Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Oct 18, 2017 at 8:00 AM

The arrests of Shaun Rupert (on armed robbery charges) and Ernest Suttles (rape charges) are deeply troubling developments in an otherwise successful half-season of Tiger football. We need to let the justice system do its thing before guilt is applied to either young man, but for two defensive starters to face such serious charges in consecutive months is nowhere near the look second-year coach Mike Norvell wants to present for this program. Let's forget the football stereotypes and consider a random group of 100 men, ages 18 to 23. That's a segment of the population that will stretch legal boundaries, whether or not the individuals are under the watch of an organized body (like a football team, or a university). But this isn't a safety caught with a bag of weed in his glove compartment, or a defensive end getting into a brawl outside a fraternity house. These are felonies, with jail time in the mix should the accused be found guilty. After the upset of Navy last Saturday, Norvell emphasized the "open doors" of his program, and that he and his staff have nothing to hide. Here's hoping the misdeeds of two members of the program don't derail what could turn into a special season for Memphis. And here's hoping Norvell and university president David Rudd find a way — behind closed doors is fine — to emphasize the severity of these hits to the program's reputation. It's ugly stuff.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell

• Memphis needs to relish any and every game the Tigers play as a Top-25 team. The big win over Navy vaulted Memphis into the AP poll (barely), at number 25. Not to be found in the current poll are friendly neighbors Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Arkansas, or Tennessee. No Florida. No Florida State. No Texas, for crying out loud. The best part may be how this ranking fun is actually familiar. Just two years ago, Memphis rode an 8-0 start to a ranking of 15th in the country. A 10-3 season (and bowl victory over BYU) in 2014 secured a spot in the year-end poll (25th) for coach Justin Fuente's third Memphis team. Before that, you have to go back a half-century to find the Tigers in a year-end poll (1963 UPI, 14th). And before that, only one other year-end ranking (1962 Williamson's, 17th). The ranking means the U of M program is, quite literally, gaining national attention, and from a region still impossibly heavy with SEC influence. Stars have emerged (Ferguson, Miller, Hall) and an ugly loss (at UCF) has been overcome. The 2017 Memphis Tigers have much to gain over the season's final five games. After all, unless you're Alabama, a poll is meant to be climbed.

• Navy was the frying pan. Houston's the fire. I didn't see the Tigers beating the Midshipmen without creating and capitalizing on turnovers. (They forced five and won by three points.) Now they have the chance to sweep the season's toughest two-game stretch. But road games played five days after a tight win are hardly pleasure trips. Don't expect a shootout (in modern terms) Thursday night. The Cougars are merely ninth in the AAC in scoring (27.2 points per game) and they only allow 16.2 points per game (second in the league to UCF). They will be a motivated bunch, having been obliterated (45-17) at Tulsa last Saturday. Defensive tackle Ed Oliver is an All-America candidate. Needless to say, he and his teammates remember the Tigers' narrow victory last November at the Liberty Bowl. "When you take a phenomenal player and surround him with so many other explosive athletes that can create problems with their defensive scheme . . . it leads to some sleepless nights," said Norvell at his weekly press conference Monday. The winner of Thursday's game will gain a sliver of separation in the tight AAC West. And these foes know the measure of a sliver. Their last three games have been decided by a total of nine points (two of those meetings won by Houston).

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Tigers 30, #25 Navy 27

Posted By on Sat, Oct 14, 2017 at 7:50 PM

"I've never been more proud of holding a team to 314 yards rushing." Memphis coach Mike Norvell looked at the postgame stat sheet and smiled, the look of a coach whose game plan — particularly that of his defensive coordinator, Chris Ball — had worked just enough to win. Facing a Navy program that entered Saturday's game at the Liberty Bowl leading the nation in rushing (414.2 yards per game), the Tiger defense played its finest game in two years under Norvell, forcing five turnovers and limiting the damage of Navy quarterback Zach Abey, a peripheral midseason Heisman Trophy contender.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson

Behind three Riley Ferguson touchdown passes and three Riley Patterson field goals, the Tigers earned their second win of the season over a top-25 team, improved to 5-1 overall, and moved into position to win the American Athletic Conference's West Division if it comes down to a tie-breaker with the Midshipmen. (Memphis, Navy, and Houston each have one league loss after Houston was upset by Tulsa Saturday afternoon.)

Sophomore Austin Hall accounted for two of the Navy turnovers with interceptions from his new position — at least for one game — of safety. His second-quarter pick, returned from the Navy 38-yard line to the 12, led to a Ferguson-to-Darrell Henderson touchdown connection that gave the Tigers a 17-10 lead. His second interception sealed the win, coming at the Navy 35-yard line will less than two minutes to play.

"Takeaways are big for us, so whatever I can do to help us win," said Hall, a graduate of Collierville High School. "Our coaches came up with a phenomenal game plan. The players came out played. They have a disciplined team . . . they're gonna fight for our country. But we came out and got the W."

Hall emphasized a simplified defensive scheme from the one the Tigers utilized in blowout losses to Navy in 2015 and ’16. "The coaches let us play a lot faster. We only had a few calls that we changed here and there. I only had one key all night. That kept it simple for me; I could fly around and play football."

The Tiger defense had four tackles behind the line of scrimmage in addition to the two interceptions, and recovered three Navy fumbles. (The Midshipmen had lost but four fumbles in their first five games, all victories.) The U of M capitalized on the miscues to the tune of 13 points, just enough as it turned out.

"This was a game we had circled," said Norvell. "This was a program-defining game. That football team we just played is pure class, the defending division champions. This game gave us a wonderful understanding of where we are and where we can go. We have a lot of things to clean up, and we have to go back on the road this Thursday [at Houston], but I'm so proud of this football team, and the coaches I have to work with."

