Friday, September 28, 2018

Tulane 40, Tigers 24

Posted By on Fri, Sep 28, 2018 at 10:16 PM

The notion of Memphis returning to the American Athletic Conference championship game this year was summarily rejected Friday night at Yulman Stadium in New Orleans. The Tulane Green Wave scored touchdowns on three consecutive possessions in the second half, turning what had been a tight game into a rout. The victory is Tulane's first over Memphis since the 2000 season, a span of 12 games for the regional rivals.

Darius Bradwell ran for 142 yards and scored two touchdowns to lead the upset, with Corey Dauphine rushing for 87 yards on 12 carries and another pair of touchdowns. The Tulane defense held Memphis to 277 yards and sacked Tiger quarterback Brady White seven times. Tulane dominated possession time, holding the ball almost 40 minutes.

Reserve quarterback Justin McMillan — an LSU transfer — entered the game for the final play of the third quarter and completed a 51-yard pass-and-run to Darnell Mooney for a touchdown that gave Tulane a 24-14 lead entering the fourth quarter. After the next Memphis possession resulted in a safety (on a White fumble in the end zone), Tulane tailback Corey Dauphine struck with a winding, 46-yard touchdown run that made the Tiger defense look both slow and tired. It was the third score covering at least 46 yards for the Green Wave.

Among the only Memphis highlights were a pair of lengthy touchdowns by junior tailback Darrell Henderson. On their first offensive snap of the game, Henderson dashed through the right side of his line for a 47-yard touchdown. Early in the third quarter, he caught a pass from White and sprinted into the end zone to complete a 43-yard touchdown. The scores give Henderson 11 touchdowns for the season (matching his 2017 total) and 31 for his career, the fourth-most in Memphis history. Beyond his two long-distance touchdowns, Henderson was ineffective, gaining a total of 51 rushing yards (on seven carries) and 47 receiving (two catches).

White completed 14 of 30 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns without an interception.

The loss drops Memphis to 0-2 in AAC play for the first time since the league's inaugural season of 2013. (The Tigers are 3-2 overall.) Tulane improves to 2-3 and 1-0 in the AAC. Memphis returns to the Liberty Bowl for its next two games, Connecticut visiting on October 6th and UCF on October 13th.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 26, 2018 at 9:07 AM

• Brady White likes playing in the Liberty Bowl. The rookie quarterback's numbers through three home games this season: 63 completions in 83 attempts (76 percent) for 919 yards and 12 touchdowns, with no interceptions. Those are the kind of figures we see on Sundays from the likes of Tom Brady and Drew Brees, not from a young man establishing his place in what looked to be a distinctly run-first offense this season.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Brady White

White struggled, of course, in the Tigers' lone road game to date (at Navy), that outing complicated by the rainy conditions in Annapolis. Which makes Friday's tilt at Tulane somewhat of a turning point for White (and the Tiger offense) this season. Memphis will be favored (unlike at Navy) and facing a team that's struggled to score this season (only East Carolina has scored fewer points among American Athletic Conference teams).

White needs to show that his Navy performance was an aberration, and that the numbers he's posted at home aren't merely the product of inferior competition. Two home games follow the trip to New Orleans. White can further establish his credentials as the big-picture leader of the Memphis offense with a strong performance Friday night.

• The Tigers have a player with All-America credentials (as a kick-returner). His name is Tony Pollard, and he wears number 1 on his uniform. The Tigers also have a sophomore defensive lineman who has made more than a dozen starts. His name is O'Bryan Goodson and he wears number 1 on his uniform.

Huh?!? How can two players on the Tigers' two-deep roster — let alone a star like Pollard and a defensive starter — wear the same number? With 85 scholarships and a few walk-ons, I can see numbers growing scarce, with perhaps the need for players sharing numbers (one on offense, the other on defense). But this particular case makes absolutely no sense. College football should have a rule — or if not, the University of Memphis should have a rule — that the 50 players who make up a two-deep (including special-teamers) wear uniform numbers distinctly their own. Those familiar with the Tigers know the difference between Pollard and Goodson with a quick glance. A fan watching a nationally televised game in Phoenix has be confused when he sees what he thinks is a star kick returner sacking the opposing quarterback.

