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Without Feeling

A surprisingly passive Memphis football team was no match for Ole Miss.

by Dennis Freeland

lash back to November 5, 1994. In an ugly, defense-dominated football game, the University of Memphis beat Ole Miss on a last-second touchdown pass from Joe Borich to Ryan Roskelly. The win moved Memphis’ record for the year to 6-3, but it was the last win Chuck Stobart would rack up at the University of Memphis.

PHOTO BY DAVID SOWELL
Receivers Damien Dodson (9) and Richie Floyd (5) flank quarterback Kenton Evans at Ole Miss. The Tigers lost 30-10.

We didn’t know it then, but both coaches were lame ducks. Joe Lee Dunn, the interim head coach at Ole Miss, would not be hired for the full-time position. Dunn, now defensive coordinator at Mississippi State, returns to the Liberty Bowl this Saturday, where he once worked in the same position under Stobart, who is now an assistant coach at top-ranked Ohio State.

Following the 1994 season Memphis hired Rip Scherer. Ole Miss went with Tommy Tuberville from Camden, Arkansas. Both coaches had been assistants at top programs. Neither had been a Division 1 head coach. Scherer and Tuberville started their fourth seasons last Saturday at Oxford.

Tuberville, who took his team to a bowl game last season after only three years at Ole Miss, had better players and a better game plan Saturday. Following the Rebs’ 30-10 victory, Tuberville is 2-0 against Memphis and 20-15 overall as Ole Miss prepares to host Auburn Saturday.

Scherer’s record now stands at 11-23. His teams are 2-14 on the road and 1-6 against SEC opponents. Memphis has yet to win a season opener under Scherer.

Having had all spring and pre-season to prepare for Ole Miss, Memphis’ performance was surprisingly lackluster. Even Scherer admitted that his team lacked aggressiveness. On defense the Tigers spent the entire first half playing a vanilla defense, sending only the front four to rush rookie quarterback Romaro Miller. The defensive backs played soft all afternoon, while Ole Miss exploited Memphis’ lack of experience at linebacker with an accurate, productive short passing attack. When all the stats were tallied, Ole Miss had rolled up more than 500 yards in total offense.

When it had the ball, Memphis seemed content to throw underneath, rarely stretching the Rebel defense. By the third quarter, Ole Miss had completely shut down an inept Memphis rushing game as sophomore quarterback Kenton Evans consistently faced eight men crowding the line of scrimmage.

Memphis was whipped physically on both sides of the line. For the 14th time in the Scherer era, Memphis scored 10 points or less; during that same period the Tiger defense has allowed 30 or more points eight times.

PHOTO BY DAVID SOWELL
One reason for Memphis’ tentative play may have been the absence of defensive back Mike McKenzie, the team’s best defender.

The two programs have taken different paths since that day in 1994. Ole Miss has restored its proud football tradition, finishing 1997 ranked in the top 25 and adding nearly 8,000 seats to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, bringing capacity to 50,000. The theme in Oxford, displayed on ubiquitous buttons and signs, is “We’ve got the momentum.”

Memphis has not had a winning season since that ’94 team finished 6-5. The slogan in Memphis could be “We’re still looking.”

The loss to Ole Miss Saturday was decisive. The game this weekend at the Liberty Bowl, against a powerful Mississippi State team, could be worse. And, in fact, Memphis may struggle just to repeat the mediocre 4-7 mark of the past two years.

But it’s still too early to bail on Rip Scherer. Losing to Ole Miss is nothing new at Memphis. That was game number 50 they played last weekend in the 96-degree heat. Memphis has won only eight times in the series, which dates back to 1921. Year in and year out, Ole Miss has been better than Memphis. Rip Scherer is certainly not the first Tiger head coach to have trouble beating the Rebs.

Callers to Scherer’s radio show on Monday seemed most upset with the passive manner in which Memphis lost. Where were the blitzes? The gang tackling? The tight man-to-man defense on Ole Miss receivers? Why wasn’t Evans allowed to throw the ball downfield?

Those are legitimate questions. Under Stobart, Memphis built a national reputation with a defense that attacked constantly from every possible angle. The Tigers played a 50 defense, with five quick linemen always pursuing the football. Scherer changed that. Instead of promoting linebackers coach and former NFL star Keith Butler to defensive coordinator and maintaining the aggressive, gambling defense, the new coach brought in his defensive coordinator from James Madison, Jim Pletcher, and installed the more common 4-3 defense.

Offensively, Scherer has not been able to build a line at Memphis. Without a line you can neither run the football nor protect the quarterback in passing situations. Without a functional offensive line, you rank 95th in the nation offensively, as the 1997 Tigers did.

