Saturday, October 20, 2018

Missouri 65, Tigers 33

Posted By on Sat, Oct 20, 2018 at 7:03 PM

In a matchup of Tigers Saturday afternoon, Missouri asserted itself as dramatically superior to the visitors from Memphis. In rolling up 646 yards against an overmatched Memphis defense, Missouri scored the most points against the Tigers in 39 years. (Florida State beat the Tigers 66-17 on November 17, 1979.)
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Memphis quarterback Brady White entered the contest having thrown but one interception in seven games. He threw two in the loss, the first of them returned 42 yards for a touchdown by Christian Holmes early in the first quarter to give Mizzou a 14-0 lead. The Tigers closed the deficit to four points (21-17) early in the second quarter when White connected with Tony Pollard for a 30-yard touchdown. But Missouri scored four touchdowns over the final nine minutes of the first half to put the game out of reach. Two of the touchdowns were scored by Albert Okwuegbunam, who caught a third scoring strike from Mizzou quarterback Drew Lock in the third quarter.

Okwuegbunam finished the game with 159 yards on six receptions. Lock completed 23 of 29 passes for 350 yards and four touchdowns.

The country's leading rusher, Memphis tailback Darrell Henderson, was limited to four carries (for 15 yards) by a hamstring injury and did not play in the second half. Patrick Taylor rushed for 103 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns. White completed only 15 of 37 passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns. Damonte Coxie caught eight of the passes for 111 yards and a score.

The loss is the 28th in 31 games against SEC foes for Memphis since the Tigers upset of Tennessee in 1996. Their next SEC tilt will be against Ole Miss in the 2019 season opener. (Missouri will visit Memphis in 2023.)

The loss drops Memphis to 4-4 while Missouri improves to 4-3. The local Tigers have a bye week before traveling to East Carolina where they'll resume American Athletic Conference play on November 3rd.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Oct 17, 2018 at 9:48 AM

For all its problems, football is the most human of sports.
No game penalizes mistakes — be they physical errors or matters of decision — like football. (Baseball is designed around failure and in basketball, you succeed too frequently. Hockey and soccer have goaltenders to erase others' misplays.) The Memphis Tigers, it could be said, are one late fumble (at Navy) and one late holding call (last Saturday against UCF) from being 6-1 and nationally ranked. Instead, in part because of that lost fumble and holding call, Memphis is 4-3, out of the running for the American Athletic Conference (AAC) championship, and nowhere near consideration in the national polls.
LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

Coach Mike Norvell acknowledged his team's mistakes after the loss to UCF, more aware than most that a near-perfect game was required to end the Knights' 18-game winning streak. "Each game of this magnitude," he noted, "you have to be great at the little things." The Tigers were great at little and big things in taking a 30-14 lead in the first half against the nation's 10th-ranked team. But even seemingly smart decisions — like icing UCF's kicker just before halftime — backfired. (After missing his first attempt as a timeout was called, Matthew Wright split the uprights for what proved to be three critical points.) It's a brutal truth, but mistake-free football is required to pull an upset. Ninety percent on the gridiron often means failure.

We've reached a point where Ed Oliver and Bryce Huff can be mentioned in the same sentence. You're surely familiar with Oliver, the Houston Cougars' sublime defensive lineman, all but certainly a top-three pick in next year's NFL draft. In six games this season, Oliver has 11.5 tackles for loss. And that's with every offensive coordinator Houston plays scheming to prevent Oliver's damage. Well, through the Tigers' first seven games, junior linebacker Bryce Huff also has 11 TFLs. (Ten of Huff's are of the solo variety while Oliver has had nine solos.) Huff has more than capably filled the starting slot vacated by Genard Avery, combining with Curtis Akins, Tim Hart, and Austin Hall to give Memphis one of the best second-level defensive units in the AAC. From reserve linebacker as a sophomore to first-team all-conference? That may be Huff's storyline come December.

There's a cousin you hate seeing at every family reunion. Played too rough as a child, drinks too much as an adult, yet still pulls into the driveway with the fanciest car, year after year. Such is the relationship between Memphis and the SEC. Since the Tigers upset Peyton Manning and Tennessee on that fabled night in 1996, Memphis is 3-27 against SEC opponents, the three victories all coming against Ole Miss (in 2003, 2004, and 2015).