• Speaking of Goodson, and Emmanuel Cooper, and Jonathan Wilson, and Joseph Dorceus . . . the Tigers' defensive line is making an impact in what remains a sport of trench warfare. Stop the opponent's running game and you generally leave the field a winner. Memphis is 14-1 under coach Mike Norvell when holding opposing teams to less than 150 yards rushing. (The Tigers are 7-8 since 2016 when allowing 150 yards or more on the ground.) It's the easiest measuring stick to chart as you're watching a game. Who's controlling the line of scrimmage when the Tiger defense is on the field? Tulane has averaged 174.5 rushing yards per game thus far, with Corey Dauphine putting up a cool 11.6-yard average on 25 carries.

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Sunday, September 23, 2018

Tigers 52, South Alabama 35

Posted By on Sun, Sep 23, 2018 at 12:08 AM

"That was a game we needed," said Memphis football coach Mike Norvell Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl, after his Tigers improved to 3-1 on the season. "We obviously didn't play our best game. There are a lot of things we need to get corrected. But we got to see the heart of this football team."
Darrell Henderson - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Darrell Henderson

The Jaguars (of the Sun Belt Conference) knocked the Tiger defense around, particularly in the first half. An 11-yard touchdown pass from USA quarterback Evan Orth to Zac Crosby with less than a minute to play in the first half tied the score at 21 and left Norvell and his staff with some motivating to do at halftime. It wasn't until the Tiger defense held the Jaguars on downs inside the Memphis 10-yard line — with the U of M leading 31-27 — that momentum felt firmly in favor of the home team. An ensuing 92-yard drive culminated in a 16-yard touchdown scamper by Tony Pollard (on a reverse) and provided the Tigers with enough to secure the victory.

"It was a very physical game," said Norvell. "At halftime, we really challenged our guys to show what we're made of. In the second half, we didn't play a clean game. But they found a way to respond in every situation. They battled. I'm really pleased with the big guys on the offensive side of the ball."

The Tigers surrendered 467 yards to the Jaguars, considerably more than they'd allowed any of their first three opponents. Orth completed 24 of 32 passes for 360 yards and three touchdowns. Wideout Jamarius Way stretched the Memphis secondary, hauling in ten passes for 185 yards and a touchdown.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Brady White

However staggered the Memphis defense may have been, the Tigers had Darrell Henderson to counter. The junior tailback got Memphis on the scoreboard with a 13-yard run midway through the first quarter to tie the game at 7. He scored again on an electric 54-yard sprint with 11:16 left in the game that gave Memphis a 45-27 lead. For the game, Henderson rushed for 188 yards on 22 carries, giving him 709 rushing yards in four games to go with nine total touchdowns.

Quarterback Brady White balanced the Tiger attack with 292 yards through the air, completing 22 of 29 attempts and two touchdowns, including an off-balance toss to Damonte Coxie who made an acrobatic catch in the back of the end zone in the third quarter for his fourth touchdown of the season. Coxie caught eight passes for 113 yards.

Curtis Akins led the Memphis defense with 11 tackles and sophomore cornerback T.J. Carter had seven solo stops. But Carter acknowledged the game is not a model for what remains on the Tiger schedule. "It goes to show you can't under-estimate any team," said Carter. "I feel like we prepared, but it's a lesson learned. We've got a dominant defense, but today we took a step back. Gave up too many points. Most of that was on the back end. I'll take full responsibility for the secondary."

Despite its struggles, the Tiger defense recovered a pair of fumbles, including one inside the Memphis 10-yard line. Memphis did not commit a turnover.

Looking ahead, Norvell emphasized the importance of his team — both offense and defense — "winning their one-on-ones." He applauded White's interception-free outing and mentioned the versatility of his running game, led by the dynamic Henderson. "We wanted to be able to run the football," said Norvell, "but we also wanted to create some space [for the passing game]."