This year Memphis started the season with Ron Sells, last year’s center, at left tackle; Chris Powers, last year’s tight end, at center; and Artis Hicks, a redshirt freshman from Jackson, Tennessee, at left guard. That’s three players in new positions along the offensive front. If Memphis is going to move the football this year, this line has to improve in a hurry.

Part of what annoys Tiger fans is the success they see at other programs. Besides the reconstruction job Tuberville has done at Ole Miss, there is Tulane. Last year the Green Wave hired the other Bowden, Tommy, to replace Buddy Teevens. Tulane went 7-4 in Bowden’s first year. They opened the 1998 season at Cincinnati last weekend, scoring 52 points against the Bearcats. Granted, Bowden is playing mostly with players he inherited and his school president didn’t require him to completely turn around the recruiting philosophy, as Scherer has had to do. But if Tulane can score that many points against a conference opponent in only the second season under their new coach, why can’t Memphis at least average more than one touchdown per game?

There were not many positives for Memphis to build on coming out of the season opener. Evans, the sophomore quarterback, played like he understood the offense. It may be the first time since Scherer arrived that his quarterback was able to do the things the coaches asked. Evans is a tall, good-looking quarterback. He should improve as he gets more experience. Ryan White, the redshirt freshman kicker, also looked good. The Tigers should not have to worry about placekicking for the next four years.

After that … well, there’s lots of room for improvement. A school like Memphis, where football success has been almost nonexistent, has to play aggressively on at least one side of the ball. Tiger fans can accept another losing season as long as the team appears to be making progress and plays with passion. That wasn’t the case last week at Ole Miss.

TIGER TALK

Several Tiger players suffered from cramps in the extreme heat Saturday, but Rip Scherer says that wasn’t a result of conditioning. “The three players who suffered most from cramps – Keith Cobb, Marquis Bowling, and Reginald Howard – are three of our lowest body-fat guys.” … Howard, a junior who played previously at Henderson State, was a walk-on until the Thursday before the game, when Scherer gave him a scholarship. Howard started in place of Mike McKenzie, who was under a one-game suspension for unauthorized use of an assistant coach’s telephone access code. … Scherer complained after the game that Ole Miss had 12 men in the huddle before the first TD pass from Romaro Miller to Cory Peterson. Scherer said the Memphis defensive set was predicated on French being in the game and that he left the field after the huddle broke, which would be a rule violation. … Memphis players were dejected after the game but expressed confidence that they could bounce back. “This team has a lot of character, and solid leadership,” said senior center Chris Powers. … Seven different Tigers caught passes from Kenton Evans at Ole Miss, including redshirt sophomore Al Sermon, who has worked his way into the receiving corps. Ken Coutain, the fastest player on the team, did not see action. … In a surprise move, tailback Teofilo Riley returned kicks in place of injured P.T. Jones. Scherer says Jones should be back for Mississippi State and that Boo Blevins could see action as a return man as well. Memphis had 69 total return yards on six kickoffs against Ole Miss. … Several Memphis defensive linemen said they were surprised that Ole Miss kept tight end Rufus French in a blocking role all day. The team had prepared to stop French from catching passes from Miller and in fact double-teamed the tight end much of the day. … Scherer said he didn’t expect any major shuffling of the two-deep roster in the aftermath of the poor performance at Ole Miss. Several freshman have looked good in practice, including defensive backs Keydrin Ward and Glenn Sumter; 6-3, 230-pound linebacker Ross Estes, and speedy flanker Derrick Harmon. … Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill has not lost a non-conference road game since he arrived in Starkville. He is 3-0 against Scherer and is 5-2 overall against the U of M.


Memphian Named to Oilers Advisory Council

NASHVILLE (AP) – Ira A. Lipman of Memphis, president and chairman of Guardsmark, Inc., was among 13 people named to a council that will advise Bud Adams on a new nickname for the NFL team. Seven members of the council are from Nashville.

Other members of the group are: Denny Bottorff of Nashville, chairman and CEO of First American Corporation; Wilma Dykeman Stokely of Newport, historian; Nelson Bowers of Chattanooga, vice president of Sonic Automotive; David Fite of Jackson, H&M Construction Company; Robin Fuller of Antioch, developer with Fuller Industries; Jim Haslam II of Knoxville, chairman of the Pilot Corporation; Dr. James Hefner of Nashville, president of Tennessee State University; Sam Howard of Nashville, chairman of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce; Lem Lewis of Nashville, general manager of the television station carrying Oilers’ regular season games; Kitty Moon of Nashville, president of the country-music video company Scene Three, Inc.; Pete Sain of Manchester, partner in Sain Construction Company; and David Stringfield of Nashville, Baptist hospital chairman.


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