Navy recovered the game's opening kickoff at the Tiger 10-yard line when Darrell Henderson failed to cover the ball, but had to settle for a field goal. Memphis responded with a seven-play, 75-yard drive, culminating in a five-yard scoring toss from Ferguson to Anthony Miller. (The touchdown made Miller only the third Tiger in history to score 30 for his career, after Dave Casinelli and DeAngelo Williams.) There would be four more lead changes before Hall's game-sealing interception, the last one coming on a 42-yard Patterson field goal with 5:15 to play in the third quarter that gave Memphis a 20-19 lead.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell

"They came in undefeated," noted Norvell. "They've shown that every year, they're going to have success. They continue to reload. This was a benchmark game for us. It was a game we had to win to go where we want to go. It's just one game, but it's a key matchup, because it's one we have not had success with in the past. Our kids stayed focus on the job at hand."

Ferguson struggled at times and had to shake off a slight injury to his left knee when he was tackled in the end zone in the third quarter on a play that resulted in a safety for Navy. (Ferguson was called for intentional grounding.) He completed 24 of 40 passes for 279 yards and the three touchdowns. Miller finished with 10 catches (his eighth career game with as many grabs), two touchdowns, and 90 yards. Darrell Henderson led the ground attack with 94 yards on just 12 carries.

Abey rushed for 167 yards and three touchdowns, but completed only one pass in seven attempts (with the two Hall picks).

Junior linebacker Curtis Akins led Memphis with 11 total tackles, while Hall and Genard Avery added 10 each. It was only the second time in six games the Tigers have held their opponent under 400 total yards (334).

The Tigers next travel to Houston to face the Cougars in a Thursday-night tilt. Houston will enter the game with a record of 4-2 and tied with Memphis in the AAC at 2-1.


Senior defensive lineman Ernest Suttles was dismissed from the team early Saturday after he was arrested and charged with rape. The incident follows the arrest last month of defensive back Shaun Rupert on armed robbery charges. "I believe in how we do things," said Norvell during his postgame press conference. "We're trying to build the young men we have. We have guys who have made mistakes. At the end of the day, we stand for the right things. Those guys sitting in that locker room right now are phenomenal young men, and I'm proud to coach them. I'm proud to represent this city. That's why we open our doors. I have nothing to hide. We're doing it for the right reasons."

Tags: ,

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Oct 11, 2017 at 8:00 AM

Memphis senior Riley Ferguson needed merely 18 games to become the fourth Tiger quarterback to pass for 5,000 yards in his career. Already twice honored as the American Athletic Conference's Offensive Player of the Week, Ferguson leads the AAC with 16 touchdown passes (on pace to break the program's single-season record of 32 he tossed last season) and 307.0 yards per game. For his career, Ferguson has averaged 290.7 yards per game, more than the career averages of the other 5,000-yard men in Memphis history: Danny Wimprine (222.1 ypg in 46 games), Paxton Lynch (233.2 in 38), and Martin Hankins (250.9 in 23). Memphis fans get to see Ferguson play four more home games. He's managed to become a special player at the game's toughest position in just two seasons. Embrace the moment(s), Tiger fans.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson

• Memphis may be cursing the schedule gods a week from Friday. For any reasonable chance at winning the AAC's West Division, the Tigers must split their games with Navy (3-0 in league play) and Houston (2-0), and they play both teams in a span of six days (the Cougars on the road). Survive this hell-week with just two conference losses, then run the table (with three of the final four games at the Liberty Bowl) and Memphis would post a stellar 9-2 record (6-2 in the AAC). But what a formidable task. Like Ferguson, Navy quarterback Zach Abey has twice been named the AAC's Offensive Player of the Week. The junior leads the AAC with 807 rushing yards. After Navy, the Tigers will have all of four days to prepare an attack against a Cougar defense that has allowed an average of 16.2 points per game. Six days in October may define this season.

• The only way Memphis upsets 25th-ranked Navy is by stealing possessions via turnover. The Midshipmen are averaging 414.2 rushing yards per game (for crying out loud). Memphis is allowing 187.2 yards per game on the ground (eighth in the AAC). Navy ran for 374 yards two years ago in its win at the Liberty Bowl (and didn't lose a fumble) then piled up 447 yards last season in another blowout victory (the Midshipmen lost one of two fumbles that day). Simply put, Memphis needs to identify playmakers on defense. Freshman cornerback T.J. Carter is one, having picked off three passes in five games. Junior Tito Windham has shown skill at stripping ball-carriers. The Tigers will give up lengthy drives Saturday afternoon, clock-killing drives that make the triple-option so lethal.  For the season, Navy has run the ball 317 times and lost exactly four fumbles. Can Memphis steal a possession (or three)? Can the Tigers protect the ball when they have it? Winning that fabled "turnover battle" is the Memphis path to victory this weekend.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Tigers 70, Connecticut 31

Posted By on Fri, Oct 6, 2017 at 9:53 PM

A maligned Memphis defense took a staggering blow on the third play from scrimmage in tonight's game in East Hartford, Connecticut. UConn tailback Arkeel Newsome took the ball around left tackle and dashed 64 yards for a touchdown to give the Huskies a 7-0 lead just 76 seconds after kickoff.

Then Riley Ferguson and Anthony Miller took over.

Ferguson (the senior quarterback) threw for 325 yards and five touchdowns while Miller (the senior wide receiver) caught 12 passes for 157 yards and three scores . . . in the first half. The Tigers' record-breaking duo — growing larger on the national radar with ESPN handling the broadcast — led Memphis to a 35-24 halftime lead, then connected again in the third quarter to extend the Tiger lead to 49-24.