The Tigers have a short week to prepare for their next game, a Friday-night visit to Tulane. With the exception of Missouri (on the road) on October 20th, the balance of the Memphis schedule (eight games) will be American Athletic Conference opposition. Navy lost to SMU Saturday, leaving the Midshipmen even with Memphis in league losses with one apiece.

NOTE: Senior pass-rusher Jackson Dillon left the game with an undisclosed injury and Norvell did not have an update during his postgame press conference.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 19, 2018 at 10:25 AM

• I'm not big on statistics at this stage of a season. With the likes of Mercer and Georgia State, certain numbers are bound to be inflated as conference play nears. But there are two early-season numbers I like a lot. The Tigers are third in the AAC with seven sacks and tied for third in fewest sacks allowed, with only two. Controlling the line of scrimmage has been integral to winning football games since Rutgers and Princeton first suited up (four years after the end of the American Civil War). And the Tigers' offensive and defensive lines can get this team back into the Top 25. We expected the veteran O-line to excel and it has, Memphis averaging a cool 603 yards through three games. Those responsible, from left to right: Trevon Tate, Dylan Parham (the kid in the group, a redshirt freshman), Drew Kyser, Dustin Woodard, and Roger Joseph.

Pressure on opposing quarterbacks, though, was in question, what with the loss to the NFL of linebacker Genard Avery (8.5 sacks a year ago). Not to worry, at least not though three games. Five different Tigers have reached the quarterback, led by linebacker Bryce Huff with three take-downs. Jackson Dillon, Tim Hart, and Curtis Akins haven't joined the sack party yet, so expect the Tiger pass rush to sharpen its claws even more.
This man wants the football. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • This man wants the football.

In baseball terms, teams are intentionally walking Tony Pollard, and it stinks. The junior from Melrose remains one shy of the national record for career kickoff-return touchdowns, with six. He hasn't been helped by the Tiger defense, which hasn't allowed many touchdowns or field goals. (We must be careful what we wish for in tracking this record chase.) But when teams do kick off, it's nowhere near the man in uniform number 1. Tiger coach Mike Norvell sees the "problem," but has chosen to embrace it. At his Monday press conference, Norvell said, "We didn't have any big returns because of what [Pollard has] done. They squibbed every kick, so our average starting field position was the 35-yard line, which is extraordinary." Stronger teams will challenge Pollard, you'd think. Kickoff-coverage teams play with pride, too. Here's hoping we soon see Pollard in full flight.

It was great seeing Anthony Miller grab his first NFL touchdown pass on Monday Night Football. All the better that it happened in a Bears victory (over Seattle) in Chicago, a city that should grow to love Miller as much as Memphis has for years now. Remember, this time a year ago, Miller was still an emerging name in football circles beyond the Mid-South. With DeAngelo Williams enjoying retirement (at times in a wrestling ring) and Paxton Lynch recently cut by the Denver Broncos, Miller is the current NFL flag-bearer among Memphis skill-position alumni. It'll be fun to watch him grow and develop synergy with a young quarterback (Mitchell Trubisky), even better if the Bears emerge as playoff contenders in the NFC North.

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Friday, September 14, 2018

Tigers 59, Georgia State 22

Posted By on Fri, Sep 14, 2018 at 10:59 PM

College football stars are born on the practice field and in the weight room. But they're made on national television.

With the bright lights of ESPN illuminating the Liberty Bowl for a national audience Friday night, University of Memphis tailback Darrell Henderson became a college football star. The junior from Batesville, Mississippi, gashed the Georgia State defense for 233 yards and three touchdowns on merely 14 carries. He enjoyed a 54-yard jaunt to pay dirt in the first quarter, a 61-yarder early in the fourth quarter, and finished the contest just 30 yards shy of the Tigers' single-game record of 263 set by DeAngelo Williams in 2004. Henderson has 521 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in merely three games. (With 27 career touchdowns, Henderson is now tied for fourth in Memphis history, still some distance behind the record 60 scored by Williams.)
Darrell Henderson - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Darrell Henderson

"Darrell is explosive," said Tiger coach Mike Norvell after his team improved to 2-1 for the season. "But what you don't see is how hard he works in practice. He prepares himself. He's matured. He gained between 15 and 20 pounds in the offseason. It makes him a more durable, more every-down back. But he'd be the first to credit the offensive line up front."

