Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Tigers 68, Milwaukee 54

Posted By on Wed, Nov 16, 2016 at 10:13 PM

It's come to be called "the sophomore jump." A dramatic improvement in play between a college basketball player's freshman and sophomore seasons. Based on the first two games of the 2016-17 season, "the sophomore jump" may be central to the Memphis Tigers' success.

Point guard Jeremiah Martin and small forward K.J. Lawson (classified as a redshirt freshman, but like Martin, in his second season at the Division I level) may as well be considered new additions to coach Tubby Smith's roster, their play significantly better than at any time a year ago. Martin dished out eight assists against the Panthers without committing a turnover, blocked three shots, made three steals, and hit three of his five field-goal attempts in 37 minutes of action. The older Lawson brother had 11 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, and two blocks in 31 minutes, not quite over-shadowing Dedric Lawson, who notched his second double-double (23 points and 10 boards) in as many games.

After spotting the Panthers a 7-0 lead, the Tigers roared back, burying seven three-pointers in the game's first 15 minutes (two each from Markel Crawford, Dedric Lawson, and Craig Randall). The U of M enjoyed a 14-point lead (38-24) at halftime, allowed Milwaukee to close within seven (48-41) midway through the second half, then finished with a 20-13 push to the buzzer. (The game was played in less than an hour and 40 minutes.)

Smith noted Martin's growth, and not only as measured by his stat line. "He's earned his teammates' respect," said the coach, "because of how hard he works. He's asked, 'What do I need to do? I'm all in.' He's a student of the game." As for the 37 minutes in Game Two, Smith said Martin is likely the best conditioned athlete on the team.

Crawford also played 37 minutes and Dedric Lawson 38. In tightening his bench this early in the season, Smith acknowledged newcomers like center Chad Rykhoek (16 minutes tonight, no points) and Christian Kessee (5, 0) are still adjusting to the pace of this level. When asked if he's concerned about heavy minutes for his starters, Smith smiled and said, "They love playing basketball. I'm not worried."

The Tigers will have what Smith calls "a film day" and "a free throw" day before taking the floor at FedExForum Saturday (against Savannah State). The Tigers missed 10 of 12 free throws Wednesday night, and when Smith — starting his 26th year as a head coach — said he's never seen such poor foul shooting, it was impossible to tell if he was joking. (Milwaukee made every free throw, but only took three.)

Memphis shot 46 percent from the field and held the Panthers to 40 percent. Crawford joined the Lawson brothers in double-figure scoring with 15 points. Cody Wichmann led Milwaukee with 18 points on six three-pointers.

The Tigers' 2-0 start is the program's first since the 2012-13 season. "They really get along," said Smith. "They're coming together as a family, and I like to see that. Winning helps."

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Nov 16, 2016 at 8:00 AM

• Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen requested a "formal review of several plays" from the USF loss last Saturday (as described in a U of M press release). The pass-interference non-call on the Tigers' final offensive play — Bulls cornerback Deatrick Nichols had Anthony Miller's right arm like a father escorting his daughter down the aisle — warrants a review. It was egregious. And it cost the Tigers an opportunity to tie and possibly (with a two-point conversion) win the game.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson

But here's the thing: football. There are so many missed calls — both made incorrectly and not made at all — every Saturday, every Sunday, every day 22 men collide 150 times in three hours. Keeping order is the equivalent of tracking a single sock in a washing machine. Missed calls — game-changing at times — are part of the ingredients we accept when served a dish of American football. There's no conspiracy against your favorite team. The Tigers have benefited (and will benefit) from missed calls. Last Saturday's loss was simply an opponent's "turn" with the advantage in this department. Honestly, why not create a stat, like third-down conversions: How many questionable calls in each team's favor? It would have been fun to see the Tigers attempt a two-point conversion to win last week's game. Quinton Flowers from the 25-yard line in overtime? Not so much.

• In their six wins, the Tigers have allowed an average of 335.5 yards. In their four losses, 607.7. In only one of its wins has the U of M given up more than 350 yards (Temple put up 531). There's an obvious component weighing these figures: the quality of the Tigers' opponents. Ole Miss, Navy, Tulsa, and USF are supremely more talented, particularly on offense, than the likes of Kansas, Bowling Green, and Tulane. Nonetheless an average of more than 600 yards allowed in Tiger defeats. Sorry for the broken record in this space, but the program must find more speed and strength on the defensive side of things to compete for an AAC championship. Three of the top four tackle totals against USF were by Memphis defensive backs (Jonathan Cook, Chris Morley, and Arthur Maulet). That's not conducive to stopping drives.

