retired: John Bramlett (64), Isaac Bruce (83), Dave Casinelli (30), Charles Greenhill (8), Harry Schuh (79), and DeAngelo Williams (20).


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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Oct 25, 2017 at 8:00 AM

• Since the Tigers' remarkable win at Houston on October 19th (their sixth victory of the season), not a single person has spoken the words "bowl eligibility" to me. Remember when simply becoming eligible for one of more than 30 bowl games was a big deal for the Memphis program? When you go three decades without playing a postseason game (as Memphis did from 1972 to 2002), qualifying for an extra game in December is indeed a big deal.

Those days are gone. The Tigers will play in a bowl game for a fourth straight season, an unprecedented stretch for the program. We've reached the point where the strength of a bowl game matters to Memphis, and the 2017 Tigers have the chance to play on or near New Year's Day, one sacred "Group of Five" slot open in the still-new format that sends 12 teams to "New Year's Six" bowl games (including four to the national semifinals). The very idea of Memphis being discussed for such elite placement — here in late October — is a cultural shift that would have been impossible to envision as recently as 2011. Better yet, the Tigers control their positioning (at least until selection of the "Group of Five" representative). Win their remaining four games and Memphis plays for the American Athletic Conference championship. Win the AAC title and "bowl eligibility" will seem as distant a notion as the T formation.
Tony Pollard - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tony Pollard

• If you can turn away from the heroics of Anthony Miller, Riley Ferguson, and Tony Pollard (five kickoff-return touchdowns in two seasons) just briefly, the play of Austin Hall and T.J. Carter on the Tiger defense has transformed this team. During one of the first visits I had with Memphis coach Mike Norvell, he emphasized that playmakers must be found on the defensive side of the ball. A potent offense is invaluable, but defensive playmakers can turn a tight game. That's precisely what we saw on October 14th, when two Hall interceptions were integral in a three-point win over Navy. Then five days later, Carter grabbed his fourth interception of the season, forced a fumble, and accumulated 14 tackles in a four-point win at Houston. To no one's surprise, Hall and Carter were each named the AAC's Defensive Player of the Week. The Tiger defense has room to improve, starting with its pass rush. But with Hall (a sophomore) and Carter (a freshman) in the secondary, holes are going to be filled and mistakes (by opposing offenses) punished. Lots to like in this playmaking pair.

• Through four games of its seven-game home schedule, the Tigers have averaged 34,579 fans at the Liberty Bowl. This is a deceiving average, as only 10,263 tickets were sold for the season-opener against Louisiana-Monroe, a game played in near-hurricane conditions. Memphis has drawn more than 40,000 for its last three games (UCLA, Southern Illinois, and Navy). It will be interesting to see the turnout for the three remaining home games: Tulane (Friday), SMU (November 18th), and East Carolina (November 25th). These aren't the kind of opponents that typically drive ticket sales, but the circumstances (as noted above) are unique this year. Every game the Tigers win makes the next one more significant. Memphis will surely average more than 30,000 fans a fourth straight year, a streak last seen from 2003 to 2006 (three of those "DeAngelo Years"). The question, really, is can the average climb to 40,000? It's happened only four times in Liberty Bowl history: 1976, 2003, 2004, and 2015.

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Thursday, October 19, 2017

#25 Memphis 42, Houston 38

Posted By on Thu, Oct 19, 2017 at 11:20 PM

We need to be careful about over-using the word epic in describing victories. But in erasing a 17-point deficit at league-rival Houston for their second win in six days, the Memphis Tigers may indeed have secured just such a win Thursday night. Tiger quarterback Riley Ferguson connected with sophomore tight end Sean Dykes — a native of Houston, Texas — for a 21-yard touchdown pass with 1:33 left in the game to give Memphis a sweep of its season's toughest two-game test. Now with a record of 6-1 overall and 3-1 in the American Athletic Conference, Memphis has a path to the AAC West Division championship, having beaten both Navy and Houston.