Memphis beat Missouri in 1996 (two months before the upset of Tennessee) and lost to the Tigers in 1999, but neither game counts on that SEC record, as Mizzou was then a member of the Big 12. Can this Tiger tussle become a new rivalry with old friend Barry Odom calling the shots in Columbia? It's hard to believe so, with the teams not playing again until 2023 (at the Liberty Bowl). Neither coach would suggest Saturday's winner gains a meaningful recruiting edge. So what's to gain? Any win over SEC opposition — wherever the game is played — is meaningful for Memphis. And the hometown Tigers don't want to go four weeks without tasting victory, a potential scenario weighing on the program with a bye week preceding the next game on the schedule (at East Carolina on November 3rd). I'm not sure we'll see a desperate Memphis football team Saturday afternoon. But I think they'll be determined.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

#10 UCF 31, Tigers 30

Posted By on Sat, Oct 13, 2018 at 7:49 PM

Two fumbles and two penalties.

The margin for error against a Top-10 team is razor thin to begin with. When reviewing film of their one-point loss to 10th-ranked UCF Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl, the Memphis Tigers will recoil at four plays that were more than enough to give the Knights their 19th straight victory.
Darrell Henderson - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Darrell Henderson

Down a point with less than a minute to  play and with no timeouts left, Tiger quarterback Brady White completed a pass near the right sideline to tight end Sean Dykes. But Dykes failed to get out of bounds at the Knights' 35-yard line. Scrambling into formation, a Tiger offensive lineman was penalized for a false start. Not only did the infraction move the Tigers out of Riley Patterson's field-goal range, but the 10-second clock runoff took the play clock down to 18 seconds. White complete a pass to Tony Pollard on the next play, but it proved to be the last of the game when Pollard was tackled in bounds. Thus ended the Tigers' 12-game winning streak at the Liberty Bowl just as a Memphis losing streak to UCF grew to 12 games.

"In the second half, we did things that cost you against a great opponent," said Memphis coach Mike Norvell. "We turned the ball over twice, had a touchdown called back. Errors you can't have. Our team battled. It's disappointing when you come up short, because we had opportunities in that game. You put a lot of time and effort into that one opportunity, and we came up short. They represented our university well."

On the Tigers' penultimate possession, Darrell Henderson appeared to give Memphis the lead on a 33-yard touchdown run, only to have the play negated by a holding penalty against freshman guard Dylan Parham. An ensuing sack of White forced the Tigers to punt.

Fumbles on consecutive Tiger possessions in the second half — one by Henderson and one by Kedarian Jones (at the Knights' 26-yard line) — allowed UCF to erase a 30-17 halftime deficit. Taj McGowan rambled 71 yards on a fourth-and-one play from the Knights' 29-yard line to close the deficit to 30-24 and UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton scored what proved to be the game-winner on a 7-yard run not quite three minutes into the fourth quarter. Milton converted a third-and-11 pass play on the decisive drive, connecting with tight end Michael Colubiale.
Mike Norvell - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell

"They made adjustments [in the second half]," said Norvell. "They did things to disrupt our running game. The rain created some challenges when we tried to throw the football. It's unfortunate that we couldn't finish it off."

"You gotta have a great intensity and focus," emphasized White. "It was just a matter of not finishing." White completed 17 of 29 passes for 209 yards, comparable figures to Milton, a preseason favorite to win the American Athletic Conference's Offensive Player of the Year honors. Milton connected on 17 of 29 passes for 296 yards. The Tigers sacked him four times (two each by John Tate and Joseph Dorceus).

The game had different rhythms in each half. Memphis scored on all six of its possessions in the first half, one of them a 25-yard jaunt by Henderson, who rushed for 199 yards on a career-high 31 carries and surpassed 1,100 yards for the season. UCF kicker Matthew Wright ended the first half with a 44-yard field goal after the Tigers called timeout just as he previously drilled an attempt off the right upright.

The teams combined to punt on the first five series of the second half before McGowan's touchdown run. Despite their struggles after halftime, Memphis outgained UCF for the game, 490 yards to 461 (both figures well below the teams' averages for the season).

The loss drops the Tigers to 4-3 (1-3 in the AAC), while UCF improves to 6-0 (3-0 in the AAC). Memphis travels to Missouri next week to face another streak of Tigers. They won't return to the Liberty Bowl until November 10th when Tulsa comes to town.

"Each game of this magnitude, you have to be great at the little things," stressed Norvell. "We gave them a short field, and then the penalties. You're not going to beat a good team when that happens. The rain plays a factor, but it was wet for both sides. They did a good job with their adjustments. We can't control the weather. We have to keep growing, keep getting better. We have eight seniors, and their leadership is key. The future's bright, but having these experiences . . . it's hard."

Monday, October 8, 2018

Who Are These Tigers?