Ferguson sat out the fourth quarter and still tied Paxton Lynch's single-game record with seven touchdown passes. He completed 34 of 48 passes for 431 yards. As for Miller, the Christian Brothers High School alum tied his own school record with 15 receptions (good for 224 yards). His four touchdown catches are yet another Memphis record for Miller.

A week after being embarrassed at UCF, the Tiger offense exploded for 711 yards, a new U of M record. The Tigers won comfortably despite allowing 477 yards to Connecticut, the fourth time in five games Memphis has allowed at least 400 yards. Freshman cornerback T.J. Carter pulled down his third interception of the season in the second quarter.

Senior tailback Doroland Dorceus enjoyed his first productive game of the season (having nursed an injury throughout September), rushing for 122 yards on 22 carries and scoring two touchdowns.

The win improves Memphis to 4-1 for the season and 1-1 in American Athletic Conference play. The Huskies drop to 1-4 (0-3). The Tigers return home next Saturday (October 14th) to host Navy at the Liberty Bowl. The Midshipmen beat Memphis in both 2015 (45-20) and 2016 (42-28).

Tags: , , , ,

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Oct 4, 2017 at 11:34 AM

Something is rotten in the state of defense, at least the version played by the Memphis Tigers. Four games into the 2017 season, Memphis ranks 126th nationally (out of 130 teams) in total defense, allowing 513.5 yards per game. Last weekend's debacle at UCF was the second time the Tigers have allowed at least 40 points this season, and the eighth such game since the start of the 2016 season. Injuries have compromised defensive coordinator Chris Ball's unit (perhaps most significantly the loss of pass rusher Jackson Dillon for the season). But games must still be played. Four teams on the Tigers' remaining schedule are averaging more than 450 yards of offense, including the next two (UConn and Navy). We've reached the point where an old cliche applies: The Tigers' best defense is a strong offense. The irony, though, is that Memphis has a quick-strike attack, one capable of scoring in less than three minutes of possession time. Short drives mean only more time on the field for that 126th-ranked defense. Head coach Mike Norvell and offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey face an uncomfortable challenge: score lots of points . . . but do it slowly.
Jay McCoy
  • Jay McCoy

• With his third touchdown catch of the season (against Southern Illinois), Tiger receiver Anthony Miller became just the fourth Memphis player to score 25 career touchdowns. You've surely heard of DeAngelo Williams (60 TDs from 2002 to 2005). And Dave Casinelli (36, 1960-63). Each of them has had his jersey number retired by the U of M. But what can you tell me about Jay McCoy, who scored 27 touchdowns as a Tiger? I had to call on the preeminent Tiger historian of them all — sideline reporter Matt Dillon — to learn about this unsung star, who did his damage at the Liberty Bowl from 1968 to 1970. "Coach [Billy] Murphy used him generally to run outside as a tailback," says Dillon, "but he was strong enough to get tough yards between the tackles if needed. Jay was one of the most versatile players in that era when it was basically three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense. He was also called on to be the backup kicker on field goals and PATs [as a senior]. Skeeter Gowen got most of the publicity McCoy's last two years, but Jay was one of those multipurpose guys who held everything together. One of the very underrated players in Tiger history." McCoy is one of only six non-kickers to lead the Tigers in scoring twice (1968 and 1970). He scored 10 touchdowns as a sophomore, eight as a junior, and nine as a senior.

New England is lovely in the fall. This trip to Connecticut comes at a perfect time for the Tigers. You see, the Huskies rank 127th in total defense, allowing 541.8 yards per game. Their only win this season came against Holy Cross in the opener. Memphis and UConn haven't played since the 2014 season, when the Tigers won handily (41-10) at the Liberty Bowl. The U of M, though, lost (handily) its only game in East Hartford, the 2013 season finale (Justin Fuente's second on the sidelines for Memphis). Norvell didn't pull any verbal punches at his press conference Monday: "I'm embarrassed as a head coach for how we had them prepared to play [at UCF]. We're going to respond. Talk is cheap; what you see is who you are." Friday night will indeed be a time for the Memphis football program to respond, and reset its direction for a season not so young any more.

Tags: , , , , ,

Monday, October 2, 2017

Tubby Time (Year Two)

Posted By on Mon, Oct 2, 2017 at 9:38 AM

Tubby Smith is wearing sneakers again.

I'm not sure if it's possible to see relief in another human being, but I think I saw it in a 66-year-old basketball coach last Friday at the Finch Center on the University of Memphis campus. Smith met a group of reporters for a brief, season-opening press conference, during which he touched on a rather turbulent offseason, and not just for the Memphis Tigers. An FBI investigation ensnared several assistant coaches in a scandal involving bribery and wire fraud, and led to the ouster of Louisville coach Rick Pitino, one of the most recognizable figures in all of college basketball.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tubby Smith

"You think you've seen it all," said Smith, who is starting his 27th consecutive season as a Division I head coach. "I know we'll get through it. Coaches are gonna coach. Teachers are gonna teach. You're concerned about friends in the business. Hopefully it will get resolved. You've got to do the right thing in this business. We're trying to make sure our players understand there's a right way and a wrong way to do things."

Smith expressed sympathy for Pitino. He served as an assistant under Pitino for two years (1989-91) at Kentucky. Smith also said that he sleeps well at night, that he's not perfect but "the softest pillow you can sleep on is a clear conscience." So despite losing three starters with eligibility remaining — most notably the Lawson brothers, Dedric and K.J. — Smith views the 2017-18 season as one of opportunity for the Memphis program.