The first half was as ugly as the second was epic for the Tigers, with six punts and a pair of turnovers allowing the Cougars to take command on the scoreboard. A rare Anthony Miller fumble and a Ferguson interception in Houston territory led to 10 of Houston's 17 first-half points. The Tigers' freshman kicker, Riley Patterson, missed a 52-yard field-goal attempt after Houston coach Major Applewhite used three consecutive timeouts at the end of the half, the first time in 64 games Memphis played 30 minutes of football without scoring.
Riley Ferguson, Anthony MIller
  • Riley Ferguson, Anthony MIller

Gamesmanship can backfire, though, and the Tigers played like a motivated bunch after halftime. They scored touchdowns on six consecutive possessions, four on runs by Patrick Taylor and another on Tony Pollard's third kickoff return for a touchdown this season (and the fifth of his two-year career). Pollard's 93-yard return came with 6:11 left to play in the third quarter, immediately after the Cougars had taken a 24-7 lead on a one-yard run by Duke Catalon.

A fumble by Houston quarterback Kyle Postma early in the fourth quarter was the defensive stop Memphis needed to tighten the margin. (Junior cornerback Tito Windham stripped the ball, which was recovered by freshman nose tackle John Tate.) Taylor's third touchdown (after an apparent Houston interception in the end zone was ruled incomplete upon review) brought Memphis within 31-28 with 11:15 left in the game.

Postma found Steven Dunbar for an 8-yard score on Houston's next possession to extend the lead back to 10 points. But the Tigers' again answered, this time with a drive keyed by a bomb to Miller, who finished the game with 10 catches for 178 yards. Taylor's fourth touchdown made the score 38-35 with 5:32 to play.

The Memphis defense finally managed to force a Houston punt, giving Patterson and friends the ball with 3:17 to play at their own 20-yard line. Ferguson completed passes to Pollard, Miller, Taylor, and freshman Damonte Coxie to set up the game-winner to Dykes.
Mike Norvell
  • Mike Norvell

Houston had two more possessions, but each ended with turnovers, the latter on freshman cornerback T.J. Carter's fourth interception of the season. With the loss, the Cougars fall to 4-3 (2-2).

Ferguson finished the game with 471 yards passing, completing 33 of his 53 throws. In addition to his kickoff-return heroics, Pollard caught nine passes for 91 yards. Memphis gained 501 yards in total offense (and allowed the Houston offense 554).

Memphis now has seven full days to prepare for Tulane. The Green Wave (3-3 and facing USF Saturday) visits the Liberty Bowl on Friday, October 27th. Three of the Tigers' four remaining regular-season games will be at home.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Oct 18, 2017 at 8:00 AM

The arrests of Shaun Rupert (on armed robbery charges) and Ernest Suttles (rape charges) are deeply troubling developments in an otherwise successful half-season of Tiger football. We need to let the justice system do its thing before guilt is applied to either young man, but for two defensive starters to face such serious charges in consecutive months is nowhere near the look second-year coach Mike Norvell wants to present for this program. Let's forget the football stereotypes and consider a random group of 100 men, ages 18 to 23. That's a segment of the population that will stretch legal boundaries, whether or not the individuals are under the watch of an organized body (like a football team, or a university). But this isn't a safety caught with a bag of weed in his glove compartment, or a defensive end getting into a brawl outside a fraternity house. These are felonies, with jail time in the mix should the accused be found guilty. After the upset of Navy last Saturday, Norvell emphasized the "open doors" of his program, and that he and his staff have nothing to hide. Here's hoping the misdeeds of two members of the program don't derail what could turn into a special season for Memphis. And here's hoping Norvell and university president David Rudd find a way — behind closed doors is fine — to emphasize the severity of these hits to the program's reputation. It's ugly stuff.
Mike Norvell - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell

• Memphis needs to relish any and every game the Tigers play as a Top-25 team. The big win over Navy vaulted Memphis into the AP poll (barely), at number 25. Not to be found in the current poll are friendly neighbors Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Arkansas, or Tennessee. No Florida. No Florida State. No Texas, for crying out loud. The best part may be how this ranking fun is actually familiar. Just two years ago, Memphis rode an 8-0 start to a ranking of 15th in the country. A 10-3 season (and bowl victory over BYU) in 2014 secured a spot in the year-end poll (25th) for coach Justin Fuente's third Memphis team. Before that, you have to go back a half-century to find the Tigers in a year-end poll (1963 UPI, 14th). And before that, only one other year-end ranking (1962 Williamson's, 17th). The ranking means the U of M program is, quite literally, gaining national attention, and from a region still impossibly heavy with SEC influence. Stars have emerged (Ferguson, Miller, Hall) and an ugly loss (at UCF) has been overcome. The 2017 Memphis Tigers have much to gain over the season's final five games. After all, unless you're Alabama, a poll is meant to be climbed.

