Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Nov 28, 2018 at 10:58 AM

Put down the voodoo dolls! The American Athletic Conference's two best quarterbacks — Houston's D'Eriq King and UCF's McKenzie Milton — each go down with season-ending injuries a week before their teams play Memphis. Spooky stuff. King's absence may have been the difference in the Tigers' win over Houston last Friday, a game that was tied at 31 entering the fourth quarter. As for this week, beware a good team playing for a cause. The entire UCF roster will be playing for Milton Saturday in Orlando, not necessarily the intangible Memphis needs in this matchup. On the other hand, the Knights have utterly dominated this series, winning 12 straight. If the Tigers aren't motivated by such a one-sided "rivalry," they need not suit up.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell

After clinching the AAC's West Division title a second straight year, coach Mike Norvell emphasized the "hard-earned culture" that now exists in and around the Memphis football program. It's an apt description. The Tigers have won more games over the last five seasons (45) than they did over the previous ten (2004-13). No Memphis team scored 500 points in a season before 2015. The Tigers have now scored more than 500 points in four straight seasons (the last three under Norvell). Here's the big-picture challenge for the U of M: How does a culture outlast a coach?

Norvell has been mentioned in the current searches for a new coach at Colorado and Texas Tech. I'm not convinced either job would be a step up, regardless of the Power Five qualifications at each program. But Norvell will not spend his entire career on the Memphis sideline. He's too young (37), wins too much, and there are too many programs out there with deeper pockets than an AAC program can claim. So the challenge — for Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen and those who helped find Justin Fuente and Norvell — is keeping a hard-earned culture alive regardless of who happens to be sitting in the head coach's office. This week's opponent is a prime example, UCF now ranked 7th in the country after a coaching transition last winter.

The AAC championship will be closer than the SEC championship. The Tigers and Knights will be playing (on ABC) at the same time Alabama and Georgia stage a rematch of last year's national championship contest (on CBS). I'm convinced the better game will the one with the smaller viewing audience. Last year's AAC championship was, by some measures, the game of the year (nationally), UCF winning, 62-55, in two overtimes. The Knights beat Memphis in October, 31-30, after erasing a 13-point deficit. Two of the top eight scoring teams in the country — they each average more than 43 points per game — should make for a thrilling Saturday afternoon in Orlando. My prediction: Memphis wins the game, but only if the Tigers rush for 250 yards. (The U of M is 7-1 in such games this season, the only loss coming against . . . UCF.)

Monday, November 26, 2018

Penny's Players

Posted By on Mon, Nov 26, 2018 at 8:59 AM

I stood in a crowded media room at the University of Memphis Athletics Office Building in January 2005, awaiting a Decision. Certain announcements get the capital-letter treatment, and this was one of them. DeAngelo Williams — the incomparable Tiger running back — was to announce whether he would return to the U of M for his senior season or enter his name for the upcoming NFL draft. There were more than 100 people packed into that room, and we were split on the choice Williams would make. He was ready to play professionally . . . but might he want to play another year in college?

Williams announced he was staying. To this day, the cheer that greeted that announcement is the loudest I've heard at a "sporting event" where no score was being kept. It was utter joy, magnified by each individual in that room.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Penny Hardaway

James Wiseman's Decision (yep, capital letter), announced last week in the auditorium at East High School, may prove to be as significant as the one Williams made almost 14 years ago. And the announcement — this time with a stuffed unicorn as part of the fun — elicited a massive roar from those in attendance (many of them longtime Tiger boosters). But there's a significant difference between the Williams and Wiseman Decisions: there was no drama last week, no matter how much the ESPN crew and cameras craved it. We knew James Wiseman would play basketball at Memphis, not on November 20th, but on March 20th, when Penny Hardaway took the job as Tiger coach. The young man's family moved here from Nashville to play for Hardaway in high school. That decision (lower case) was likely harder than the one the seven-foot star made last week.

Think about it. Would a high-profile local basketball prospect host a public gathering in his new hometown, during college basketball's early signing period, to announce he's leaving for greener pastures? If young hoop stars have learned nothing else from the great LeBron James, they've learned televised Decisions can backfire and damage a man's reputation for years. Sure, there were four other logos — Wiseman's "finalists" — displayed in the East auditorium. Best of all, Kentucky's was on the board. But there was no drama, no doubt. And the finest tribute we can pay Penny Hardaway in his transformation of the Tiger program is that we all saw this coming.

When the Tigers tip off the 2019-20 season, 60 percent of Hardaway's starting lineup may well be the same 60 percent that helped him win a 2017-18 Tennessee state championship at East. In addition to Wiseman, forward Malcolm Dandridge (a four-star recruit himself) is part of the 2019 Memphis recruiting class. Alex Lomax — a freshman at the U of M and once a Wichita State commit — is already starting for the Tigers. These are Penny's players. They'll wear blue and gray because Hardaway is now (again) wearing blue and gray. If the University of Memphis has ever realized so quick a return — and so game-changing a return — on an investment, it may have involved Keith Lee and a shoebox full of cash.

Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither were Hardaway's Memphis Tigers. The current team's interior weakness was exposed during a 20-point loss to Oklahoma State in Orlando on Thanksgiving. Through six games — 20 percent of the regular season — Kyvon Davenport leads Memphis with a pedestrian 6.6 rebounds per game. The Tigers are in need of a player who can protect the rim on defense and attack it when they own the ball. Hmmm. I wonder where one of those might be found?

Wiseman's announcement was no surprise. Nor should be the occasional stumble this season as a rookie coach gets to know a roster tasked with being, essentially, a preview of things to come. And that's the first real challenge of the Coach Hardaway Era: accept present shortcomings as we await exceptional solutions.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Charleston 78, Tigers 75

Posted By on Sun, Nov 25, 2018 at 8:19 PM

The metronomic start to Penny Hardaway's coaching career with the Tigers continues. Win, loss, win, loss, win, and Sunday evening in Orlando, a loss to the College of Charleston.

Tyler Harris's three-point attempt with two seconds left on the clock fell short, giving the Cougars a win in the fifth-place game at the AdvoCare Invitational. The freshman guard was a primary reason Memphis battled Charleston — a 2018 NCAA tournament team — to the finish, with seven treys and a team-high 25 points.

The Tigers led at the half (42-40) but only got to the free-throw line 14 times (making 8), while the Cougars hit 17 of 21 shots from the foul line. Grant Riller scored 32 points to lead Charleston and Brevin Galloway added 15 on five three-point shots.

Jeremiah Martin's layup with a minute to play gave the Tigers the lead (75-74) and moved the senior guard from Mitchell High School into the Tigers' 1,000-point club. But Jarrell Brantley and Riller each hit two free throws in the game's closing seconds to help Charleston improve to 5-2 for the season. Memphis freshman Alex Lomax was called for a moving screen with the Tigers down a point (76-76) with 16 seconds left.

The Tigers (3-3) will have five days off before traveling back to Florida where they'll face Texas Tech next Saturday in the Hoop Hall Miami Invitational. They return to FedExForum on December 4th for the first of seven consecutive home games (against South Dakota State).

Friday, November 23, 2018

Tigers 71, Canisius 63

Posted By on Fri, Nov 23, 2018 at 6:28 PM

Let's call it the consolation bracket.

In a game between teams that lost in Thursday's quarterfinals of the AdvoCare Invitational in Orlando, the Tigers beat Canisius with a new starting lineup, one that resulted in a new star off coach Penny Hardaway's bench.

Kyvon Davenport
scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds as a reserve Friday afternoon to help Memphis improve to 3-2 on the young season. Davenport and Isaiah Maurice were replaced in the Tiger starting lineup by a pair of seniors, Mike Parks and Raynere Thornton. Parks scored 14 points and grabbed five rebounds in only 17 minutes (he picked up three fouls).

Jeremiah Martin added 10 points and Antwann Jones 14 off the bench to help their team avoid the first consecutive losses under Hardaway. Memphis earned the win despite missing 13 of 14 shots from three-point range. The Tigers had 20 turnovers and only 14 assists.

Memphis finishes its three-game appearance in Orlando on Sunday when the Tigers play the winner of Friday's Charleston-UAB game. Tip-off is scheduled for 5:30.

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Tigers 52, Houston 31

Posted By on Fri, Nov 23, 2018 at 4:46 PM

Improbable championships are the ones we remember most. In beating Houston Friday at the Liberty Bowl, the Memphis Tigers earned the American Athletic Conference's West Division title despite starting the month of November with a 1-3 record in league play. Four straight wins give the Tigers a final regular-season record of 8-4, with a 5-3 mark in the AAC, just strong enough to earn a tiebreaker with Houston (and/or Tulane and/or SMU). The Tigers will face 8th-ranked UCF on December 1st in a rematch of last year's scintillating AAC championship game.
Senior center Drew Kyser - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Senior center Drew Kyser

Tiger coach Mike Norvell got emotional in describing the win for gathered media after the game, particularly in reflecting on the seniors who played their last home game, players who have brought a "hard-earned culture" to the U of M, one strong enough to overcome the kind of adversity a 65-33 midseason loss (at Missouri) brings a group. "The way this team has grown throughout the year . . . a lot of adversity," he emphasized. "They continued to work, to believe in each other. I'm grateful for their belief in our coaching staff. We've seen a lot of maturity. People remember what you do in November, and this team responded. This sets up another opportunity, against a great opponent, a classic game. We're gonna compete for a conference championship."

Houston played without its star quarterback D'Eriq King. The AAC's total-offense leader injured a knee in the Cougars' win over Tulane on November 15th. Clayton Tune filled in capably, tossing three touchdown passes, but he was twice sacked on fourth-down plays — by Bryce Huff and Jonathan Wilson — to extinguish Houston drives.