• It feels strange typing this, but Friday's game in Cincinnati should be a gimme for Memphis. These aren't the Bearcats of yesteryear (or last year). Next-to-last in the AAC in scoring (20.6 points per game), seventh in total defense (one slot behind Memphis), losers of five of their last six games. In its last three losses, Cincinnati has scored a total of 19 points against Temple, BYU, and UCF. Common opponents? The Bearcats were blown out by USF (45-20) and lost to Temple (34-13). It still feels like a rivalry game, these two programs having clashed as members of Conference USA and before that, the Metro. Memphis should treat the game with the importance it holds: A victory would clinch a third consecutive winning season.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Tigers 94, UT-RGV 75

Posted By on Mon, Nov 14, 2016 at 10:42 PM

A Lawson shall lead them. But which one?
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • K.J. Lawson

The Tubby Smith era officially opened Monday night at FedExForum, and sophomore Dedric Lawson — the American Athletic Conference's preseason co-Player of the Year — contributed 19 points and 15 rebounds, figures to be expected from the team's centerpiece this season. But Dedric's older brother, K.J., stole some opening-night thunder by scoring a team-high 25 points in just 15 minutes of playing time. Classified as a redshirt freshman after missing 24 games with a foot injury last season, K.J. Lawson hit eight of his ten shots, pulled down eight rebounds, and even handed out four assists (no turnovers) in a performance his new coach claims is merely a teaser.

"K.J. is not close to what he's capable of being," said Smith after securing the 558th win of his Hall of Fame-bound career. "When you make shots, it helps, and no turnovers. He was excellent."

The Tigers matched the up-tempo pace of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, though the opening minutes looked like the opening minutes of a season, Memphis committing six turnovers in the first six minutes. But with the Lawsons combining for 25 points and junior guard Markel Crawford hitting four of five shots from the field, the Tigers took a 51-40 lead to halftime.

Memphis extended the lead to 24 (73-49) eight minutes into the second half, spurred in part by the play of point guard Jeremiah Martin. The sophomore from Mitchell High School followed a three-pointer with a dunk in transition (on a feed from K.J. Lawson), and looked like the developing floor leader Smith expects him to be for this team.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tubby Smith

"He's leading the right way," emphasized Smith. "And he's as competitive as there is." Martin finished the contest with 13 points, six assists (four turnovers), and four steals. The point total topped his high last year as a freshman (11).

As for his statistical outburst, K.J. Lawson emphasized the mental toughness needed to fit Smith's system, to take what an opponent allows (in terms of shot selection), and to never give in. "One thing I always have is confidence," he said. "Coach Smith creates chaos in practice, so when we come to a game, it's like we've already been here before."

Nick Dixon led the Vaqueros with 28 points off the bench. UTRGV shot 38 percent for the game, compared with the Tigers' 48 percent. Memphis struggled from the foul line, missing 14 of 35 shots.

Nine players saw at least 14 minutes of action for the Tigers, as Smith is aiming to manage minutes during a stretch that has the Tigers playing four games in nine days (all at FEF). Memphis returns to the floor Wednesday night when Milwaukee comes to town.

Tiger Hoops: 2016-17 Wish List

Posted By on Mon, Nov 14, 2016 at 8:00 AM

The Chicago Cubs won the World Series. (Has that settled in?) Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency. Never have the words anything's possible rung more true.

With the Memphis Tigers opening their 2016-17 season tonight at FedExForum (welcome, Texas-Rio Grand Valley), here's a short wish list for a program on the rebound from two postseason-free campaigns. And remember: anything's possible.

Avoid ugly losses. However bad things appeared for Josh Pastner and the 2015-16 Tigers, a home loss to East Carolina last January made it clear something was wrong with the water. Later losses at Tulane and USF firmly placed Memphis in the bottom half of the American Athletic Conference. The Tigers split with each of these teams, making the defeats all the more maddening. Had the U of M swept each of these less-than-stellar clubs, a 19-win season becomes a 22-win campaign with at least an NIT bid in the mix. The Tigers have been picked to finish fifth in the AAC, and this seems about right. Handle the bottom-feeders.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tubby Smith

Let Dedric Lawson shine. This starts with keeping the AAC's preseason co-Player of the Year healthy. Some pulse rates increased at FEF last week when Lawson had to briefly leave the floor after what appeared to be a lower-leg injury. He returned and proceeded to finish the game with (ho-hum) 11 points and 13 rebounds. You have to believe Lawson will be in good hands under the watch of Tubby Smith. Over-use on a team that desperately needs him to perform could be deadly. Proper use, though, could make him the kind of impact player that earns All-America votes. And, not incidentally, attention in the NBA draft.