• Navy was the frying pan. Houston's the fire. I didn't see the Tigers beating the Midshipmen without creating and capitalizing on turnovers. (They forced five and won by three points.) Now they have the chance to sweep the season's toughest two-game stretch. But road games played five days after a tight win are hardly pleasure trips. Don't expect a shootout (in modern terms) Thursday night. The Cougars are merely ninth in the AAC in scoring (27.2 points per game) and they only allow 16.2 points per game (second in the league to UCF). They will be a motivated bunch, having been obliterated (45-17) at Tulsa last Saturday. Defensive tackle Ed Oliver is an All-America candidate. Needless to say, he and his teammates remember the Tigers' narrow victory last November at the Liberty Bowl. "When you take a phenomenal player and surround him with so many other explosive athletes that can create problems with their defensive scheme . . . it leads to some sleepless nights," said Norvell at his weekly press conference Monday. The winner of Thursday's game will gain a sliver of separation in the tight AAC West. And these foes know the measure of a sliver. Their last three games have been decided by a total of nine points (two of those meetings won by Houston).

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Tigers 30, #25 Navy 27

Posted By on Sat, Oct 14, 2017 at 7:50 PM

"I've never been more proud of holding a team to 314 yards rushing." Memphis coach Mike Norvell looked at the postgame stat sheet and smiled, the look of a coach whose game plan — particularly that of his defensive coordinator, Chris Ball — had worked just enough to win. Facing a Navy program that entered Saturday's game at the Liberty Bowl leading the nation in rushing (414.2 yards per game), the Tiger defense played its finest game in two years under Norvell, forcing five turnovers and limiting the damage of Navy quarterback Zach Abey, a peripheral midseason Heisman Trophy contender.
Riley Ferguson - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson

Behind three Riley Ferguson touchdown passes and three Riley Patterson field goals, the Tigers earned their second win of the season over a top-25 team, improved to 5-1 overall, and moved into position to win the American Athletic Conference's West Division if it comes down to a tie-breaker with the Midshipmen. (Memphis, Navy, and Houston each have one league loss after Houston was upset by Tulsa Saturday afternoon.)

Sophomore Austin Hall accounted for two of the Navy turnovers with interceptions from his new position — at least for one game — of safety. His second-quarter pick, returned from the Navy 38-yard line to the 12, led to a Ferguson-to-Darrell Henderson touchdown connection that gave the Tigers a 17-10 lead. His second interception sealed the win, coming at the Navy 35-yard line will less than two minutes to play.

"Takeaways are big for us, so whatever I can do to help us win," said Hall, a graduate of Collierville High School. "Our coaches came up with a phenomenal game plan. The players came out played. They have a disciplined team . . . they're gonna fight for our country. But we came out and got the W."

Hall emphasized a simplified defensive scheme from the one the Tigers utilized in blowout losses to Navy in 2015 and ’16. "The coaches let us play a lot faster. We only had a few calls that we changed here and there. I only had one key all night. That kept it simple for me; I could fly around and play football."

The Tiger defense had four tackles behind the line of scrimmage in addition to the two interceptions, and recovered three Navy fumbles. (The Midshipmen had lost but four fumbles in their first five games, all victories.) The U of M capitalized on the miscues to the tune of 13 points, just enough as it turned out.

"This was a game we had circled," said Norvell. "This was a program-defining game. That football team we just played is pure class, the defending division champions. This game gave us a wonderful understanding of where we are and where we can go. We have a lot of things to clean up, and we have to go back on the road this Thursday [at Houston], but I'm so proud of this football team, and the coaches I have to work with."

Navy recovered the game's opening kickoff at the Tiger 10-yard line when Darrell Henderson failed to cover the ball, but had to settle for a field goal. Memphis responded with a seven-play, 75-yard drive, culminating in a five-yard scoring toss from Ferguson to Anthony Miller. (The touchdown made Miller only the third Tiger in history to score 30 for his career, after Dave Casinelli and DeAngelo Williams.) There would be four more lead changes before Hall's game-sealing interception, the last one coming on a 42-yard Patterson field goal with 5:15 to play in the third quarter that gave Memphis a 20-19 lead.
Mike Norvell - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell

"They came in undefeated," noted Norvell. "They've shown that every year, they're going to have success. They continue to reload. This was a benchmark game for us. It was a game we had to win to go where we want to go. It's just one game, but it's a key matchup, because it's one we have not had success with in the past. Our kids stayed focus on the job at hand."