"We have so many new faces," said Smith. "There's a lot to teach. But we had a good start, with so many of them in summer school. Everyone's healthy. Any time there's a new season, there's new energy, and new enthusiasm."

• Veteran radio host Greg Gaston and I spent the first 20 minutes of an open practice simply trying to identify players (no names on the back of practice jerseys). "That's Jamal Johnson, right?" "Nope. Malik Rhodes." "Two guys with beards?" "Hey . . . there's Jeremiah [Martin]!" Smith noted that Martin and Jimario Rivers are serving as team captains, the only two returning players with any legitimate experience in a Tiger uniform.

Raynere Thornton is a 6'7" swingman with the shoulders of a fullback. Greg and I agreed that Memphis hasn't had a truly big guard on the wing since Antonio Anderson and Tyreke Evans played their last college games in 2009. (Apologies, Chris Crawford, but you didn't play big.) Thornton had three triple-doubles last season, his second at Gordon State College in Georgia.

• Rivers and Dedric Lawson were the only players Memphis could describe as "big men" last year, and even they were often undersized when battling traffic in the paint. During a stretching exercise, I counted at least four players who could push Rivers around and get away with it: Kyvon Davenport (a 6'8" juice All-America last season), Mike Parks (6'9", 270 pounds), Karim Azab (6'11"), and Victor Enoh (6'8"). The Tigers simply had to get bigger, and they clearly have.

• Who will lead these Tigers in scoring? Even after Friday's cursory scouting trip, I have no clue. Davenport averaged 16.5 points last winter . . . against junior college defenders. Martin averaged 10.3 points as a sophomore, but if your point guard is your scoring leader, you'll lose your share of basketball games. Freshman Jamal Johnson brings a shooter's reputation and averaged 24.8 points as a high school senior in Alabama. This could be the kind of team where six or seven players average between 8.0 and 13.0 points per game. This would be healthy.

• If you connect single-digit uniform numbers with playing time, the following six should appear in the Tigers' rotation when the season opens November 10th (against Alabama, in Maryland): Davenport (0), Johnson (1), Rivers (2), Martin (3), Thornton (4), and guard Kareem Brewton (5).

Saturday, September 30, 2017

UCF 40, Tigers 13

Posted By on Sat, Sep 30, 2017 at 9:33 PM

No team in the American Athletic Conference has so thoroughly dominated Memphis as have the UCF Knights. With its thorough declawing of the Tigers Saturday night in Orlando, UCF has won 10 consecutive games in the series, many of the wins by similarly lopsided scores. (The Tigers' only win in the series came in 1990, before UCF was an FBS program.)

Memphis actually led after the first quarter, thanks to a two-yard touchdown run by Patrick Taylor to culminate the Tigers' opening drive. But UCF took firm control of the game with a pair of touchdown strikes in the last five minutes of the first half. A 34-yard pass from Knight quarterback McKenzie Milton to Tre-Quan Smith made the score 23-7 at halftime, and the Tigers never mounted a comeback.

Senior quarterback Riley Ferguson personified the Tiger struggles, throwing three interceptions and losing a fumble in one of his worst performances at the FBS level. (Ferguson tossed a 14-yard touchdown pass to freshman Damonte Coxie on the game's final play.)

The Tiger defense continued to show serious flaws, allowing 603 yards (350 on the ground). Adrian Killins led the Knights with 115 yards rushing, most of them on a 96-yard touchdown gallop in the second quarter that gave UCF a 16-7 lead. Milton completed 19 of 31 passes for 253 yards and three touchdowns to help the Knights improve to 3-0 (1-0 in the AAC).

No Tiger ball-carrier gained as many as 50 yards and star receiver Anthony Miller was held to just three catches for 37 yards. Tony Pollard caught three passes for 75 yards.

The loss drops Memphis to 3-1 for the season (0-1 in the AAC). The Tigers travel north next week for a Friday-night tilt at Connecticut. The Huskies fell to 1-3 Saturday, losing 49-28 at SMU. The Tigers won their last meeting with UConn in 2014 (41-10) at the Liberty Bowl.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 27, 2017 at 8:00 AM

The Memphis program's kick-return desert has been transformed into the Tony Pollard Garden of Paydirt. After going two decades without a kickoff returned for a touchdown, Memphis has watched Pollard return four(!) in the last 12 games. No other player in the history of the program (dating back to 1912) has returned as many as two kickoffs to the end zone. Pollard is only a sophomore (he redshirted in 2015). After last Saturday's win over Southern Illinois, I asked Pollard if there's an extra gear he feels (or any kind of energy surge) when he recognizes the kind of opening that yields a 90-plus-yard return. "Once I see the end zone," explained Pollard, "I try to just look at the scoreboard [video]. I want to race myself. You have to have that second gear. You want to run full speed when you catch the ball, but you have to find another gear to kick in when you get through the crowd."
Jake Elliott
  • Jake Elliott

Jake Elliott may be the most humble Tiger football player I've interviewed. Kickers are a different breed, of course. When they walk in a room, you don't think, "Football Player." When Jake Elliott walks in a room, minus his jersey and shoulder pads, you might think, "Tennis Player." And you'd be right. Elliott was an exceptional high school player in Illinois. He attributes his mental strength — the singular focus required for success as a placekicker — to his days on a tennis court. That singular focus, along with the prodigious strength of his right leg, was on display last Sunday when Elliott connected on a 61-yard field goal as time expired to give his Philadelphia Eagles a victory over the New York Giants. In just the second professional game of his career, the 22-year-old holder of virtually every U of M kicking record won a game with a kick just three yards shy of the NFL record. It was especially gratifying to see the humble "kid" I knew for four seasons in Memphis being carried off the field by players 100 pounds heavier, but light as a feather for the breathtaking moment their rookie teammate had just delivered.