Posted By on Mon, Oct 8, 2018 at 9:50 AM

The Memphis Tigers have reached the midpoint of their football season with a 4-2 record. So why does it feel like there are more questions about this team than answers? Let's explore five.

 Can the Tigers beat someone their own size?
There's been a lot of bullying over the first half of the season, particularly in the four games we've seen at the Liberty Bowl. It's the second week of October and we've yet to see a snap with tension in the air during a Tiger home game. They opened the season by trouncing an FCS foe (Mercer). Since then, Memphis has hosted three "Group of Five" opponents that won't sniff bowl eligibility: Georgia State (now 2-4), South Alabama (1-5), and Connecticut (1-5). Even the teams that have beaten Memphis aren't within a connecting flight from the Top 25: Navy (2-3) and Tulane (2-4). The schedule has made for some fun statistics. 46 points per game! 547 yards per game! But who's to say the Tigers can actually land a punch after receiving one? (Didn't look like it in the Tulane loss.) We'll start to answer this question Saturday when the 10th-ranked UCF Knights come to town riding an 18-game winning streak. Could be the biggest win of the season (maybe two) for Memphis. Could be a very ugly dose of perspective.
Memphis quarterback Brady White - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Memphis quarterback Brady White

Will we see a crowd of 40,000 at the Liberty Bowl this year?
Honestly, we may already have. A ticket-scanning glitch contributed to what seemed like a low number for the season-opener against Mercer. The eye test suggested more than 33,000 fans were in attendance on September 1st. But since then, Memphis hasn't even topped 30,000 in three games, none of which were played under stormy conditions. The light opposition surely contributed to the empty seats. (And the Liberty Bowl looks especially glum with fewer than 30,000 bodies in the seats, a historical problem for the facility and Tiger program.) Fall will finally arrive in the Mid-South this week, temperatures dropping into the sixties by the weekend. Maybe this will boost the community mood for Tiger football. UCF will be the first Top-10 team to visit Memphis since the 2009 season opener (Ole Miss was ranked 8th). Kickoff is scheduled for 2:30 and the ABC/ESPN cameras will be there, so it will be a measurable moment for progress the football program is making. Bottom line: a football team with Top-25 aspirations should draw 40,000 for games without an SEC attraction.

 Will Darrell Henderson rush for 2,000 yards?
DeAngelo Williams came close to this milestone twice, falling 52 yards short in 2004 and 36 yards shy a year later. Through six games, Henderson has run for 934 yards, an average of 155.7 per game (second in the country). Should he maintain that average for six more games, he'd finish the regular season with 1,868 yards and (presumably) a bowl game to play. But here's the problem: A glance at the Tigers' remaining schedule shows no sign of Georgia State, South Alabama, or UConn. After this week's big test, the Tigers travel to SEC country (Missouri). Watch the three-game stretch next month when Memphis faces East Carolina, Tulsa, and SMU. If a healthy Henderson is given the ball enough, he may reel off one or two more 200-yard games, which would make the chase for 2,000 quite compelling.

Will the Tigers win a road game?
Sure, Memphis has only traveled twice to date. The weather was lousy at Navy and not much better at Tulane. Fumbles cost the Tigers the former game and a collective face plant the latter. Coaches like to say road games test a team's character. If so, the Tiger-vs.-Tiger tussle at Missouri on October 20th will reveal a lot about coach Mike Norvell, his staff, and the roster he's built over three seasons in Memphis. This game falling a week after the UCF clash is a scheduling head-scratcher. (Note: Hosting a Power Five team in September would be healthy and Mizzou will be here on September 23, 2023.) Merely a split of their next two games would have the Tigers in a good place for the season's final month. But a road win is a must, somewhere, some place.

 Will someone kick the damn ball to Tony Pollard?
The Tigers' lightning-strike of a returner has averaged 20.7 yards on kickoffs this season, a silly-low number for a player who averaged 40.0 yards a year ago. But Pollard has returned only four kicks. He remains one shy of the career record for kickoff-return touchdowns (7) because teams simply refuse to send the ball in his vicinity. Here's hoping a Tiger opponent takes on the challenge of putting a kickoff in Pollard's hands. A Top-10 team dodges no one, right? SEC teams don't avoid specialists from Group of Five programs, do they? Free Tony Pollard, ye coverage teams.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Tigers 55, UConn 14