Ferguson struggled at times and had to shake off a slight injury to his left knee when he was tackled in the end zone in the third quarter on a play that resulted in a safety for Navy. (Ferguson was called for intentional grounding.) He completed 24 of 40 passes for 279 yards and the three touchdowns. Miller finished with 10 catches (his eighth career game with as many grabs), two touchdowns, and 90 yards. Darrell Henderson led the ground attack with 94 yards on just 12 carries.

Abey rushed for 167 yards and three touchdowns, but completed only one pass in seven attempts (with the two Hall picks).

Junior linebacker Curtis Akins led Memphis with 11 total tackles, while Hall and Genard Avery added 10 each. It was only the second time in six games the Tigers have held their opponent under 400 total yards (334).

The Tigers next travel to Houston to face the Cougars in a Thursday-night tilt. Houston will enter the game with a record of 4-2 and tied with Memphis in the AAC at 2-1.

****

Senior defensive lineman Ernest Suttles was dismissed from the team early Saturday after he was arrested and charged with rape. The incident follows the arrest last month of defensive back Shaun Rupert on armed robbery charges. "I believe in how we do things," said Norvell during his postgame press conference. "We're trying to build the young men we have. We have guys who have made mistakes. At the end of the day, we stand for the right things. Those guys sitting in that locker room right now are phenomenal young men, and I'm proud to coach them. I'm proud to represent this city. That's why we open our doors. I have nothing to hide. We're doing it for the right reasons."

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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Oct 11, 2017 at 8:00 AM

Memphis senior Riley Ferguson needed merely 18 games to become the fourth Tiger quarterback to pass for 5,000 yards in his career. Already twice honored as the American Athletic Conference's Offensive Player of the Week, Ferguson leads the AAC with 16 touchdown passes (on pace to break the program's single-season record of 32 he tossed last season) and 307.0 yards per game. For his career, Ferguson has averaged 290.7 yards per game, more than the career averages of the other 5,000-yard men in Memphis history: Danny Wimprine (222.1 ypg in 46 games), Paxton Lynch (233.2 in 38), and Martin Hankins (250.9 in 23). Memphis fans get to see Ferguson play four more home games. He's managed to become a special player at the game's toughest position in just two seasons. Embrace the moment(s), Tiger fans.
Riley Ferguson - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson

• Memphis may be cursing the schedule gods a week from Friday. For any reasonable chance at winning the AAC's West Division, the Tigers must split their games with Navy (3-0 in league play) and Houston (2-0), and they play both teams in a span of six days (the Cougars on the road). Survive this hell-week with just two conference losses, then run the table (with three of the final four games at the Liberty Bowl) and Memphis would post a stellar 9-2 record (6-2 in the AAC). But what a formidable task. Like Ferguson, Navy quarterback Zach Abey has twice been named the AAC's Offensive Player of the Week. The junior leads the AAC with 807 rushing yards. After Navy, the Tigers will have all of four days to prepare an attack against a Cougar defense that has allowed an average of 16.2 points per game. Six days in October may define this season.

• The only way Memphis upsets 25th-ranked Navy is by stealing possessions via turnover. The Midshipmen are averaging 414.2 rushing yards per game (for crying out loud). Memphis is allowing 187.2 yards per game on the ground (eighth in the AAC). Navy ran for 374 yards two years ago in its win at the Liberty Bowl (and didn't lose a fumble) then piled up 447 yards last season in another blowout victory (the Midshipmen lost one of two fumbles that day). Simply put, Memphis needs to identify playmakers on defense. Freshman cornerback T.J. Carter is one, having picked off three passes in five games. Junior Tito Windham has shown skill at stripping ball-carriers. The Tigers will give up lengthy drives Saturday afternoon, clock-killing drives that make the triple-option so lethal.  For the season, Navy has run the ball 317 times and lost exactly four fumbles. Can Memphis steal a possession (or three)? Can the Tigers protect the ball when they have it? Winning that fabled "turnover battle" is the Memphis path to victory this weekend.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Tigers 70, Connecticut 31

Posted By on Fri, Oct 6, 2017 at 9:53 PM

A maligned Memphis defense took a staggering blow on the third play from scrimmage in tonight's game in East Hartford, Connecticut. UConn tailback Arkeel Newsome took the ball around left tackle and dashed 64 yards for a touchdown to give the Huskies a 7-0 lead just 76 seconds after kickoff.