The Memphis game plan, according to Norvell and those most responsible, was to run the ball against a vulnerable Houston defense (ranked 118th in the country), one compromised by a recent injury to All-America lineman Ed Oliver. (Oliver did not play in the second half.) The Tigers ran the ball on 59 plays, compared with 33 passes, and accumulated 401 yards, enough to shatter the program's single-season rushing record (now 3,311 yards). Darrell Henderson — one of three finalists for the Doak Walker Award — ran for 178 yards, Patrick Taylor 128, and Tony Pollard 83. Sixth-year senior Sam Craft got in on the fun with a 28-yard touchdown run early in the the third quarter that erased a 21-17 Houston lead. Craft now has the distinction of scoring a touchdown in five seasons for the Tigers (2013-16 and 2018).

Taylor was afraid he would draw a penalty when he realized how far onto the field he ran to celebrate Craft's score, the Olive Branch native's first in more than two years. "The smile on my face was so big," said Taylor, who scored two touchdowns of his own and now has 15 for the season. "The game plan was to run the ball and the offensive line got it done," said Taylor. They got movement up front." Three of those linemen — center Drew Kyser, and tackles Trevon Tate and Roger Joseph — are seniors, and all five have started every game this season for Memphis. "The whole season was a test of faith," added Taylor. "But we kept grinding."
Senior linebacker Curtis Akins - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Senior linebacker Curtis Akins

Tiger faith was tested in the second quarter when Memphis quarterback Brady White threw a pair of damaging interceptions. Cougar safety Gleson Sprewell intercepted both, returning the first 63 yards to give Houston a 21-17 lead and pulling in the second at the Cougar one-yard line when it appeared Memphis would regain the lead before halftime.

The score was deadlocked at 24 when Pollard skipped six yards untouched around the right side of the Memphis line for a touchdown with 2:41 left to play in the third quarter. The Cougars answered with a one-minute touchdown drive of their own, tying the score at 31 through three quarters.

The Memphis offense found itself facing fourth-and-one at the Tiger 44-yard line as time expired in the third quarter. According to Norvell, there was never a question about whether or not to go for the first down. Henderson took the hand-off from White and rambled through the right side of the Tiger line to retain possession. The drive culminated in a one-yard Taylor touchdown to give the Tigers all the points they needed.

"You think about the moment," said Norvell. "You think of who you are, who you have, and the belief in the guys up front. That was a special play. Our guys controlled the game from that point on."

In taking his season rushing total to 1,699 yards, Henderson establishes a new single-season record for the six-year-old AAC. His two touchdowns — one of them a 60-yard gallop down the left sideline in the fourth quarter — give Henderson 22 for the season, one shy of DeAngelo Williams's Tiger record.

But the individual numbers, however grand, take second fiddle to a major team goal attained. "I don't know if words can explain how sweet this one is," said Pollard, who added 116 receiving yards and a 37-yard kickoff return to his rushing total. "Early in the season, a lot of people counted us out, but things played out the right way and here we are. We never counted ourselves out."

"They're willing to respond when they're knocked down," said Norvell. "That's what makes up a champion."

Cornerback Tito Windham was one of 13 Tiger seniors honored before kickoff. The AAC West Division trophy, presented after the game, served as a nice bookend for his final game at the Liberty Bowl. "We counted on each other," said Windham. "We believed in each other. That's a big family in that locker room. We had to get the details right."

And what does Windham think of facing UCF again for an AAC championship? "There's a lot you can gain from playing a team twice in a season. We'll be ready."

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Thursday, November 22, 2018

Oklahoma State 84, Tigers 64

Posted By on Thu, Nov 22, 2018 at 5:14 PM

Size still matters in college basketball, and the Tigers got an ugly reminder in the quarterfinals of the AdvoCare Invitational in Orlando. Oklahoma State blocked 10 Memphis shots — six of them by Yor Anei alone — and dominated the glass (40 rebounds to the Tigers' 30) to advance to Friday's semifinals where the Cowboys will face reigning national champion Villanova. The loss ruined a Thanksgiving homecoming of sorts for Memphis coach Penny Hardaway, who starred for the Orlando Magic for six seasons in the 1990s.

Memphis stuck with its Big 12 opponent for the game's first 13 minutes. Freshman guard Tyler Harris drained a three-pointer to give the Tigers a 22-20 lead with 7:40 to play before halftime. But the Cowboys outscored the U of M, 21-9, to finish the half. The Tigers never again closed the margin to less than nine points.

Already undersized, the Tigers' attack was further compromised by two first-half fouls called on senior forward Kyvon Davenport. Six Cowboys scored in double figures, led by Thomas Dziagwa with 14 points.

Harris led the Tigers with 14 points. Davenport added 12 while Jeremiah Martin and Kareem Brewton each scored 10.