Six days after a deflating loss at Navy, the Tigers regained their point-scoring mojo. The Memphis offense gained 410 yards on the ground with freshman Kenny Gainwell adding a 72-yard touchdown scamper to Henderson's heroics. Quarterback Brady White matched his touchdown total from the season opener with five, completing 19 of 26 passes for 269 yards. Sophomore Damonte Coxie was White's favorite target, hauling in six passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns. Overall, Memphis averaged more than 10 yards per play with 679 on 62 snaps. The Panthers were held to 312 yards on 77 plays.

Norvell expressed special pride in a blocked point-after attempt by sophomore Joseph Dorceus late in the third quarter. The game was over on the scoreboard (45-16 at the time), but the play reflected collective heart after a 15-play Panther touchdown drive. And especially on national TV. "Some people downplay the stage," said Norvell. "Anytime you get a chance for millions of people to see the identity of this football team . . . our brand has spread nationally. It's impressive, the commitment from this community. Walk through that [renovated] locker room."

Henderson became the 10th Tiger to surpass 2,000 career rushing yards. He was all smiles after the game (his second straight 200-yard performance), but deflected the emphasis on numbers. "I feel more comfortable this year," he said. "Our offensive line has worked their tales off, and I believe in them. I trust them. I just go through my reads."

Henderson acknowledged the added muscle has helped his game, allowing him to run over defenders as well as around them. "When I was lighter last year, it took more energy," he said. "I enjoy running over people now."

Linebacker Bryce Huff led the Tiger defense with a pair of sacks and Tito Windham had an acrobatic interception. But even the Tiger defenders got caught up in Henderson's show. "When we get off the field, we'll gather in a circle," said Huff. "I see [Henderson] make one move and I know: six."

The Tigers return to the Liberty Bowl for their next game on September 22nd, when South Alabama (like Georgia State, a Sun Belt Conference member) comes to town.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 12, 2018 at 9:52 AM

• The Tigers earned the scrutiny they've received this week. Navy was utterly beatable last Saturday in Annapolis. And a win would have solidified the Tigers' status as favorites in the American Athletic Conference's West Division. But dreary rain, four turnovers, and 43 minutes of Navy possession time were enough to tame, if not ruin, big Memphis expectations for 2018. (Honestly, remember that possession time. Despite having the ball for merely 17 minutes, Memphis outgained Navy, 378 yards to 316. Navy was so beatable, but you generally need to have the ball to score.)
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell

The Tigers' final turnover — a Patrick Taylor fumble early in the fourth quarter — will be the hardest to forget as the season unfolds. Leading by 12 points at the time, Memphis coach Mike Norvell chose to hand the ball to Taylor, his gifted second option at tailback. Instead of giving the ball to Darrell Henderson, a man who'd scored three touchdowns and averaged 16.3 yards on 13 carries. This is what we call an embarrassment of riches. Memphis has not one, not two, but three talented players capable of breaking free at the line of scrimmage (don't forget Tony Pollard). But it can confuse what should be simple late-game play-calling. Pardon me for second-guessing a rather sharp coach, but let me first-guess Norvell for the 10 games left on the Tiger schedule. Close game, late . . . give the ball to Darrell Henderson. If you're gonna lose, lose with Option A.

• The Tigers must sweep their next four games. Memphis players get to wear their Sun Belt gear the next two weeks, with Georgia State (41-7 losers to North Carolina State) and South Alabama (55-13 losers to Oklahoma State) on their way to the Liberty Bowl. With Tulane (in New Orleans) and UConn to follow, this is an early-season lull in the Tiger schedule, but one in which a Memphis slip could prove ruinous. Two league losses would all but eliminate the chance for a return trip to the AAC championship game. If Memphis can hold serve and enter its tilt with UCF on October 13th at 5-1, we'll have a huge game on our hands at the Liberty Bowl. A stumble over the next four weeks and that game is merely an underdog hosting a team with New Years Six bowl aspirations.