Then Riley Ferguson and Anthony Miller took over.

Ferguson (the senior quarterback) threw for 325 yards and five touchdowns while Miller (the senior wide receiver) caught 12 passes for 157 yards and three scores . . . in the first half. The Tigers' record-breaking duo — growing larger on the national radar with ESPN handling the broadcast — led Memphis to a 35-24 halftime lead, then connected again in the third quarter to extend the Tiger lead to 49-24.
tiger_helmet.jpg

Ferguson sat out the fourth quarter and still tied Paxton Lynch's single-game record with seven touchdown passes. He completed 34 of 48 passes for 431 yards. As for Miller, the Christian Brothers High School alum tied his own school record with 15 receptions (good for 224 yards). His four touchdown catches are yet another Memphis record for Miller.

A week after being embarrassed at UCF, the Tiger offense exploded for 711 yards, a new U of M record. The Tigers won comfortably despite allowing 477 yards to Connecticut, the fourth time in five games Memphis has allowed at least 400 yards. Freshman cornerback T.J. Carter pulled down his third interception of the season in the second quarter.

Senior tailback Doroland Dorceus enjoyed his first productive game of the season (having nursed an injury throughout September), rushing for 122 yards on 22 carries and scoring two touchdowns.

The win improves Memphis to 4-1 for the season and 1-1 in American Athletic Conference play. The Huskies drop to 1-4 (0-3). The Tigers return home next Saturday (October 14th) to host Navy at the Liberty Bowl. The Midshipmen beat Memphis in both 2015 (45-20) and 2016 (42-28).

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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Oct 4, 2017 at 11:34 AM

Something is rotten in the state of defense, at least the version played by the Memphis Tigers. Four games into the 2017 season, Memphis ranks 126th nationally (out of 130 teams) in total defense, allowing 513.5 yards per game. Last weekend's debacle at UCF was the second time the Tigers have allowed at least 40 points this season, and the eighth such game since the start of the 2016 season. Injuries have compromised defensive coordinator Chris Ball's unit (perhaps most significantly the loss of pass rusher Jackson Dillon for the season). But games must still be played. Four teams on the Tigers' remaining schedule are averaging more than 450 yards of offense, including the next two (UConn and Navy). We've reached the point where an old cliche applies: The Tigers' best defense is a strong offense. The irony, though, is that Memphis has a quick-strike attack, one capable of scoring in less than three minutes of possession time. Short drives mean only more time on the field for that 126th-ranked defense. Head coach Mike Norvell and offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey face an uncomfortable challenge: score lots of points . . . but do it slowly.
Jay McCoy
  • Jay McCoy

• With his third touchdown catch of the season (against Southern Illinois), Tiger receiver Anthony Miller became just the fourth Memphis player to score 25 career touchdowns. You've surely heard of DeAngelo Williams (60 TDs from 2002 to 2005). And Dave Casinelli (36, 1960-63). Each of them has had his jersey number retired by the U of M. But what can you tell me about Jay McCoy, who scored 27 touchdowns as a Tiger? I had to call on the preeminent Tiger historian of them all — sideline reporter Matt Dillon — to learn about this unsung star, who did his damage at the Liberty Bowl from 1968 to 1970. "Coach [Billy] Murphy used him generally to run outside as a tailback," says Dillon, "but he was strong enough to get tough yards between the tackles if needed. Jay was one of the most versatile players in that era when it was basically three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense. He was also called on to be the backup kicker on field goals and PATs [as a senior]. Skeeter Gowen got most of the publicity McCoy's last two years, but Jay was one of those multipurpose guys who held everything together. One of the very underrated players in Tiger history." McCoy is one of only six non-kickers to lead the Tigers in scoring twice (1968 and 1970). He scored 10 touchdowns as a sophomore, eight as a junior, and nine as a senior.