A surprise stand-out. This team will need at least one under-the-radar player to become a significant member of the rotation. (Remember D.J. Stephens? You surely remember the junior and senior; highly unlikely you noticed the freshman or sophomore version.) Chad Rykhoek has the size to make a big difference, particularly at the defensive end. Jimario Rivers, likewise, could make the Memphis defense more formidable. Would a steady and productive Jeremiah Martin at point guard be considered a surprise? Expectations and needs are one thing (and Martin's role is critical for the Tiger offense). Performance is another metric entirely.

89 three-pointers by Christian Kessee. This would give the senior transfer one more than he had last season at Coppin State, and 12 more than the Tigers' top gun last season (the departed Avery Woodson hit 77, 32 more than any teammate). Dedric Lawson's life will be miserable if the Tigers don't establish an outside-shooting threat. Markel Crawford is not going to learn to be a sharp-shooter as a redshirt-junior. Martin hit six of 20 shots from downtown last season, K.J. Lawson just two of nine before being sidelined by injury. I wouldn't be surprised if Kessee finishes second (or even first) on this team in minutes played. His marksmanship is that important.

• Earn a big win, anywhere. The Tigers don't have what you'd call an imposing schedule. Only one team in the preseason AP Top 20 is sure to face Memphis: 18th-ranked UConn on January 5th (at FEF) and February 16th (at Storrs). The Tigers could face 8th-ranked Virginia — with one Austin Nichols — on November 26th, but this depends on how the bracket unfolds at the Emerald Coast Classic. So the Tigers' big win (loosely defined now) may depend on the AAC standings. If Cincinnati is at or near the top of the league when Memphis travels to Ohio on February 23rd, a Tiger upset would be huge. (The Bearcats don't come to Memphis this season.) Same goes for Houston, and the Cougars visit FedExForum on February 26th (a Sunday afternoon tip-off). Memphis swept the defending national champs in both 2013-14 (Louisville) and 2014-15 (UConn). The program is thirsty for an attention-grabbing upset.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

USF 49, Tigers 42

Posted By on Sat, Nov 12, 2016 at 11:12 PM

On a chilly November night at the Liberty Bowl, the Memphis Tigers were victimized by a bouquet of Flowers.

Entering Saturday's game, USF quarterback Quinton Flowers had compiled the kind of numbers — 1,941 passing yards, 921 rushing yards, and 27 combined touchdowns — that would have him leading Heisman Trophy projections if he played in a Power Five conference. Merely starring in the American Athletic Conference, though, Flowers continues to compile the numbers — and stupefy defenses — without any false illusions about a trip to New York City in December. Against Memphis, he passed for 263 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 210 yards with three more scores. Flowers's season totals now exceed 2,000 yards passing, 1,000 yards rushing, and 30 touchdowns with two regular-season games still to play. His Bulls improved to 8-2 on the season and are in contention for the AAC's East Division title with a 5-1 league record.
Quinton Flowers - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Quinton Flowers
The numbers are one thing, but the plays Flowers makes — in traffic and through space — distinguish him like few dual-threat quarterbacks in the land. With the scored tied at 42 and less than five minutes to play, Flowers twice converted third-down plays through sheer athleticism. On the first, from the Tiger 49-yard line, Flowers escaped a heavy Memphis pass rush and galloped around right end for the five necessary yards, and then some. Three plays later, needing eight yards to extend the drive, Flowers completed a pass with Tiger linebacker Austin Hall wrapped around his legs. The 22-yard, game-winning  touchdown run that soon followed seemed casual in comparison.

"There were a bunch of plays where we had people in place," noted Tiger coach Mike Norvell. "But then the missed tackles. You've got a guy with freakish abilities, to be honest. There were numerous plays, including the last touchdown, when we had guys on him, and he found a way to escape. He's done that to a lot of people. That doesn't make it any better for it to happen against us."