This Saturday's game (finally) with UCF could get away from the Tigers. Knights quarterback McKenzie Milton is an early-season candidate for American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year. He leads the AAC in pass efficiency and is second with an average of 269.0 yards per game. In UCF's beating (38-10) of Maryland last week, Milton ran for 94 yards on just six carries. Based on what I've seen the last two weeks (I missed the Harvey Bowl to open the season), the Tiger defense has gaps to fill. Memphis ranks 10th in the AAC (out of 12 teams) in pass defense, allowing an average of 344.0 yards per game. They've been opportunistic, though, the two game-shifting interceptions against UCLA being the prime examples to date. The Tigers will need to force some turnovers in Orlando, it would seem, to gain a possession advantage against Milton and friends.(With defensive backs Tito Windham and Shaun Rupert nursing injuries, we'll learn a lot about depth on the Tiger D this Saturday.) But the UCF defense (second in the AAC, allowing 266.0 yards per game) must stop Riley Ferguson, Anthony Miller, Darrell Henderson, Joey Magnifico, and Patrick Taylor, to name just five offensive threats in blue. And let's remember: whenever the Knights score, they must kick off. Which means Tony Pollard Time.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Tigers 44, Southern Illinois 31

Posted By on Sun, Sep 24, 2017 at 12:07 AM

"As long as they keep kicking 'em to me, I'm gonna keep returning 'em." Memphis sophomore Tony Pollard — a proud alum of Melrose High School — said this with a smile shortly after his Tigers completed their third victory of the season Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl. And why wouldn't Pollard be smiling? His 100-yard kickoff return near the end of the third-quarter erased any momentum the Salukis thought they'd gained by closing the Tiger lead to three points (27-24). Pollard's second touchdown on a kick return this season — and the fourth of his two-year college playing career — proved to be the difference in a game tighter than many of the 41,584 fans in the stadium would have preferred.
Riley Ferguson looks downfield. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson looks downfield.

"That's one of the biggest momentum swings you can have in a game," said a relieved Tiger coach Mike Norvell. "Our entire return unit takes a lot of pride in that. When you see them get the chance to impact a game like that, it gives a huge boost to our team. There were actually a couple of returns I would have liked to see go better, but they came to the sideline, made corrections, went back out and executed."

Entering the 2016 season, no player in Memphis Tiger history had returned as many as two kickoffs for touchdowns (and 20 years had passed since the last one). Pollard's record of four now looks as unreachable as Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak. "Our guys did a good job of holding their blocks," explained Pollard, "I bounced to the outside and I just saw green grass. In a game like this, it gave us an extra boost of confidence, got us over the hump."

The Salukis presented a larger hump than your typical Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) program. SIU quarterback Sam Straub threw a pair of touchdowns as Tiger pass-rushers leveled him in the first half and the visitors enjoyed leads of 7-0, 14-7, and 21-17 at halftime. (A missed tackle along the right sideline allowed the third Saluki touchdown with just 36 seconds remaining in the second quarter.)
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell

"We knew it was a 60-minute game," said Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson. "We knew they were a good team, that we couldn't take them lightly. It was about staying focused, playing better as a whole [in the second half]."

Ferguson led a four-play, 75-yard drive to open the second half, highlighted by a 55-yard pass completion to sophomore Pop Williams. Sophomore tailback Darrell Henderson scampered 14 yards for a touchdown to seize the lead back for Memphis, one the Tigers would not relinquish, thanks largely to Pollard's heroics.

"We knew this was going to be another battle," said Norvell. "They had a great game plan. All that matters is that you're one point better. One of our goals this season was to go undefeated in nonconference games, and we've done that. Our guys fought hard. There are some things we have to clean up. I keep talking about penalties. We are going to fix the personal foul penalties. I don't know how, but we're going to fix it."

Norvell continues to experiment with his placekickers. Spencer Smith — a Ray Guy Award candidate as one of the country's best punters — connected on a pair of field goals (35 yards and 31 Yards) and freshman Riley Patterson converted a third (30 yards). The Tigers scored on each of their seven possessions in the red zone (inside the opponent's 20-yard line).

Ferguson completed 22 of 36 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns. Henderson gained 71 yards on the ground and Patrick Taylor added 77 and a late touchdown to close the scoring. Wideout Anthony Miller was held to six catches for 47 yards but managed to move into second place on the Tigers' all-time receiving yardage list. (He needs 599 more yards to surpass Duke Calhoun's record.)

The victory improves Memphis to 3-0 for the second straight season, something no Tiger coach had accomplished since Zach Curlin in 1927 and 1928. Memphis opens conference play next Saturday in Orlando against UCF in a game that was rescheduled after being cancelled during Hurricane Irma's assault on Florida. (The Knights beat Maryland Saturday to improve to 2-0.) Count on this: When the Tigers are set to receive the ball, Tony Pollard will be in position to receive the kickoff.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 20, 2017 at 8:00 AM

• A nationally televised college football game is a recruiting tool. The significance of the Tigers' upset of UCLA in front of the ABC cameras last weekend should only grow with coach Mike Norvell's next recruiting class. The two biggest plays in the Memphis win were interceptions of Bruin quarterback Josh Rosen. The first was by redshirt-freshman Tim Hart, who returned his third-quarter pick 60 yards to extend the Tigers' lead to 41-31. The second was by true freshman T.J. Carter, a snag that ended a UCLA threat with the Tigers clinging to a 48-45 lead. Since the day he arrived at the U of M, Norvell has said the best players on his roster will be on the field come game day. High school players seeing freshmen star on national television are that much more inclined to consider wearing the same uniform when it comes to their own commitment.
Isaac Bruce (1992-93)
  • Isaac Bruce (1992-93)

