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Mediocre Football

At the University of Memphis it seems to be a lasting legacy.

by DENNIS FREELAND

here was 6:44 to go in the first half when the "boo birds" made their first 1999 appearance at the Liberty Bowl. The University of Memphis was on its way to squandering the feel-good emotion that the 29,248 in attendance had brought to the Missouri game.

Free safety Fred Powell forced a fumble and linebacker DeMarrio Shank recovered at the Missouri 46. Trailing 10-0, the Memphis fans wanted to take advantage of the field position.

On first down Teofilo Riley rushed up the middle for 1 yard. The crowd booed.

On second down Riley was stopped for no gain. The fans again expressed their displeasure. Third down was an incomplete pass, and on fourth down Tiger punter Jim Cande kicked the ball away. Opportunity lost.

Head coach Rip Scherer says he heard the booing. Whether he understood it or not is a different story. A caller to the coach's radio show did his best to explain it. He pointed out that the Tigers seemed to always run on first and second down, then throw desperately on third down. The fan said he was tired of this unimaginative, predictable play-calling, which pre-dated Scherer going back at least to Chuck Stobart.

For Scherer it had been a long, frustrating day. First he went to his weekly press luncheon at the Public Eye. Then he participated in the Conference USA teleconference in the afternoon. Finally came the radio show, where most, but not all, of the callers were kind and supportive.

Scherer let the disgruntled fan have his say. The coach offered no rebuttal. Earlier in the show (or was it at the press luncheon?), he said that his starting quarterback, Neil Suber, ran hot and cold, and it was obvious early in the Missouri game that this would be a cold day for the man he affectionately calls "Subes." The Tiger offensive coaches reined in the offense.

The statistics bear this out. Of their first 16 first-down plays, the Tigers ran the ball, mostly up the middle, 13 times. After attempting short passes on their first two first-downs plays, Memphis coaches called running plays on 13 of the next 14 first downs. This trend held until, with 7:55 left in the game and the Tigers trailing 27-10, they had to air it out.

Tiger fans were led to believe that the school had hired an offensive genius to coach their team. This may not have been fair to Scherer, but that is the way he was presented by the school. Remember "Rip Roaring Football?"

But this isn't imaginative, fun football. The Tigers gained only 205 yards last Saturday against a Missouri defense that had given up almost twice that amount to its three previous opponents (UAB, Western Michigan, and Nebraska). The Memphis offense was no world-beater last year, but they appear worse this season (see "One Step Forward, One Step Back").

Scherer refuses to blame his offensive assistants. "I'm not satisfied with their productivity, but I think that you've got to take a couple of things into consideration," he says. "Three of our four losses came to teams that are ranked in the top 15 in defense in the country. That's not an excuse; that's reality. We're playing with an offensive line that is somewhat inexperienced at the positions they are playing. We have not had Gerard Arnold at full speed since the first game of the year, and he is our leading back. We're playing with three freshman wide receivers. You can say those are excuses; they're reality. That's not to take us off the hook from a production standpoint. We've got to be more productive."

At his post-game press conference after Missouri, the coach blamed "10 percent" of his players for "swallowing the hype" after the Tennessee game. On Monday he again pointed the finger.

"I stand up in front of the media and I take responsibility for the play of our players, and I hold my coaches accountable, but at some point players have got to make plays," he says. "They have to share in the responsibility internally. I told them I would take responsibility externally. The buck stops here. But by the same token, each one of them has got to look at himself and hold himself accountable. We've got to make some plays."

But they don't fire players. After this season, Scherer is going to have to find some new offensive coaches or the school will have to find a new head coach. The Tigers have the 106th offense in the country (out of 114 Division I teams) -- 106 isn't good enough.

Even at Memphis.

Oh, Dad!

When a shoulder injury forced second-string quarterback Travis Anglin from the game early in the fourth quarter against Missouri, Rip Scherer faced a tough decision. Should he go with starting quarterback Neil Suber who was 1-7 passing with no yards in the first half, or should he allow his third-string quarterback to see his first action of the season? The decision was made more difficult because the third-string quarterback is the coach's son, Scott.

Rip Scherer admits to feeling uneasy about the decision. "I thought about playing him against Missouri. But I thought extra about it and the perception of it," he says. "If his last name was Smith, I probably would have played him. And that's not fair. I've got to get beyond that."

Expect to see the coach's son make his quarterbacking debut at some point Saturday against UAB.

Tiger Talk

When the Tigers play at UAB on Saturday they will be seeking their first road win since September 14, 1996 (at Missouri). Memphis is 2-21 on the road in Rip Scherer's five-year tenure at the school. They have lost 16 in a row away from home. This is the first time Memphis has played at UAB, a newcomer to Conference-USA. Missouri had lost its first road game in every season since 1981 -- a remarkable streak covering 17 seasons. But guess what? Missouri's game at Memphis was their first of the 1999 season, and they won 27-17. All week Scherer had warned anyone who would listen that Missouri's sophomore defensive end Justin Smith was one of the best he'd seen. Scherer was right. Smith toyed with the Memphis tackles, sophomore Artis Hicks and junior DeCorye Hampton, and spent a good part of the game in the Memphis backfield. Smith had two sacks, including one that forced Travis Anglin to fumble with Memphis still in the game, trailing by just 3 points. Anglin suffered a dislocated shoulder and was through for the day. Missouri recovered the fumble and drove for the touchdown that put the game out of reach. Memphis converted just 3 of 15 third-down conversions against Missouri. This has been a problem all season. The Tigers are now 19 of 75 in third-down conversions (a .202 success rate). Memphis likes to have Ryan White kick off high into one corner of the field, much like a punter aiming for the coffin corner. He has obtained the necessary hang time to make the strategy successful. White has an abdominal pull and hasn't been able to kick the ball into the end zone. For the second consecutive game Memphis executed a successful onsides kick. This time Idrees Bashir caught the ball as he was sailing out of bounds and tipped it off a Missouri player. After a long huddle the officials ruled Bashir did have possession. Missouri coach Larry Smith protested to no avail. Memphis has now been held scoreless in the first half of three of its five games. The Tigers are averaging 2.6 points before intermission. Memphis scored no points in 9 of the 20 quarters it has played and is averaging only 13 points per game. Nose tackle Marcus Bell, playing against Missouri's Outland Trophy candidate, center Rob Riti, had a game-high 13 tackles. ... Sophomore DE Tony Brown, filling in for injured Andre Arnold, had four tackles behind the line for minus 12 yards. ... Bashir had 12 tackles, one for lost yardage, and recovered an onsides kick despite playing on a sore ankle. ... CB Reginald Howard made 11 stops, including two for lost yardage. Scherer says he sent Smith a note on Monday thanking him for taking a knee on the last play of the game instead of trying for a touchdown from the Memphis 4-yard line. "That shows what a class act Larry Smith is," Scherer said. When Smith took the Missouri job in 1994, he offered the offensive coordinator position to Scherer, then head coach at James Madison. Scherer, who admires Smith, says he considered the offer but did not take it because he felt responsible for the assistant coaches at James Madison. In an ironic side note, Smith also approached Chuck Stobart, then the Memphis head coach, about the job. Stobart chose to stay at Memphis where he was replaced later that year as head coach by Rip Scherer.


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