At his weekly press conference Monday, Norvell seemed to recognize the importance of a return to form. "I can tell you these guys will respond in the right way," he said. "This has not been foreign to us. Unfortunately, we have been here before. We know what it takes to move forward."

• Mike Norvell aims to win his 20th game as Memphis coach Friday night, and this is significant. You have to go back to the Carter presidency to find a Memphis coach who reached 20 wins in merely his third season. Richard Williamson went 7-4, 7-4, and 6-5 from 1975 through 1977, giving him exactly 20 wins over his first three seasons on the Tiger sideline. (The legendary Spook Murphy merely won 18 games over his first three seasons, though teams played 10 games per season in the Fifties and Sixties.) Norvell has continued to build what Justin Fuente started in 2012, and we've reached the point where a one-point loss at Navy in early September feels like a sloppy face-plant. Retain perspective. In a region of SEC behemoths, Memphis Tiger faithful are acting like 25 to 30 wins over three years is the norm. Let's at least acknowledge it's a new normal.


Saturday, September 8, 2018

Navy 22, Tigers 21

Posted By on Sat, Sep 8, 2018 at 6:04 PM

Navy recovered a Patrick Taylor fumble early in the fourth quarter Saturday in rainy Annapolis, Maryland, the pivotal play in erasing a 21-9 Memphis lead. Zach Abey's three-yard touchdown run with 2:40 to play proved to be the game-winner, giving Navy a significant win in the race for the American Athletic Conference's West Division title. A week after allowing 59 points in a loss at Hawaii, Navy dominated possession time (43:18) and held the Tigers to three Darrell Henderson touchdowns.

Henderson gave Memphis a 7-3 lead in the second quarter with his first score, a two-yard run. His 78-yard jaunt midway through the third quarter gave the Tigers a 14-9 lead and the junior All-America candidate raced 59 yards with 1:21 left in the third quarter to give Memphis that short-lived 21-9 advantage. Henderson finished the game with 212 rushing yards on just 13 carries, the first 200-yard game for a Tiger running back in nine years.

The Tigers committed four turnovers (three fumbles and a Brady White interception), contributing to the possession-time disparity. Navy ran 79 plays to the Tigers' 49 and the Tigers still outgained their hosts, 378 yards to 316.

Navy essentially owns a two-game lead over Memphis with the win, as any tie-breaker in conference play will now go to the Midshipmen.

The Tigers (1-1) return to the Liberty Bowl for their next game, Friday night against Georgia State. Their next AAC contest will be at Tulane on September 28th.

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Thursday, September 6, 2018

Larry Finch Statue to Grace U of M Campus

Posted By on Thu, Sep 6, 2018 at 11:26 AM

Larry Finch is getting the bronze treatment.

The pride of Orange Mound, Melrose High School, the University of Memphis, and the entire Mid-South region will be honored with a statue and a park named in his honor. Larry Finch Memorial Park will be located on the U of M campus, likely the south campus (near the Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center) at Park and Getwell. Merely months after a pair of divisive statues were taken down in Memphis, plans for a statue of a man who helped unify a community in the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination are firmly in place.

In confirming the upcoming tribute, U of M president M. David Rudd said, "The values Larry Finch lived were a model for us all, embracing the strength of diversity, the importance of unity in the face of adversity, and the singular power of hope." A committee will be appointed to coordinate all details of the park including a timeline for completion, fund-raising efforts, and the precise location. Among members of the committee are Herb Hilliard, Elliot Perry, Dexter Reed, John Wilfong, Verties Sails, Mary Mitchell, Rochelle Stevens, Harold Byrd, and Otis Sanford.