The loss drops Memphis to 2-2 for the season. The Tigers will face Canisius on the losers' side of the tourney bracket Friday, with tip-off scheduled for 12:30 p.m.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Nov 21, 2018 at 8:00 AM

• First of all, my sincere apologies for misreading the tea leaves for the American Athletic Conference standings last week. I was guilty of applying linear logic to the Tigers' chances for winning the West Division: They'd need one more win than Tulane to advance to the AAC championship game, the Green Wave having beaten Memphis earlier this season. Lesson learned: no linear logic in three-way or four-way ties. Tulane beat the Tigers, indeed, but the Green Wave lost to Houston and SMU. Memphis beat the Mustangs, so if they beat the Cougars this Friday, they'll have a better record within the three-way (or four-way) tie than Tulane's. Were I a Tulane football player, I'd cringe at the sight of Memphis playing for the league title. But I'd especially regret the losses to those teams from Texas.
Memphis coach Mike Norvell - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Memphis coach Mike Norvell

Memphis football desperately needs an annual conference "rivalry game." Well, we have it Friday at the Liberty Bowl. With Southern Miss and UAB no longer annual clashes, the cat-fight between the U of M and UH has become the most meaningful contest on the Tiger schedule. (Memphis has dominated its series with Tulane for too long, owning a 22-12-1 advantage even after this year's Green Wave victory.) The Tigers have won the last two meetings with Houston after dropping six straight from 2006 to 2015. (Houston leads the series, 15-11.) The aggregate score of the the last four games between these teams (split two each): Memphis 148, Houston 145.

I love Senior Day, and love the way it falls near Thanksgiving. Commitment to a football program — from its players — is the only chance a program has to succeed. The annual pregame salute to departing players honors this commitment, and with families on the field. It's wonderful.

Two of this year's seniors — Sam Craft (WR) and Jackson Dillon (LB) — played their first games for Memphis in 2013. They each endured two redshirt seasons to recover from injuries so have been a part of all five winning clubs since 2014. Craft even snuck in some basketball for coach Josh Pastner's squad in 2016.

I don't like the expression "supporting role" for young men who have donned helmets and pads in heat and cold for years without any limelight while helping their team improve on a daily basis. So let's say the following seniors have played building roles for Memphis: Ross Anderson (DB, White Station High School), Noah Arrindell (DB, Houston High School), Tim Belles (LS, Houston High School), Hayden Ferrari (WR, Christian Brothers High School), and Brandon Murphy (DL).

Emmanuel Cooper (DL) has been part of the Tigers' pass rush and contributed 4.5 tackles-for-loss this season. Tito Windham (CB) has been a two-year starter and leads the Tigers this year with two interceptions. Linebacker Curtis Akins is a three-year starter and leads Memphis with 72 tackles this season (43 of them solo). No unit has been more impacted by seniors this season than the Tigers' offensive line. Center Drew Kyser will play in his 51st game (and make his 50th start) against Houston. (Kyser is the first and only Tiger to share an alligator-hunting story with me.) Left tackle Trevon Tate will make his 46th start against the Cougars and was a preseason all-conference pick by Athlon. Right tackle Roger Joseph will make his 24th start Friday.

Get to the Liberty Bowl early (kickoff is 11 a.m.) to help send these Tigers off the right way. A winning tradition requires time . . . and players like these.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Tigers 109, Yale 102 (2 OT)

Posted By on Sun, Nov 18, 2018 at 10:53 AM

The games go on, as they must.

Two days after Karim Azab lost his eight-month battle with leukemia, his teammates took the floor at FedExForum and won the most scintillating game the barn has seen in years. Down 81-75 with 1:40 left to play in regulation, the Tigers clawed back to tie it on three Tyler Harris free throws with 2.9 seconds left on the clock. Down 96-91 with 48 seconds to play in the first overtime period, the Tigers clawed back to tie it with free throws from Jeremiah Martin and Kyvon Davenport (one each) with less than 10 seconds to play.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tyler Harris

In the second overtime — coach Penny Hardaway's sport coat in the hands of an assistant — the Tiger defense stopped Yale on five consecutive possessions, taking command on field goals from Martin, Kareem Brewton (a three-pointer), and Alex Lomax. Wearing a patch with their fallen teammate's initials on their uniforms, the Tigers improved to 2-1 despite missing 19 of an astounding 56 free throws.

"We were against the ropes," said Martin. "But we stuck together as a team. I knew we were gonna win. No matter the situation or circumstance, we'd find a way out of it. For Karim, we wouldn't want to lose. We were going to lay it all on the line."

"When we got down, I thought about Karim in overtime," added Davenport. "And he helped us get through it."

The Tigers survived an onslaught by Bulldog guard Alex Copeland, who scored all 13 of his team's points in the first overtime. They survived despite not hitting a three-pointer until the second half, despite Yale out-shooting them from the field and charity stripe. The Tigers won despite any player grabbing as many as 10 rebounds or handing out more than five assists.

"I'm proud of the guys for sticking with it," said Hardaway after the game, now 2-0 at home as a head coach. "We didn't have our best stuff. [Yale] made shots. We knew they were good, and in person they were great. We just outlasted them."

Team strength can be measured in various ways, and it typically takes a few weeks to identify just how strong a squad might be collectively. After a tough loss at LSU last Tuesday and Azab's death Thursday, the 2018-19 Tigers are summoning strength they may not have known they had. "I've learned these guys are resilient," said Hardaway. "They're tougher than I gave them credit for. You come back at LSU and take the lead, you've got a tough team."