• This has become an annual gripe (apologies), but will remain so until we see the right kind of action. There is no visible tribute at the Liberty Bowl for the six Tiger greats who have had their jerseys retired. It mystifies me. We're not talking about statues or engraved numbers under the sky boxes. How about a single banner? One that reminds Tiger fans of the names (and numbers) of those to have received the program's ultimate honor: John Bramlett (64), Isaac Bruce (83), Dave Casinelli (30), Charles Greenhill (8), Harry Schuh (79), and DeAngelo Williams (20). If this isn't a priority for Norvell or U of M athletic director Tom Bowen, I'm surprised it hasn't become one for alumni and boosters of the program. Such a banner could be created with what amounts to pocket change in a football budget. And it would lift hearts and spirits during every home game. Simply has to happen.

I can't see Southern Illinois being a trap game for the Tigers. Not this early in the season. Sandwiched between the "statement game" against UCLA and the rescheduled conference opener against UCF (September 30th), the contest won't stand out in any season wrap-ups . . . unless the Salukis pull off an upset. There was a time (as recently as 2013) when an FCS opponent would be welcomed as a nice break on the Tiger schedule, a game Memphis might, you know, win. (Memphis handled UT-Martin four years ago, one of three wins that season.) Today, it's a chance for Norvell and offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey to work out kinks in their scheme, for reserves to get off the bench for a few snaps, and for a little stat-padding among the Tiger skill-position players. (Anthony Miller needs only 30 yards receiving to move into second place on the Memphis career chart.) With three of the Tigers' following four games on the road, Saturday night should be a football party at the Liberty Bowl. And no injuries, please.

Tags: , ,

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Tigers 48, #25 UCLA 45

Posted By on Sat, Sep 16, 2017 at 5:28 PM

"One game cannot define a season," said Memphis football coach Mike Norvell shortly after his Tigers had beaten the 25th-ranked UCLA Bruins at the Liberty Bowl. "But one game can be remembered."

Saturday's nationally televised game featured a combined 93 points and 1,193 yards of offense, but may come to be remembered for the final 10 minutes, during which neither team managed a point. Senior receiver Phil Mayhue caught a three-yard scoring strike from senior quarterback Riley Ferguson to give Memphis a 48-45 lead with 9:56 to play. It was Ferguson's sixth touchdown pass of the day, the game's sixth lead change, and, as it turned out, the final points of the contest.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson

"That was an exceptional game," said Norvell. "We talked all summer about this game being a showcase game. Memphis showed well today. Not just our football team, but the community support, every aspect of what we're trying to do. We didn't play a perfect game; there were mistakes we made. And against a really good football team. But our guys continued to push, continued to battle. I'm so proud, top to bottom." A crowd of 46,291 attended the game despite the ABC broadcast and the visiting team traveling across two time zones (with a relatively small traveling party in the stands).

The Tigers had a chance to increase their three-point lead with the ball inside the Bruin 30-yard line with just under four minutes to play. Norvell called a fake field-goal attempt, but freshman kicker Riley Patterson's pass was intercepted in the end zone. On its ensuing possession, UCLA was hit with an offensive pass-interference penalty. The Bruins' final breath was extinguished when a Josh Rosen pass on fourth down was deflected by freshman cornerback Jacobi Francis.

An All-America candidate, Rosen completed 34 of 56 passes for 463 yards and four touchdowns, but tossed a pair of critical interceptions to Tiger freshmen Tim Hart and T.J. Carter. Hart returned his 60 yards for a third-quarter touchdown and Carter's erased a fourth-quarter drive that could have given the Bruins the lead.

A graduate of Memphis University School, Hart was especially pleased to grab some spotlight after being redshirted last year. "I've grown a lot," he said. "It's a mindset. By coming here, you put your trust in the coaches. Memphis football is at a level it's never been before. I never took a day off."
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Anthony Miller

Senior wideout Anthony Miller had his first star showing of the season, catching nine passes for 185 yards. Ferguson completed 23 of 38 passes for 398 yards and six touchdowns (tying a career high, one shy of the Memphis single-game record). Tailback Darrell Henderson galloped 80 yards on the Tigers' first play from scrimmage and finished with 105 yards on the ground.

"We knew we wanted to be balanced," said Norvell. "We played 76 snaps on offense and 91 on defense. That was a grind, and against a top-25 opponent."

Ferguson relished the victory over a high-profile opponent (and high-profile quarterback). "We have to go out and try to score every time we take the field," emphasized Ferguson. "No matter if the other team scores or punts us the ball. Every time. Nothing changes for us. We believe in our defense. Don't worry about what the score is."

As for his favorite target, Ferguson delights in what he's come to expect as normal. "[Anthony Miller] is so good. If you throw him the ball, he's gonna make a play. I love having him on any defensive back in the country. It gets the juices going, seeing Ant make a big-time play." Miller caught consecutive passes — one a 41-yard, diving catch and the other for 33 yards into the end zone — to give Memphis a 27-24 lead just before halftime.

Linebacker Austin Hall and safety Jonathan Cook led the Tiger defense, each with nine tackles and one behind the line of scrimmage. Sophomore defensive tackle Jonathan Wilson sacked Rosen in the second half after serving a suspension in the first half for a targeting penalty in the Tigers' opener against Louisiana-Monroe.