After falling behind 14-0 midway through the first quarter, the Tigers fought back steadily, and took the lead — twice — in the third quarter. After a 36-yard run by tailback Patrick Taylor, U of M quarterback Riley Ferguson hit Daniel Hurd for a seven-yard touchdown on the Tigers' first possession of the second half, giving the Tigers a 24-21 lead. Anthony Miller then recovered an onside kick at the USF 49-yard line, but the momentum shift died when Ferguson threw an interception (by Deatrick Nichols) at the 19. The Bulls responded with a quick drive culminating in a (ho-hum) Flowers 12-yard run. But Ferguson found tight end Daniel Montiel from the one on the ensuing drive to give the Tigers a 31-28 lead.

Three precious points slipped away late in the third quarter when Memphis kicker Jake Elliott pulled a 50-yard field-goal attempt slightly left, leaving the score 35-34 in USF's favor.

Following a Marlon Mack touchdown (42-34, USF), Tony Pollard returned the kickoff to the Tiger 43-yard line. On the next snap, Ferguson found Miller in stride for a 57-yard touchdown. The two-point conversion (Ferguson to Phil Mayhue) knotted things at 42, setting up Flowers's game-winning heroics.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Anthony Miller

Memphis had one last chance — three, really — to tie the game at 49, but three Ferguson passes fell incomplete from the Bulls three-yard line, the last one deflecting off Miller's hands as he was tightly covered. (Perhaps too tightly. Miller claimed after the game that his arm was grabbed as he jumped for the ball.)

All in all, this was Pac 12 football two time zones early. USF gained 679 yards on 79 plays while the Tigers racked up 608 on 81. Ferguson completed 29 of 46 passes for 331 yards. Montiel caught ten passes for 100 yards. Three different Tigers — Darrell Henderson, Taylor, and Doroland Dorceus — each ran for at least 75 yards.

Flowers aside, the star of the show was Anthony Miller. The junior wideout caught ten passes for 153 yards and in so doing, broke the great Isaac Bruce's single-season Memphis record for receiving yards (1,054 in 1993). With three games left to play, Miller has 1,077 yards. "It seems like we lose every time I break a record," said Miller after the game. "So I don't know how to feel about it really."

"I hurt for [our team]," said Norvell. "It really hurts, coming up short. But I love the guys in that locker room. We have to respond the right way. I want to thank all the veterans who came out to support us tonight. We're so grateful for their service. We're honored to play this great game; working hard to make you proud. It's a shame we came up short today."

The loss drops Memphis to 6-4 for the season (3-3 in the AAC). The Tigers travel to Cincinnati for their next game, Friday night. They'll host the regular-season finale (against Houston) on November 25th.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

AAC Picks: Week 11

Posted By on Thu, Nov 10, 2016 at 8:00 AM

SEASON: 65-12

USF at Memphis
Cincinnati at UCF
SMU at East Carolina
Tulane at Houston
Tulsa at Navy

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Nov 9, 2016 at 8:00 AM

• With the Tigers now bowl-eligible, we can safely begin speculating about where they might play in December. As much as American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco would like to consider his league part of a a "Power 6," the AAC's bowl partnerships don't reflect such standing. Only four of the eight affiliations place an AAC team against a Power 5 program: the Armed Forces Bowl (Big 12), St. Petersburg Bowl (ACC), Military Bowl (ACC), and Birmingham Bowl (SEC). A bid to one of the other four bowls would have Memphis facing a team from the MAC, Sun Belt, or (ahem) C-USA.

As the Tigers' improving program plays in a third straight bowl game, we have the danger of the event being anti-climactic. Would playing, say, Middle Tennessee in the Boca Raton Bowl (December 20th) be a bigger game than this week's tilt with USF? Or the regular-season finale against Houston? No and heck no. But with AAC teams ahead of Memphis in the bowl pecking order (Houston, USF, and Tulsa, to name three), a decidedly non-Power 5 bowl matchup is likely on the table. Nothing an upset of USF and/or Houston couldn't help.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson

• The last time he was in the Liberty Bowl, Memphis wide receiver Anthony Miller set a new Memphis single-game record with 250 receiving yards. With 924 yards for the season, the junior from Christian Brothers High School needs merely 76 to become the second Tiger to reach the 1,000-yard plateau, and 131 to break the school's 23-year-old record of 1,054, set by Isaac Bruce in 1993. Miller's 102.7 yards per game ranks third in the AAC, but his 16.2 yards-per-catch average is higher than the two receivers ahead of him (East Carolina's Zay Jones and UConn's Noel Thomas). With 2,565 yards passing, Riley Ferguson is on his way to becoming only the fourth Memphis quarterback to top 3,000 yards in a season (Danny Wimprine, Martin Hankins, Paxton Lynch). By two measures, Memphis has displayed an aerial show unlike many seen before in these parts.

