Monday, October 26, 2020

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Mon, Oct 26, 2020 at 8:31 AM

Ryan Silverfield is a balanced coach. It should be no surprise that the Memphis offense is putting up 40 points regularly, even in this disjointed season, under a new head coach. Silverfield served as Mike Norvell's right hand for four seasons, so no man on the planet knows more about what's worked at Memphis than the rookie now calling the shots. Particularly with a familiar quarterback (Brady White) climbing the program's passing charts, Silverfield's prime task has been to maximize his "skill position" players across the depth chart. Through four games, Memphis has run the ball 172 times and passed 164. The only game with a discrepancy of more than five between run and pass plays was the season-opening blowout of Arkansas State (48 runs, 36 passes).

Offensive coordinator Kevin Johns is in a luxurious position, knowing his team can attack both on the ground and through the air. Would departed tailback Kenneth Gainwell have rushed for 650 yards through four games? Perhaps. But Dreke Clark and Kylan Watkins have combined for that total, each averaging more than five yards per carry. More than enough to balance the Tigers' passing attack, which brings me to my second thought.
click to enlarge Tahj Washington - JOE MURPHY/MEMPHIS ATHLETICS
  • Joe Murphy/Memphis Athletics
  • Tahj Washington

• Damonte who? In pure "next man up" fashion, Memphis claims one of the finest pass-catching trios in the country. I was convinced the Tiger offense would suffer when senior Damonte Coxie announced before the UCF game that he was stepping aside to prepare for the NFL draft. That's because I hadn't seen Calvin Austin's speed split a secondary, or Tahj Washington's hands in traffic. I wasn't sure tight end Sean Dykes could be a weekly threat. Well, Austin has topped 150 yards receiving in each of the last two games and is on pace for a 1,000-yard season (424 through four games). Washington is averaging 15.1 yards per catch and stands the most to gain from Coxie's departure. And Dykes is second on the team with four touchdowns despite only one reception in the win over Temple.

For the Tigers to have so many skilled receivers within target range of a veteran quarterback, all they really need is some time in the pocket for White, and smart decisions by White to avoid turnovers. If the above-mentioned run-pass balance can be retained, gaps down field will be exploited by the Tiger passing game. And one glaring absence on the roster won't be nearly as glaring.

When the Tigers take the field at 7th-ranked Cincinnati, they'll be seeking only the fourth upset of a Top-10 team in the history of the program. Memphis fans of a certain age vividly remember the stunning win over 6th-ranked Tennessee (quarterbacked by Peyton Manning) at the Liberty Bowl in 1996. The Tigers knocked off 7th-ranked Auburn in 1975 and 10th-ranked Mississippi State in 1965. And that's it. Memphis has played 30 other games against Top-10 opponents and the best the Tigers can claim are ties against 2nd-ranked Ole Miss (a 0-0 affair in 1963) and 6th-ranked Florida State (in 1984). Saturday's game will be only the Tigers' seventh against a Top-10 team since the upset of UT 24 years ago, and only the second such program they'll face from the American Athletic Conference (the Tigers fell twice against UCF in 2018). History is there to be made, against a team Memphis beat twice a year ago (including the AAC championship game at the Liberty Bowl). Better yet, the Bearcats and Tigers go back well before the formation of the AAC, having played 36 times since first meeting in 1966. (Memphis leads the series, 23-13.) Halloween is gonna be some scary fun for a pair of teams still in the running for a conference title.

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