Harris led Memphis with 22 points and called on a higher power for the clutch free throws at the end of regulation. "That was one of the hardest moments of my life," said the freshman from Cordova. "I prayed to God and He came through for me."

Hardaway wasn't sure of the Biblical proportions, but he was confident Harris would make the three free throws after missing one earlier in the second half. "That's the way Tyler is," said the rookie coach. "He relishes that moment, to stick the dagger in. I knew he was gonna make all three. He's built for that."
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Penny Hardaway

Martin struggled early but finished with 20 points, five assists, and three steals in 42 minutes of action. Brewton scored 12 points off the bench and Mike Parks scored 11 in a reserve role. (Parks started the first overtime.) Davenport and Isaiah Maurice each scored 10 points and Lomax added 13. Hardaway's prize freshman recruits were integral in the win, Harris playing 39 minutes and Lomax 35.

The Coach Hardaway Era has already had heartbreak — of the most severe kind — and it's now had a double-overtime thriller in front of more than 14,000 fans at FedExForum. The new face of a program he led so brilliantly as a player is comfortable with the emotional extremes. "I've had so many close games in my career [as a player and high school coach]," he said. "I've learned from the wins and the losses."

The Tigers will travel to Orlando for three games at the Advocare Invitational Thanksgiving weekend. They tip off against Oklahoma State on Thanksgiving day at 3 p.m. They won't return to FedExForum until December 4th, when South Dakota State comes to town.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Tigers 28, SMU 18

Posted By on Sat, Nov 17, 2018 at 12:00 AM

The Memphis Tigers and SMU Mustangs put together Friday night football follies in Dallas, and Memphis prevailed. Behind two touchdowns each from tight end Joey Magnifico and tailback Patrick Taylor, the Tigers improved to 7-4 for the season and 4-3 in the American Athletic Conference. The victory sets up what amounts to an AAC semifinal game against Houston next Friday at the Liberty Bowl, the winner advancing to the league championship game on December 1st.

The win can best be described as awkward. In the first half alone, one team botched a fake punt (SMU) while the other missed a 21-yard field goal attempt (Memphis kicker Riley Patterson). Tiger quarterback Brady White managed to complete a pass, via deflection, to himself. Taylor was taken down in the end zone for a safety. Memphis suffered more than 100 yards in penalties . . . and led at the break (7-5) courtesy of a White-to-Magnifico touchdown pass.

Taylor scored on a 9-yard run early in the third quarter to extend the Memphis lead to 14-5. SMU tightened things with a touchdown pass from Ben Hicks to James Proche for 31 yards late in the third, but Memphis responded on its ensuing possession, White again finding Magnifico in the end zone to make the score 21-12. Taylor all but clinched the win with his second touchdown run, a two-yard sprint midway through the fourth quarter.

Taylor finished the game with 112 yards on 20 carries while his backfield partner, Darrell Henderson, ran for 75 yards on 16 attempts. (Henderson surpassed 1,500 rushing yards for the season, only the second Tiger in history to do so.) White completed 18 of 31 passes for 226 yards, with the two touchdowns and a pair of interceptions. Sophomore wideout Damonte Coxie caught two passes for 90 yards (the first a 62-yarder on the Tigers' opening possession). Coxie became just the third Memphis receiver to top 1,000 yards in a season but missed the second half with a leg injury.

SMU drops to 5-6 (4-3) with the loss. Memphis owns any three- or four-way tiebreaker (with Tulane and Houston also in the mix), so a win next week over the Cougars would mean a second straight trip to the AAC championship game.

The victory clinches a fifth straight winning season for the Tigers, a streak unmatched since 1973-77.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Nov 14, 2018 at 9:47 AM

• Despite currently occupying fourth place in the American Athletic Conference's West Division, the Tigers could have a chance to win the division as they kick off against SMU Friday night in Texas. A lot must happen, so take a deep breath.

(1) Memphis (3-3 in AAC play) must beat the Mustangs and finish the regular season with a win over Houston. The Cougars are currently tied with SMU (and Tulane) atop the division with a league record of 4-2. Even if Houston beats Tulane this week, two Memphis wins would give the Tigers the tiebreaker with a win over the Cougars on November 23rd. Likewise, a win Friday night would give the Tigers the tiebreaker over SMU. (2) Tulane must lose its final two games, at Houston Thursday night and at home against Navy on November 24th. The Green Wave would win a tiebreaker with Memphis by virtue of their win over the Tigers on September 28th. (Tulane could ruin the fun and eliminate the Tigers with a win at Houston Thursday night.)
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Brady White

He's not Paxton Lynch or Riley Ferguson, but Memphis quarterback Brady White has had a very good season. He currently ranks second in the AAC in pass efficiency, behind Houston's D'Eriq King but ahead of one McKenzie Milton (UCF's all-conference QB). He's thrown 22 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. (Ferguson is the only quarterback in Memphis history to have a season with 20 more TD passes than picks.) With 2,512 yards, White has a chance to become the fifth Memphis quarterback to toss for 3,000 yards in a season. The junior transfer doesn't do spectacular. He'd be the first to tell you. In basketball terms, White is a facilitator. With Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor taking turns behind him and a veteran offensive line in front of him, White's been tasked to not make game-changing mistakes. For the most part, he's handled the role with aplomb.