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Finch's enrollment at what was then known as Memphis State University. Along with fellow Melrose alum Ronnie Robinson, Finch led the Tigers to the 1973 Final Four where they fell in the championship game to the mighty UCLA Bruins. In three years as a varsity player, Finch scored 1,869 points, still the fourth most in Tiger history. His career scoring average (22.3 points per game) is tops at the school. Finch's uniform number (21) was retired by the university, along with Robinson's (33), in 1974.

Finch became an assistant coach and helped the 1984-85 Tigers reach the Final Four. As head coach for 11 years (1996-97), Finch won 220 games, second-most in the program's history. His 1991-92 team reached the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight and his 1994-95 team made it to the Sweet 16. Among the NBA-bound players Finch recruited and coached at Memphis are Elliot Perry, Lorenzen Wright, and the current Tiger head coach, Penny Hardaway. Finch died in 2011 at the age of 60, a series of strokes having all but destroyed his vitality over the last decade of his life. It was a tragically ironic end of a life that enlivened and energized thousands upon thousands for the better part of three decades. The new park will bring much of Finch's spirit to life in a visible, tangible way.

More details to come as the university's plans unfold.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Tue, Sep 4, 2018 at 10:10 AM

There was a time, not that long ago, when attendance at a Memphis Tiger football game could have been counted with a pair of binoculars and a tally sheet. Thankfully, tabulating a Liberty Bowl crowd is a bigger challenge today, third-year coach Mike Norvell's team having grown into one of the most prolific scoring clubs in the country.
  • Larry Kuzniewski

But something was amiss at last Saturday's season opener. Announced attendance was 33,697 which would mean a stadium with a capacity of 58,318 was 57 percent full. The crowd was larger than that, and by more than a tally sheet or two. At least 40,000 human beings were in the stands when Tony Pollard set up to receive the season's opening kickoff. (Here's a tip: Look at the back corners of each end zone. Let your eyes draw a line from those points to the edge of the stadium. If fans fill those seats, the crowd is larger than 40,000.) The counting glitch is pleasantly ironic, as the University of Memphis has had its problems of late — particularly on basketball nights at FedExForum — with inflated attendance numbers. Last weekend, you had a sizable crowd on hand to see an FCS visitor get turned inside out by halftime. It felt like the welcome-back party a Top 25 team deserves. So don't believe that announced number. And expect attendance to grow as the temperature drops, conference foes come to town, and a star-studded Tiger team tries to, once again, attract Top 25 votes.

An FCS blowout is an analyst's worst nightmare. What are we to take from the Tigers' evisceration of Mercer? What a fearsome Tiger defense (174 yards allowed)!
What a diverse Tiger offense (eight offensive touchdowns scored by six different players)! Tom Brady plus Danny White equals Brady White (358 yards and five touchdowns in a single half)!

Throw all the highlights out as this Saturday's Navy game approaches. Mercer looked like a team that will be gazing up at the rest of the Southern Conference come November. The Tigers played three quarterbacks, and not one of them hit the turf via sack. Conversely, the Tiger defense manhandled the Mercer offensive line, sacking the two Bear quarterbacks a combined four times and allowing merely 2.5 yards per carry when Mercer ran the ball. College football isn't this easy, not at the American Athletic Conference level. I wonder how Norvell and his staff even utilize the game film to teach Tiger players for games to come. ("See how Calvin Austin ran around and past every last Bear defender on that 83-yard run? Do that, fellas. As often as you can.") It's great that Memphis is no longer on the wrong end of 66-14 blowouts. But if game film is nourishment for a football team, last Saturday's opener is the equivalent of cotton candy. The pink kind.

• Navy's triple-option attack is vexing. (Stick to your man, boys. Stray toward the ball and you're doomed.) But the Midshipmen are giving as much as they're taking if you count the 59 points Hawaii put up in their season-opening loss on the islands last weekend. Navy gained 326 yards on the ground . . . but allowed 436 through the air. (Cole McDonald completed 30 of 41 passes and tossed six touchdowns for the Rainbow Warriors.) The Tigers squeaked by Navy last season (30-27), a critical win on their way to the AAC West Division title. Can Memphis capture a win on just its second visit to Annapolis?