USF quarterback Quinton Flowers is making a strong case for AAC Offensive Player of the Year. The junior from Miami has thrown for 1,941 yards and rushed for another 921. His 318.0 yards per game in total offense is second only to Houston's Greg Ward (356.4) in the AAC. Flowers has passed for 17 touchdowns and run for 10, while throwing only five interceptions. No surprise, then, that his Bulls enter Saturday's game at the Liberty Bowl atop the AAC in scoring (43.4 points per game) and second only to Tulsa with 502.9 yards per game. The only blemishes on USF's record are losses to Florida State (55-35) and at Temple (46-30). Memphis beat the Owls, of course, but USF handled Navy, a team that embarrassed the Tigers just three weeks ago. The Tigers have won each of the teams' three meetings since the AAC formed before the 2013 season. A victory Saturday — over a team capable of winning the league crown, and coming off a bye — would be the biggest of Mike Norvell's rookie season.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Tigers Beat CBU(!) in Exhibition

Posted By on Mon, Nov 7, 2016 at 9:52 PM

No face plant this year. For one night at least, consider order restored in the University of Memphis basketball world. Two years after the Buccaneers hammered the first nail into Josh Pastner's coffin as Tiger coach, Memphis handled its crosstown Division 2 rival with ease, 69-42. The team's headliner – sophomore forward Dedric Lawson — scored 11 points and pulled down 13 rebounds and senior transfer Christian Kessee added 10 points in just 18 minutes on the floor.

Tougher nights are ahead for the Tigers and new coach Tubby Smith, but here are three quick observations as I open the basketball compartments of my brain:

• The Tigers are undersized and if 6'11" Chad Rykhoek — he of the extensive injury history — gets into early foul trouble, Memphis will suffer. The Tigers barely outrebounded the Bucs, 40-36. That said, this team actually appears to have depth and versatility in the backcourt. With Jeremiah Martin (starting point guard), Markel Crawford (defensive stopper on the wing), K.J. Lawson (slashing swingman), Kessee (outside marksman), Craig Randall (the team's only other long-distance threat), and Keon Clergeot (backup at the point), the rotation will force cold shooters or turnover-prone ball-handlers to the bench. Martin handed out five assists tonight without a turnover in 25 minutes. K.J. and Crawford combined for 13 rebounds. Be sure and count guard rebounds this season. They'll decide games.

• Tubby Smith is chill. It would have been more noteworthy, perhaps, if Smith had ranted and raved, considering this was merely an exhibition game. But there was something indeed comforting about seeing the Tigers' coach sitting. In his chair on the sideline. Smith sat more tonight, it could be argued, than his predecessor did all last season. He chuckled at a reporter's comment after the game about how calm he appeared. And he said what you'd expect: "It was an exhibition." He may not be John Wooden with a rolled-up program in hand, but Smith has a wizardly aura about him, due in part to the excitable nature Pastner displayed so often the last two seasons. Hear me on this: There's only so much a basketball player can hear from a coach while he's in the middle of the game flow. There will be a time for shouting, for emoting. And we'll see it from Tubby Smith. There will also be times — like tonight – to chill the hell out and watch a basketball team grow.

• I'm not sure Smith gets a honeymoon. At least not as it's often defined for a new coach. Upon arriving at FedExForum tonight, I wondered if we'd see a big crowd — yes, even for an exhibition — to welcome a man who appears bound for the Basketball Hall of Fame. Alas, there were no more than 7,000 people in the arena (attendance was not announced). There's a wait-and-see feel to the program, I'd say. Winning will be required before crowds of 15,000 and larger are again seen for Tiger games. And I'm not sure beating the likes of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, Milwaukee, Savannah State, or McNeese State — the Tigers' first four opponents — will sell tickets. It may take a win over Providence, Virginia, or Iowa at the Emerald Coast Classic (Thanksgiving weekend) before the Tiger fan base fully re-engages.