Deep in the shadow of Henderson's spectacular season has been a stellar campaign by sophomore wideout Damonte Coxie. The sophomore from Louisiana has caught 58 passes (third in the AAC) for 949 yards (second) and seven touchdowns. Coxie had the impossible assignment of following All-America Anthony Miller as the Tigers' top downfield threat. With 51 more yards, Coxie will join Miller and Isaac Bruce as the only Memphis receivers with a 1,000-yard season to their credit.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

#22 LSU 85, Tigers 76

Posted By on Tue, Nov 13, 2018 at 8:21 PM

It's a season of firsts for Penny Hardaway, and the Tigers' rookie coach absorbed his first loss Tuesday night in Baton Rouge. Memphis battled LSU well into the second half, but a 20-8 run by the Bayou Bengals proved decisive and the U of M fell to 1-1. Skylar Mays led LSU with 19 points and received support from four teammates also in double figures on the scoreboard. Ironically, LSU's All-America candidate, Tremont Waters, missed eight of 11 shots and finished with only eight points.

Memphis hit five of nine shots from three-point range over the game's first nine minutes to avoid any early separation. Jeremiah Martin converted a pair of free throws after a three-pointer to tie the game at 36 with 3:35 to play in the first half. The senior guard later gave Memphis the lead (54-52) on a layup early in the second half, but that field goal triggered the hosts' game-winning run. LSU's lead grew to 10 points (72-62) with seven minutes left to play.

LSU shot 54 percent from the field and dominated inside play throughout. Memphis shot 41 percent and had more turnovers (14) than assists (12).

Senior center Mike Parks returned to the Memphis lineup and came off the bench to score nine points and grab six rebounds. Freshman guard Tyler Harris drained six three-pointers and led Memphis with 20 points. Martin added 15 points and senior forward Kyvon Davenport scored 10.

Game three of the Coach Hardaway Era comes Saturday night at FedExForum when Yale comes to town.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Tigers 47, Tulsa 21

Posted By on Sat, Nov 10, 2018 at 3:49 PM

Bowl eligibility arrived for the University of Memphis Saturday afternoon at the Liberty Bowl, and it came with an extra dose of history for the program. In hammering the Golden Hurricane for the second straight season, the Tigers improved to 6-4 for the season and will play in a bowl game for a fifth straight year. Central to the victory was the performance of tailback Darrell Henderson, who became only the second player in Memphis history to surpass 3,000 rushing yards and only the third to score 40 touchdowns in his career. Henderson ran for 166 yards and a pair of touchdowns — giving him 1,446 and 20, respectively, for the season — to further secure his place among Tiger all-time greats.

"If it wasn't for the other ten guys [on the field], I wouldn't have numbers like those," said the soft-spoken junior after the game, a grin and tilt of his head the only indications that the statistics carry significant meaning. And as eye-popping as Henderson's records have become, Saturday's win was indeed a group achievement.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Patrick Taylor

"We had a good week of preparation," said Tiger coach Mike Norvell. "I challenged our guys to play our most complete game. I wanted to see it in every phase. And I thought we dominated in every phase. It was exciting for me to see on the sideline as a coach. I'm proud of our defense; they were dominant. Offensively, we knew we had to establish the run, and we were efficient throwing the ball."

The play of the game actually came on special teams early in the fourth quarter, when junior Pop Williams took a Tulsa punt at the Tigers' 28 yard line, spun 360 degrees amid a gang of Tulsa tacklers, then raced to the right sideline and into the end zone for a 72-yard touchdown, the first return to pay dirt of his career. The Tigers received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for the sideline mob that joined Williams to celebrate his electrifying play, but even Norvell acknowledged it was a penalty worth taking, himself spotted at the 15-yard-line when the flag was thrown.

"One of the best parts of coaching is when you see the emotional response to one guy having success," said Norvell. "True freshmen. Offensive linemen who aren't playing. All losing their minds. Defensive players. You see the energy developing with relationships."

A Tiger defense that entered the game ranked 86th in the country shut out the Golden Hurricane over the game's first half. Riley Patterson kicked a 30-yard field goal on the Tigers' opening drive and Brady White threw short touchdown passes on their next two possessions (to Williams and tight end Joey Magnifico) to make the score 17-0 entering the second quarter. Henderson scored the first of his two touchdowns late in the second quarter to put the game out of reach.

"We're now bowl-eligible, and that's huge for our program," said Norvell. "We want that to be the minimum standard. For our senior class to ensure themselves one more game . . . that's important to me. I'm proud of this team. And I like where we are right now."

Among the stars on defense was sixth-year linebacker Jackson Dillon, who had one of five sacks for the Tigers, and his first personally since the 2014 season. Having been part of the program since the 3-9 season of 2013, Dillon has special appreciation for the big-picture strides Memphis football has taken.
Pop Williams (9) and happy teammates. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Pop Williams (9) and happy teammates.