Posted By on Sat, Oct 6, 2018 at 10:42 PM

In beating the bark out of the Connecticut Huskies Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl, the Memphis Tigers did the expected. But after a thoroughly deflating loss at Tulane eight days ago, the Tigers also did what was needed as they reached the midpoint of the regular season. Playing as flawlessly as they have in six games, Memphis rolled up 634 yards of offense, forced four turnovers while not committing any, and unleashed not one, but two star tailbacks on the toothless Husky defense.
Darrell Henderson - MATTHEW SMITH
  • Matthew Smith
  • Darrell Henderson

"We played with intensity," said Memphis coach Mike Norvell following the win, which improved the Tigers' record to 4-2 and 1-2 in the American Athletic Conference. "I wanted a 60-minute battle. I didn't care about the situation or circumstance. I wanted to see a response. There were too many penalties, and our third-down conversion [rate] on defense has to improve, but we played like the Memphis Tigers. Our guys prepared this week. They were prepared. They knew how to respond."

Tailbacks Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor combined to rush for 335 yards and six touchdowns and Tiger quarterback Brady White completed 16 of 18 passes for 239 yards and a touchdown to lead their team to a fourth blowout in as many home games. White found tight end Joey Magnifico over the middle without a defender within 20 yards for a 44-yard touchdown just 1:48 into the game. The Tiger offensive line opened similar space for Henderson (174 yards) and Taylor (161 yards) in giving Memphis a 41-14 lead by halftime. Reserve quarterback Connor Adair relieved White in the fourth quarter and connected with Antonio Gibson, who made an acrobatic catch for the game's final touchdown. Memphis has scored no fewer than 52 points in its four home games (though no more than 24 in its two road losses).

"We came with a purpose," emphasized Norvell. "We coached every single play. Our guys knew we had to go out and respect this program, the standard we want to play this game. We've had a couple of setbacks. All we can do is continue to grow. We're a young football team; just eight seniors. It's good to see young guys forced into leadership roles when bad things happen. Tonight was a great response. We have bigger challenges in front of us."

The Huskies dropped to 1-5 with the loss and are now 0-3 in the AAC. The 634 yards allowed were actually below UConn's season average entering the game (663).
Taylor + Henderson = 335 yards + 6 touchdowns
  • Taylor + Henderson = 335 yards + 6 touchdowns

The soft portion of the Tigers' home schedule is over. Reigning AAC champion UCF visits the Liberty Bowl next Saturday and will enter the game on an 18-game winning streak (which includes two victories over Memphis last year). The game could be a tipping point — either direction — for a Memphis team still determining its performance ceiling. "I want them to go out and play to the capability they can," said Norvell. "The passion. The energy. Being more detailed, more disciplined in our approach. Our next opponent is not a good one, but a great one. We have to focus on ourselves."

White is ready for next week's confrontation. The chance to play meaningful snaps in the fourth quarter of a home game could be invigorating — and season-defining — for an entire squad. "All three phases of our team can perform at a high level," stressed Brady. "I'm confident we'll do well. [UCF] is a good team, and so are we. We know it's gonna be a dogfight, a 60-minute battle. However it plays out, we're gonna be ready to go. It's about the day-to-day approach."

NOTE: With his big night against the Huskies, Darrell Henderson moved into third place on the Tigers' career rushing chart. His 2,569 career yards now trail only Dave Casinelli (2,636) and DeAngeolo Williams (6,026).

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Oct 3, 2018 at 10:48 AM

The Tigers couldn't have scripted a better opponent for this Saturday's game at the Liberty Bowl. It's both a recovery game (after the disaster at Tulane) and a tune-up (with UCF on the way) for Memphis, and the Tigers need to hit a reset button on their season. UConn (1-4) has allowed the most points (267) in the American Athletic Conference (AAC), and by some distance (SMU has surrendered 190).

The Huskies have been outscored by an average of 53.4 to 21.6. (The lone game UConn won: a 56-49 shootout with Rhode Island.) Connecticut's defense has allowed a staggering 663 yards per game, dead last among the 130 FBS teams. (At 129 is Oregon State, and they've only allowed 543.6 per game.)

But here's the catch from the other sideline: Memphis now looks like a soft spot on the Husky schedule. Their losses have been to UCF, Boise State, Syracuse, and Cincinnati. Tiger coach Mike Norvell has emphasized all week how his team can overlook no one. They better not this week, because an undermanned (on paper) foe will be stoked for this clash.