New England is lovely in the fall. This trip to Connecticut comes at a perfect time for the Tigers. You see, the Huskies rank 127th in total defense, allowing 541.8 yards per game. Their only win this season came against Holy Cross in the opener. Memphis and UConn haven't played since the 2014 season, when the Tigers won handily (41-10) at the Liberty Bowl. The U of M, though, lost (handily) its only game in East Hartford, the 2013 season finale (Justin Fuente's second on the sidelines for Memphis). Norvell didn't pull any verbal punches at his press conference Monday: "I'm embarrassed as a head coach for how we had them prepared to play [at UCF]. We're going to respond. Talk is cheap; what you see is who you are." Friday night will indeed be a time for the Memphis football program to respond, and reset its direction for a season not so young any more.

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Monday, October 2, 2017

Tubby Time (Year Two)

Posted By on Mon, Oct 2, 2017 at 9:38 AM

Tubby Smith is wearing sneakers again.

I'm not sure if it's possible to see relief in another human being, but I think I saw it in a 66-year-old basketball coach last Friday at the Finch Center on the University of Memphis campus. Smith met a group of reporters for a brief, season-opening press conference, during which he touched on a rather turbulent offseason, and not just for the Memphis Tigers. An FBI investigation ensnared several assistant coaches in a scandal involving bribery and wire fraud, and led to the ouster of Louisville coach Rick Pitino, one of the most recognizable figures in all of college basketball.
Tubby Smith - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tubby Smith

"You think you've seen it all," said Smith, who is starting his 27th consecutive season as a Division I head coach. "I know we'll get through it. Coaches are gonna coach. Teachers are gonna teach. You're concerned about friends in the business. Hopefully it will get resolved. You've got to do the right thing in this business. We're trying to make sure our players understand there's a right way and a wrong way to do things."

Smith expressed sympathy for Pitino. He served as an assistant under Pitino for two years (1989-91) at Kentucky. Smith also said that he sleeps well at night, that he's not perfect but "the softest pillow you can sleep on is a clear conscience." So despite losing three starters with eligibility remaining — most notably the Lawson brothers, Dedric and K.J. — Smith views the 2017-18 season as one of opportunity for the Memphis program.

"We have so many new faces," said Smith. "There's a lot to teach. But we had a good start, with so many of them in summer school. Everyone's healthy. Any time there's a new season, there's new energy, and new enthusiasm."

• Veteran radio host Greg Gaston and I spent the first 20 minutes of an open practice simply trying to identify players (no names on the back of practice jerseys). "That's Jamal Johnson, right?" "Nope. Malik Rhodes." "Two guys with beards?" "Hey . . . there's Jeremiah [Martin]!" Smith noted that Martin and Jimario Rivers are serving as team captains, the only two returning players with any legitimate experience in a Tiger uniform.

Raynere Thornton is a 6'7" swingman with the shoulders of a fullback. Greg and I agreed that Memphis hasn't had a truly big guard on the wing since Antonio Anderson and Tyreke Evans played their last college games in 2009. (Apologies, Chris Crawford, but you didn't play big.) Thornton had three triple-doubles last season, his second at Gordon State College in Georgia.

• Rivers and Dedric Lawson were the only players Memphis could describe as "big men" last year, and even they were often undersized when battling traffic in the paint. During a stretching exercise, I counted at least four players who could push Rivers around and get away with it: Kyvon Davenport (a 6'8" juice All-America last season), Mike Parks (6'9", 270 pounds), Karim Azab (6'11"), and Victor Enoh (6'8"). The Tigers simply had to get bigger, and they clearly have.

• Who will lead these Tigers in scoring? Even after Friday's cursory scouting trip, I have no clue. Davenport averaged 16.5 points last winter . . . against junior college defenders. Martin averaged 10.3 points as a sophomore, but if your point guard is your scoring leader, you'll lose your share of basketball games. Freshman Jamal Johnson brings a shooter's reputation and averaged 24.8 points as a high school senior in Alabama. This could be the kind of team where six or seven players average between 8.0 and 13.0 points per game. This would be healthy.

• If you connect single-digit uniform numbers with playing time, the following six should appear in the Tigers' rotation when the season opens November 10th (against Alabama, in Maryland): Davenport (0), Johnson (1), Rivers (2), Martin (3), Thornton (4), and guard Kareem Brewton (5).
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