"It's a big deal," emphasized Dillon. "I never thought it would come to this. Or maybe I thought it would, but I knew we had to put in a lot of work. It's a big-time program. We had some stumbles earlier in the year. But that's gonna happen. We're not going to go undefeated every season. It sounds good, but it's not gonna happen. You just stay the course. We've had good weeks of practice, but it's about getting your mind ready to playa the game. That's where we've struggled in the past. If we have adversity, we still fight through."

"You had 11 guys on that defense playing as one," said Norvell. "We saw a higher level of relentless pursuit. Guys flying around with energy. Coach [Chris] Ball came up with a great plan and it was executed at a high level. We forced them into long-yardage situations. It was dominant."

White completed 14 of 20 passes for 184 yards and didn't throw an interception. (He has 22 touchdown passes against three interceptions for the season.) Damonte Coxie caught six passes for 110 yards, his third consecutive game over 100 yards (and fifth of the season). Coxie is 51 yards from becoming only the third Memphis receiver to top 1,000 yards in a season. In a supporting role to Henderson, Patrick Taylor ran for 96 yards on 20 carries and scored a touchdown on a one-yard dash in the third quarter.

The 47 points Memphis scored are the fewest in a Tiger win this season. The offense compiled 499 yards while holding Tulsa to 252. The Tigers scored on all seven of their trips into the red zone.

Having leveled their record in American Athletic Conference play (3-3), the Tigers travel to SMU to face the Mustangs Friday night. SMU is now 5-5 (4-2) after beating UConn Saturday, 62-50. Memphis owns a four-game winning streak in its series against SMU.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Nov 7, 2018 at 10:02 AM

What kind of difference will four weeks make? It seems like a month since the Tigers have taken the field at the Liberty Bowl. (Because it's been a month since the Tigers took the field at the Liberty Bowl.) At kickoff on October 13th (against UCF), the Tigers were clinging to hope in their effort to repeat as American Athletic Conference West Division champs. But the 31-30 loss to the Knights gave Memphis three league losses and all but extinguished those hopes. The Tigers absorbed a drubbing at Missouri the following week, followed by a bye and finally a road win — their first — last Saturday at East Carolina.
Darrell Henderson - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Darrell Henderson

The Tigers will host Tulsa (2-7) four days after Penny Hardaway's Tigers tipped off their much-anticipated season and a day after the Memphis women's soccer team hosts Wisconsin in a first-round NCAA tournament game at Mike Rose Soccer Complex. Yes, the case could be made that Saturday's football game is the week's third-most significant event involving blue-clad Tigers. And, once more, a weak sister on the other sideline. Add the Golden Hurricane's record to those of the four FBS teams Memphis has beaten and you have a combined mark of 9-35. But it's a Catch 22 this season. The Tiger defense isn't fit to beat prime competition, so a happy exit from the Liberty Bowl for local fans seems to require bottom-feeding competition. It will be interesting to see not just the attendance figure Saturday morning (kickoff is 11 a.m.), but the mood of those in the stands.

The Darrell Henderson story continues to thrill. Henderson ran for 132 yards and scored three touchdowns last week at East Carolina, but it actually didn't feel like a Darrell Henderson game. Perhaps this is because only one of his scores covered more than 50 yards (the others were merely 20 yards and 39 yards). This is how skewed our perspective — or at least my perspective — has become in the season's ongoing highlight reel. Henderson's 1,280 yards are the most in Memphis history (single season) by a man not named DeAngelo Williams. His career total of 2,916 is second only to Williams' 6,026. (Read that latter figure again, in case you've forgotten just how great a college player Williams was.) Henderson has scored 18 touchdowns (tied for tops in the country) and two more trips to the end zone will tie him with Anthony Miller on the Tigers' career chart with 40 (second to Williams's 60). He actually has a chance to break one of Williams's records: 23 touchdowns in a single season (2004).

Henderson is third in the country with 44 plays of at least 10 yards (behind two wide receivers). He's had 15 plays go at least 30 yards and nine at least 50. The numbers are as silly as they seem. Enjoy every Henderson carry (or catch) the rest of the season. He may be playing on Sundays a year from now.

 How soft has the Tiger defense become? Well, the numbers (and rankings) are ugly. Out of 130 FBS programs, Memphis ranks 95th in scoring defense, allowing 31.6 points per game. The Tigers are 86th in total defense (417.2 yards per game) and 80th in opponents' third-down conversions (40.4 percent). Memphis has allowed 132 plays of at least 10 yards, also 80th in the country.