• To his credit, Norvell has owned his team's performance at Tulane. He's come across, honestly, as the most disappointed "fan" in Memphis . . . and that's precisely as it should be. From Monday's press conference: "Part of the reason we are in this situation are things we have allowed to take place and allowed to happen, and it's hurt us in playing to the top level of our ability. We're going to continue to work. We had a good practice [Sunday]. Everyone is owning where we are and what we've done to this point."
Mike Norvell - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell

With any painful loss, it's not so much the what, but the why that a coaching staff must address.
The defense was significantly short-handed by injuries, particularly the line. (The secondary, minus two starters, looked significantly slower than it has in recent years.)  Tulane's defense managed to bottle up the country's top rusher, Darrell Henderson. Tiger quarterback Brady White was unable to stretch the Green Wave defense by connecting with receivers downfield. These and other factors made for the ugliest outing in Norvell's three seasons as a head coach. Time for that age-old cliche: It's not how hard you fall, but how quickly you get up.

What has happened to Mid-South football? Memphis fans are pouting over an 0-2 start in the AAC. Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Arkansas are all 0-2 in the SEC. Tennessee is 0-2 in league play and Vanderbilt 0-1. Six regional programs with a combined league record of 0-11. There's Alabama, of course. (Always Alabama.) LSU, Georgia, and Auburn are also Top-10 teams. But I've bumped into some slump-shouldered football fans as October has arrived. Better days are surely ahead. If nothing else, I know five SEC programs Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen should consider scheduling.

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Monday, October 1, 2018

A "Football School" No More

Posted By on Mon, Oct 1, 2018 at 9:23 AM

Remember when the University of Memphis became a football school? It happened on December 22, 2014, when the Tigers beat BYU in a scintillating Miami Beach Bowl. The overtime victory gave Memphis a final record of 10-3 and vaulted a program that had finished 2-10 merely three years earlier into the year-end AP Top 25. When the Tigers won their first eight games in 2015 — one of them a beat-down of Ole Miss at the Liberty Bowl — we began hearing talk of Memphis playing in a major bowl game, of a Memphis quarterback (Paxton Lynch) getting Heisman Trophy consideration. This was University of Memphis football. The basketball program, meanwhile, slogged through four years without an NCAA tournament appearance.

That "football school" died at Yulman Stadium in New Orleans last Friday night. Favored by two touchdowns against Tulane, the Tigers scored on their first play from scrimmage — a 47-yard run by Darrell Henderson (ho-hum) — then played like they forgot they were members of the American Athletic Conference. After compiling three wins over stepchildren in shoulder pads last month, Memphis got manhandled on both sides of the ball by the Green Wave. The Tigers, particularly on defense, looked slower than Tulane. Worse, they looked tired. An 11-game winning streak against the Green Wave ended with a damp thud. Perspective on the new depths? Coach Larry Porter's Tigers were undefeated against Tulane.
penny_headshot.jpg

As though recovery from such a loss won't be test enough for coach Mike Norvell, defensive coordinator Chris Ball, and a team no longer in contention for its league title, the Tiger basketball team will host Memphis Madness Thursday night at FedExForum. You've heard the hoops squad has a new coach: Penny Hardaway. Among the celebs rumored to have circled Thursday night on their schedules: Drake and Justin Timberlake. An NBA arena will be filled by paying fans on October 4th for what amounts to a college basketball fashion show. James Wiseman and other Tiger recruiting targets will be impressed. Hardaway's first appearance as Tiger coach in front of a crowd numbered in the thousands will reverberate at least to the pointy arena he played in as a Tiger, making all of downtown Memphis once again a hub for college basketball. Yes, it's madness.

Two days after the lights dim at FedExForum, the Tiger football team will take the field at the Liberty Bowl to play Connecticut. The game will surely draw more fans than we see at Memphis Madness. Surely?

Perhaps this is right and proper. Memphis has never been a sports town with an abundance of riches. To have a Top-25 football team and Penny Hardaway in charge of basketball? That would be like having Paisley Park two blocks south of Graceland. How much love and happiness can one athletic department take?

The football team is better than it looked at Tulane. And the basketball team will not enter next March's AAC tournament with a 31-0 record. (We'll go with 28-3 for now.) But we can again recognize the U of M as very much a basketball school. The throng of reporters and camera crew at the Tiger basketball team's opening practice last week was larger than the group that gathered for the football team's postgame press conference the previous Saturday at the Liberty Bowl. While Mike Norvell is asked about the development of his rookie quarterback, Penny Hardaway is asked if any of his players remind him of himself. (Anyone? Please, Penny?) Breathless anticipation is a rare commodity in sports of any kind. On the college basketball level, in a city the size of Memphis, such excitement forms a community's emotional baseline.

There will again be football victories to cheer. If they're drowned out by a Tiger basketball win come November, consider it the natural order of things. Good football is always welcome in this Hoop City.
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