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.)
Brady White - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • 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.
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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.
Patrick Taylor - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • 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.
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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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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.
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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.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Tulane 40, Tigers 24

Posted By on Fri, Sep 28, 2018 at 10:16 PM

The notion of Memphis returning to the American Athletic Conference championship game this year was summarily rejected Friday night at Yulman Stadium in New Orleans. The Tulane Green Wave scored touchdowns on three consecutive possessions in the second half, turning what had been a tight game into a rout. The victory is Tulane's first over Memphis since the 2000 season, a span of 12 games for the regional rivals.
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Darius Bradwell ran for 142 yards and scored two touchdowns to lead the upset, with Corey Dauphine rushing for 87 yards on 12 carries and another pair of touchdowns. The Tulane defense held Memphis to 277 yards and sacked Tiger quarterback Brady White seven times. Tulane dominated possession time, holding the ball almost 40 minutes.

Reserve quarterback Justin McMillan — an LSU transfer — entered the game for the final play of the third quarter and completed a 51-yard pass-and-run to Darnell Mooney for a touchdown that gave Tulane a 24-14 lead entering the fourth quarter. After the next Memphis possession resulted in a safety (on a White fumble in the end zone), Tulane tailback Corey Dauphine struck with a winding, 46-yard touchdown run that made the Tiger defense look both slow and tired. It was the third score covering at least 46 yards for the Green Wave.

Among the only Memphis highlights were a pair of lengthy touchdowns by junior tailback Darrell Henderson. On their first offensive snap of the game, Henderson dashed through the right side of his line for a 47-yard touchdown. Early in the third quarter, he caught a pass from White and sprinted into the end zone to complete a 43-yard touchdown. The scores give Henderson 11 touchdowns for the season (matching his 2017 total) and 31 for his career, the fourth-most in Memphis history. Beyond his two long-distance touchdowns, Henderson was ineffective, gaining a total of 51 rushing yards (on seven carries) and 47 receiving (two catches).

White completed 14 of 30 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns without an interception.

The loss drops Memphis to 0-2 in AAC play for the first time since the league's inaugural season of 2013. (The Tigers are 3-2 overall.) Tulane improves to 2-3 and 1-0 in the AAC. Memphis returns to the Liberty Bowl for its next two games, Connecticut visiting on October 6th and UCF on October 13th.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 26, 2018 at 9:07 AM

• Brady White likes playing in the Liberty Bowl. The rookie quarterback's numbers through three home games this season: 63 completions in 83 attempts (76 percent) for 919 yards and 12 touchdowns, with no interceptions. Those are the kind of figures we see on Sundays from the likes of Tom Brady and Drew Brees, not from a young man establishing his place in what looked to be a distinctly run-first offense this season.
Brady White - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Brady White

White struggled, of course, in the Tigers' lone road game to date (at Navy), that outing complicated by the rainy conditions in Annapolis. Which makes Friday's tilt at Tulane somewhat of a turning point for White (and the Tiger offense) this season. Memphis will be favored (unlike at Navy) and facing a team that's struggled to score this season (only East Carolina has scored fewer points among American Athletic Conference teams).

White needs to show that his Navy performance was an aberration, and that the numbers he's posted at home aren't merely the product of inferior competition. Two home games follow the trip to New Orleans. White can further establish his credentials as the big-picture leader of the Memphis offense with a strong performance Friday night.

• The Tigers have a player with All-America credentials (as a kick-returner). His name is Tony Pollard, and he wears number 1 on his uniform. The Tigers also have a sophomore defensive lineman who has made more than a dozen starts. His name is O'Bryan Goodson and he wears number 1 on his uniform.

Huh?!? How can two players on the Tigers' two-deep roster — let alone a star like Pollard and a defensive starter — wear the same number? With 85 scholarships and a few walk-ons, I can see numbers growing scarce, with perhaps the need for players sharing numbers (one on offense, the other on defense). But this particular case makes absolutely no sense. College football should have a rule — or if not, the University of Memphis should have a rule — that the 50 players who make up a two-deep (including special-teamers) wear uniform numbers distinctly their own. Those familiar with the Tigers know the difference between Pollard and Goodson with a quick glance. A fan watching a nationally televised game in Phoenix has be confused when he sees what he thinks is a star kick returner sacking the opposing quarterback.

• Speaking of Goodson, and Emmanuel Cooper, and Jonathan Wilson, and Joseph Dorceus . . . the Tigers' defensive line is making an impact in what remains a sport of trench warfare. Stop the opponent's running game and you generally leave the field a winner. Memphis is 14-1 under coach Mike Norvell when holding opposing teams to less than 150 yards rushing. (The Tigers are 7-8 since 2016 when allowing 150 yards or more on the ground.) It's the easiest measuring stick to chart as you're watching a game. Who's controlling the line of scrimmage when the Tiger defense is on the field? Tulane has averaged 174.5 rushing yards per game thus far, with Corey Dauphine putting up a cool 11.6-yard average on 25 carries.

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