The good news? The Tigers are on track to score 500 points for the fourth year in a row, thus the 5-4 record to date. But the U of M requires a significant transformation on the defensive side of the ball before we return to a discussion of Top 25 possibilities.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Tigers 76, Tennessee Tech 61

Posted By on Tue, Nov 6, 2018 at 10:46 PM

On an election night when Tennessee remained red, FedExForum turned decidedly blue in support of a rookie college basketball coach. An announced crowd of 15,231 — the largest for a Memphis Tiger game since February 2016 — witnessed the program's first victory under the watch of Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway. Senior forward Kyvon Davenport scored a career high 30 points and pulled down 10 rebounds to lead the way while senior guard Jeremiah Martin contributed 18 points. Ten Tigers played at least 11 minutes to help Hardaway earn his first college win.
Kyvon Davenport - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Kyvon Davenport

"We're grateful and honored to be part of this era that we know will last a long time," said Martin after the game. "There's room for improvement. We have a lot of freshmen. But everything counts now. We seniors need to be there for [the freshmen]. We were locked in the first 15 minutes. If we can hold that for another 25 minutes, we'll be good."

Martin scored 10 of his points in the game's first five minutes, fueled by — and fueling — the raucous crowd. The Tigers led 22-10 not quite midway through the first half and weren't threatened the rest of the way, despite the Golden Eagles commanding the glass with 42 rebounds to the Tigers' 35. Memphis played at a frenetic pace, though, taking 74 shots (22 more than Tennessee Tech) and forcing 26 turnovers.

"Really crazy game, but we'll take the win," said Hardaway. "The first half was good, then everything went downhill. Our seniors stabilized us. Freshmen were being freshmen tonight. We'll continue to lean on Kyvon and Jeremiah, our senior leadership. We've been really hard on Kyvon in practice because he's pretty laid back. We know he's going to take care of business on the floor, but we need him more vocal. [He may not always get] 30 and 10, but he's a double-double machine."

The win is tantalizing, somewhat ironically, for all that was missing from the Tigers' attack. Still nursing a back ailment, Mike Parks didn't play, further tilting the frontcourt advantage to the Golden Eagles. Junior transfer Isaiah Maurice didn't make the impact he did in the Tigers' two exhibition wins (one field goal and three rebounds in 11 minutes). Freshmen sharpshooters Tyler Harris and David Wingett combined to miss all 10 of their three-point attempts. And foul trouble limited freshman swingman Antwann Jones to 12 minutes (three points, three rebounds). Improved play from any of these five will make the Tigers significantly more dangerous.
Penny Hardaway and Kareem Brewton - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Penny Hardaway and Kareem Brewton

Senior guard Kareem Brewton came off the bench and finished a team-high +19 in 16 minutes with seven points and five steals. Freshman Alex Lomax scored eight points and led Memphis with four assists.

"We were six for 24 from three," noted Hardaway, "and they were open looks. They just didn't make them tonight. We're gonna make them. We need to go over our principles offensively and what we want defensively. We have a tough game [at LSU] on the road next week, and we need to prepare."

Hardaway said he still hasn't been hit with the pregame anxiety he anticipated with the arrival of his first season as a college coach. He attended the postgame press conference with a game ball signed by every player, a memento he intends to keep in his office at the Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center. As for his sideline demeanor, the 47-year-old rookie looked like a seasoned veteran. "I stayed calm," he said. "We play a lot of freshmen, and you want them to stay calm. Not get over-excited. I'm gonna try and stay even-keeled, and not get too animated."

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Tigers 59, East Carolina 41

Posted By on Sat, Nov 3, 2018 at 2:54 PM

A healthy Darrell Henderson proved to be plenty for the Tigers to secure their first road win of the 2018 season. Two weeks after leaving the Missouri game with an injury to his left hamstring, Henderson ran for 132 yards, caught three passes for 72 more, and scored three touchdowns to help Memphis end a two-game losing streak and improve to 5-4 on the season.

East Carolina erased a 31-17 halftime deficit and tied the score at 31 just five minutes into the third quarter when Pirate quarterback Holton Ahlers connected with Trevon Brown for a 31-yard touchdown. But the Tigers answered with a 75-yard scoring drive, Patrick Taylor plunging into the end zone from a yard out to give Memphis the lead for good. Henderson scored on the Tigers' next two possessions, first on a 20-yard run, then on a 39-yard jaunt that followed a pair of Memphis penalties. The scores give Henderson 38 career touchdowns, two shy of Anthony Miller's total and third in U of M history.

The Pirates scored on their opening possession of the game, a one-yard run by Darius Pinnix that followed a pass-interference call against Memphis in the end zone. But on the Tigers' first possession, Henderson took a screen pass from Brady White and dashed 71 yards to pay dirt. Memphis trailed again (14-10) until Tony Pollard ran seven yards for a touchdown to open the second quarter. Pollard added another touchdown (one yard) late in the fourth quarter and finished the game with 89 rushing yards and 30 receiving.

White connected with Damonte Coxie for a 75-yard touchdown on the opening play of the second half. Coxie caught 10 passes for 176 yards while White completed 21 of 30 passes for 362 yards and three touchdowns.

Ahlers completed 34 of 62 passes for 449 yards and three scores for ECU. Brown caught 10 of his passes for 193 yards.The Pirates fall to 2-6 with the loss and are now 0-5 in the American Athletic Conference. Memphis improves to 2-3 in AAC play.

The Tigers return to the Liberty Bowl next Saturday to host Tulsa. Kickoff is scheduled for 11 a.m.

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