The win improves the Tigers to 2-0 after a pair of hurricane-related false starts to the season. Memphis has started each of the last three seasons 2-0, a streak unmatched since 1959-61. The Tigers will host Southern Illinois next Saturday at the Liberty Bowl in their final nonconference game of the season.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Friday, September 15, 2017

Memphis Tiger Basketball: 2017-18 Schedule

Posted By on Fri, Sep 15, 2017 at 11:52 AM

The American Athletic Conference has released its 2017-18 basketball schedule, finalizing the Memphis Tigers' slate of games for year two of the Tubby Smith era.

Fri. Nov. 10 — Alabama, Veterans Classic,  Annapolis, MD (5:30 p.m.)
Tue. Nov. 14 — Little Rock (7 p.m.)
Tue. Nov. 21 — New Orleans (7 p.m.)
Sat. Nov. 25 — Northern Kentucky (TBD)
Thur. Nov. 30 — at UAB (TBD)
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tubby Smith

Sat. Dec. 2 — Mercer (4 p.m.)
Tue. Dec. 5 — Samford  (7 p.m.)
Sat. Dec. 9 — Bryant (12 p.m.)
Tue. Dec. 12 — Albany  (8 p.m.)
Sat. Dec. 16 — Louisville, Gotham Classic, New York, NY (11 a.m.)
Wed. Dec. 20 — Siena (7 p.m.)
Sat. Dec. 23 — Loyola-MD (11 a.m.)
Thur. Dec. 28 — LSU (7 p.m.)
Sun. Dec. 31 — at Cincinnati (3 p.m.)

Wed. Jan. 3 — at UCF (6 p.m.)
Sat. Jan. 6 — Tulsa (3 p.m.)
Tue. Jan. 9 — Tulane (6 p.m.)
Sat. Jan. 13 —  at Temple (1 p.m.)
Tue. Jan. 16 — UConn (8 p.m.)
Sat. Jan. 20 — at Tulsa (7 p.m.)
Sat. Jan. 27 — Cincinnati (5 p.m.)
Wed. Jan. 31 — at USF (6 p.m.)

Sat. Feb. 3 — at East Carolina (1 p.m.)
Tue. Feb. 6 — Wichita State (8 p.m.)
Sun. Feb. 11 — UCF (3 p.m.)
Wed. Feb. 14 — at SMU (8 p.m.)
Sat. Feb. 17 — at Tulane (2 p.m.)
Thur. Feb. 22 — Houston (8 p.m.)
Sun. Feb. 25 — at UConn (TBD)

Thur. Mar. 1 — USF (8 p.m.)
Sun. Mar. 4 — East Carolina (2 p.m.)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 13, 2017 at 8:00 AM

There's no feel to this season. Not yet. No rhythm (if such can be felt in a sport with weekly games). The star of the Tigers' opener — two weeks ago — was Hurricane Harvey, or at least the last vicious breaths of that ravaging storm that so thoroughly drowned parts of Texas. Memphis escaped with a win over Louisiana-Monroe, but in front of no more than 10,000 drenched fans. Then last week's game at UCF was mercifully cancelled, this time a hurricane proving too much, even for a football game. So we're left with what many consider the Tigers' biggest game of the year — UCLA and a forecast of sunshine! — and very little sense of how strong this year's Memphis team might be. Quarterback Riley Ferguson and his band of talented receivers were declawed by the weather system on August 31st. Will they be ready to counterpunch a Bruin attack led by NFL-bound Josh Rosen under center, an offense that erased a 34-point lead in less than 20 minutes against Texas A & M? Sixty minutes of football at UCF — in reasonable conditions — would have suggested an answer. Until 11 a.m. Saturday morning, no one really knows, including the Memphis coaching staff. We'll have a feel for the 2017 Memphis Tigers by mid-afternoon Saturday.

"Our guys, I have to give them a compliment for the maturity they've shown," said Memphis coach Mike Norvell during his weekly press conference Monday. "They've handled a lot of different things and quite a good deal of adversity here early when it comes to the schedule and their routine. They're definitely looking forward to this Saturday."

When I think of Memphis-UCLA I think of basketball. The Tigers have played in three Final Fours and faced the Bruins in two of them. Most famously, Bill Walton became a household name in the 1973 championship game, beating what remains the most famous team in Memphis sports history, one led by Larry Finch, Ronnie Robinson, and Larry Kenon. Thirty-five years later, the U of M (with Derrick Rose) whipped UCLA (with Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook) in San Antonio.

The Tigers and Bruins have only played once before on the gridiron, a 42-35 UCLA win in Los Angeles in 2014. That was the Tigers' second game of the season, Paxton Lynch's second start at quarterback, and the first real indication that a corner might be turned for the Tiger program. Memphis had a chance in the fourth quarter to knock off the country's 11th-ranked team. There seemed to be a renewal of hope two weeks later when Memphis handled Middle Tennessee at the Liberty Bowl. They went on to win eight of their last ten games and earn a ranking of 25 in the final AP poll. Here's hoping this week's game deepens the association of these two schools on the football field.

• AAC commissioner Mike Aresco likes describing his league — and the programs that comprise it — as "Power Six." The implication is that the AAC deserves equal standing with the likes of the SEC, Big 10, and Pac-12 . . . the fabled "Power Five" that centers college football. Since the Tiger program's revival in 2014, Memphis has played seven games against Power Five teams and won three of them. Two of those victories came against Kansas, though, one of the weakest programs in the classification.The 2015 upset of Ole Miss was historic (it extended a Tiger winning streak to an astounding 13 games). The four Power Five losses during this period: UCLA, Auburn (in the 2015 Birmingham Bowl), and Ole Miss twice. A win over UCLA — as televised live by the ABC cameras — would be a significant step in the right direction for Mike Norvell and this program. And it would give a little more credence to the notion of a "Power Six" league.