It may have been just one half, and he may have been carving up FCS fodder, but I'm a believer in Brady White. By some measures, he's a rookie quarterback. By others, he's starting his fourth season in and around FBS football. He looked poised both in the pocket and at the podium after Saturday's win. California cool, you might say. (White hails from Newhall in the Golden State.) I don't see him getting rattled at Navy, particularly if he watches and absorbs McDonald's performance against the Midshipmen. Twice during last weekend's press conference, White emphasized his duty to get the ball in the hands of the "studs" who make plays in blue and gray. With proper decision-making from White, the Tigers should still be undefeated this time next week.

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Saturday, September 1, 2018

Tigers 66, Mercer 14

Posted By on Sat, Sep 1, 2018 at 10:41 PM

The Memphis Tigers won their 2018 season opener Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl, and there was a distinct "ho-hum" quality to the outcome. Scoring 56 points before halftime — and allowing the visitors a total of 37 yards over the game's first 30 minutes — will do that. For the first time since 1963, the Memphis program has started five consecutive seasons with a victory. Rookie quarterback? Grad-transfer Brady White passed for 358 yards and completed touchdown passes to five different teammates, emphatically shaking off any rust that may have developed in almost two years on the sidelines. Ho-hum.
Brady White delivers. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Brady White delivers.

"We've been working extremely hard, since January," emphasized Tiger coach Mike Norvell in his postgame remarks. "We're trying to be the best version of ourselves. We had a pretty solid week of preparation. To play as well as they did, especially in the first half, is a thank-you to Memphis. You walk into that [new] locker room, and it's special. Things are progressing here. This was one game. We have a lot of things to improve."

Don't tell the Mercer Bears about any improvements needed for the Memphis offense. The Tigers accumulated 752 yards of total offense, one shy of the program record (set in last year's American Athletic Conference championship game). Tailback Darrell Henderson averaged 8.4 yards on nine carries and would have led Memphis in rushing had freshman Calvin Austin not taken his one carry for an 83-yard trip to the end zone late in the fourth quarter. Junior Patrick Taylor scored a pair of touchdowns, the latter on a 75-yard catch-and-run that gave the Tigers a 35-0 lead barely two minutes into the second quarter.

The Memphis defense got in on the point-scoring fun, sophomore cornerback T.J. Carter returning a first quarter interception 35 yards for his first college touchdown. The Tigers allowed the Bears an average of just 3.4 yards on 51 plays, while Memphis gained 8.7 yards per snap on 86 plays. The drubbing was thorough, relatively clean (seven penalties for each team), and a statement that Norvell's offense will not sleep as Anthony Miller's NFL career begins in Chicago.

"The level of work [Brady White] has put in to learn this offense, the time he's spent building relationships with his teammates, he's a great young man," said Norvell of the quarterback he once recruited to play at Arizona State and later lured to Memphis. "I had a great deal of confidence that he'd play well."

When asked after the game how he would grade his play, White responded, "I'm not gonna do that." He didn't raise his eyebrows, didn't smile. Just turned toward a contingent of reporters, awaiting the next question. He looked as cool in his first press conference as he did behind a veteran Tiger offensive line for the half of football he was required to play. (Freshmen backups Brady McBride and Connor Adair took the snaps in the second half.)
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Brady White

"I had some butterflies out of excitement," acknowledged White. "But I wasn't nervous. When you have weapons like we do, you just want to get them the rock. My job is to get them the ball and let them do the work. We've got studs all over the field, both sides of the ball. We have a high standard here at Memphis."

The Tigers must quickly turn toward one of the season's biggest challenges, a road game at Navy next Saturday. Norvell described the upcoming tilt as "a championship-like game." Both Carter and receiver Damonte Coxie described chips on the shoulders of their teammates, memories of coming up short last season [in the AAC title game] a primary motivator as summer leans toward fall.

"We're going to get to the film, get our minds right, and get down to business," said White when asked about how he'll celebrate his debut as Memphis quarterback. He sounded like someone less than interested in the impact he made in his debut, and more curious about the impact his team can make on a season very early in the making.
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