Tags: , , , , ,

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 6, 2017 at 9:58 AM

• Football games should not be played in hurricane conditions. My wife and I were stuck in the Philadelphia airport last Thursday as the lingering – and quite damaging — effects of Hurricane Harvey virtually shut down Memphis International Airport. Despite the weather being too violent for airplanes to land, the game between Memphis and Louisiana-Monroe at the Liberty Bowl played on. Who can we blame for such madness? The players? (Guffaw.) Coaches? (Chuckle.) U of M athletic director Tom Bowen? (Barely 10,000 fans — devoted and somewhat careless — showed up for the event. Not the kind of number that keeps an A.D. employed.) No, we have to, as always, follow the money . . . to CBS Sports. The cable network had a time slot sold, live football being one of the few remaining bankable ventures in mass media. Sponsors and advertisers craved the programming they supported, so the Tigers and Warhawks took the field. What a sad start to a promising season for Memphis. With more than 22,000 season tickets sold, at least 12,000 devoted Tiger fans chose to stay home, tickets in hand. (The brutal irony: These fans surely watched the CBS Sports telecast at home, at least if their electricity stayed on.)

And this brings us to the Memphis-UCF game in Orlando, moved up a day to Friday with the hope of minimizing the exposure to Hurricane Irma. As I write (Wednesday), the forecast is for thunderstorms Friday, meaning it's likely the Tigers will have a second straight "bad-weather game" to endure. Football's a brutal sport in the best of conditions. When (or if) games are played in violent weather needs to be examined more carefully, with the wellbeing of players and fans taking priority over broadcast schedules.

No American Athletic Conference foe should motivate the Tigers any more than UCF. Dating back to their time as members of Conference USA, the Tigers have lost nine games in a row to the Knights. (The only Memphis win in this series happened in 1990, when UCF was a Division I-AA program.) Most of the losses haven't been all that close. (UCF won the last meeting in 2013, 24-17 at the Liberty Bowl.) The Tigers haven't scored as many as 25 points in any of the nine losses. The Knights put 61 points on the scoreboard in their season-opening win over Florida International. Perhaps a sloppy track will turn the game into a run-first confrontation, which could benefit Doroland Dorceus, Darrell Henderson, Patrick Taylor and friends.

"We understand the importance of this game," said Memphis coach Mike Norvell at his weekly press conference on Labor Day. "This is a game that we have spent a lot of time on this summer as a staff, making sure that we had our advanced scouting and work, preparing for this opportunity."

Should the Tigers beat UCF, it will be the third straight season Memphis has started (at least) 2-0. You have to go back to the JFK administration (and latter part of the Eisenhower era) to find a similar such streak for this program: 1959-61. This would be quite an achievement for players like Dorceus, Anthony Miller, and Genard Avery who have been key members of the team for at least three seasons.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Three (Preseason) Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Mon, Aug 28, 2017 at 8:00 AM

Let's get right to a prediction, not exactly my specialty. (I had Memphians needing flashlights for the solar eclipse last week.) The Tigers will enjoy their fourth consecutive winning season, not insignificant for a program that last saw such a streak during a period Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter occupied the White House (1973-77). But how many Ws can this team collect?
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell
With no SEC team on the schedule, and no USF (favorites to win the American Athletic Conference title), Memphis has a favorable path to at least eight wins. I see four primary speed bumps on the schedule. The first comes at UCF on September 9th. No AAC rival has dominated the Tigers more than the Knights, who won nine consecutive meetings between 2005 and 2013 (when the teams last played). The game will be in Orlando, only steepening the Tigers' challenge. Then There's UCLA at the Liberty Bowl the following week (the only Power Five team on the U of M schedule). Navy comes to town with its vexing triple option on October 14th. Then the Tigers travel to Tulsa on November 3rd to face a team that beat them handily (59-30) last year in Memphis. Should the Tigers take two of these four games, I see a 9-3 regular season. If they win only one of them, more likely 8-4. (There's bound to be a "trap game" among those the Tigers will be favored to win.)

The Tigers could chip away, if only marginally, at the SEC's headline dominance in the Mid-South. Among the four programs that have large followings in this corner of SEC Country — Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Arkansas, and Tennessee — only one received any votes in the AP Top 25, and UT is at number 25. (I'm excluding Alabama in this consideration, as the Crimson Tide is a category of its own.) Ironically, Memphis doesn't play any of the "big four," so misses a chance to steal a headline the old-fashioned way. But with Riley Ferguson, Anthony Miller, Doroland Dorceus, and friends sharing end-zone hugs on a regular basis, look for Memphis to capture a few new eyes in 2017. Maybe even a few in orange (or maroon) ball caps.

My apologies in advance for missing Thursday night's opener. It takes a major event to keep me from the Liberty Bowl on game day, particularly the start of such a promising season. But I'm delivering my firstborn daughter to her own college campus on Wednesday. As I track the Tigers through the 2017 campaign, I'll also have an eye on the Wesleyan Cardinals in the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC). Attending college football games is a good way to stay young inside. Raising a bright and talented daughter and checking her into her dorm room is a good way to remember the college experience is a marker on our personal timelines. So keep my seat in the press box warm for the UCLA game. And please excuse my absence this week.

Tags: , , , ,


Top Viewed Stories

© 1996-2017

Contemporary Media
460 Tennessee Street, 2nd Floor | Memphis, TN 38103
Visit our other sites: Memphis Magazine | Memphis Parent | Inside Memphis Business
Powered by Foundation