20 Years Later: Vol-slayer Chris Powers

Posted By on Mon, Nov 7, 2016 at 8:00 AM

Chris Powers has been flying FedEx planes for six years now (and before that, with Continental Express). But over the last two decades, he’s yet to duplicate the lift he helped create for a long-suffering fan base at the Liberty Bowl on November 9, 1996. A sophomore tight end for an underwhelming University of Memphis football team that night, Powers caught a touchdown pass from Qadry Anderson with 34 seconds to play to give the Tigers a 21-17 upset of Peyton Manning and the 6th-ranked Tennessee Vols. It was the first time in 16 meetings Memphis had beaten UT and the Tigers haven’t taken down Rocky Top since (0-7). If it’s not the biggest win in Memphis football history, it’s likely the most memorable upset. The crowd that night — 65,885 — remains the largest in 51 years of football at the Liberty Bowl.

“It seems longer than that,” says a smiling Powers when the 20th anniversary of the upset is mentioned. “It was a lifetime ago. I’ve stayed pretty involved with the program, from tailgating to radio. I’ve known people on the administrative staff for years.”

Powers has made Memphis home since his playing days, living downtown for several years before getting married and moving to Collierville four years ago with his wife, Ashley (also a U of M alum). He enjoyed four years (2009-12) as Dave Woloshin’s partner on Tiger radio broadcasts, but stays busy these days — when not flying — helping raise his two sons, Harrison (2) and Hayes (nine months). He acknowledges Ashley might roll her eyes at another mention of his most famous catch, but he looks forward to soon sharing details of the moment — and all the joy that moment helped create — with his boys.

Powers never tires of recognition for the play. “It’s better than being remembered for dropping a pass and losing to Tennessee,” he says with a laugh. Powers recently contacted a fencing company about some work he needed done at his home and was asked if he was the University of Memphis Chris Powers. “I think I’m that guy,” he said. Alas, no discount on the fence.

“People who know me like to introduce me as ‘the guy who beat Tennessee,’” says Powers. “It’s part of my history. And it doesn’t get old because people get such a kick out of it, a positive event that happened to the program. The details, after 20 years, start to fade a little bit, but you remember the big plays. I played four years and that happened my sophomore year. I could have quit right then and it wouldn’t have mattered.” Powers chuckles when a reporter has to be reminded that he moved to the interior line and started at center his senior season (1998).

There was little reason to believe the Tigers could beat that Tennessee team. They entered the game with a record of 3-6 (UT was 6-1). They’d lost four straight and had scored as many as 20 points exactly once (a 37-20 loss at Houston). But as preached in locker rooms from coast to coast, you have to play the game. “It’s so different being inside, as part of a team every day,” says Powers. “If we truly believed we had no chance, then what’s the point of practicing? You put the preparation in, and you’ve got to believe you have a chance. You need to play well, limit mistakes, and all the clichés. We had a great defense that year; we just struggled up front [on offense]. We beat Missouri up in Columbia that year.”

The most famous play of the game is not Powers’s catch, but Kevin Cobb’s 95-yard kickoff return to tie the game at 14 midway through the third quarter. Cobb appeared to be tackled deep in Tiger territory — so much so that many of the players stopped running, or disengaged their blocks — only to spring to his feet and escape to pay dirt. Powers occupied the middle of the Tigers’ blocking wedge on the return. “There’s a pretty cool TV angle, from the end zone Kevin was running toward,” says Powers. “You can see the wedge set, Kevin disappears, and I’m there in the middle. I blasted a UT guy off the camera to the left and Kevin cuts right behind me. I like to say I threw the block that sprung him . . . but that acrobatic flip, I had nothing to do with that!” The play earned Cobb an ESPY for Play of the Year from ESPN.

Down 17-14 late in the fourth quarter, the Tigers made it to the Vols’ 3-yard line thanks largely to a 41-yard pass from Anderson to Chancy Carr, followed by a 13-yard run up the middle by freshman fullback Jeremy Scruggs. Next came . . . The Play.

“[Freshman receiver] Damien Dodson brought in the play from the sideline,” explains Powers. “Qadry looked at Damien in the huddle and said, ‘I’ll be looking for you, so be ready.’ I was lined up on the right, and Damien was split outside of me. I was the secondary [target]. When I released, I saw the safety starting to trail me, so I knew it was man to man. Damien was getting jammed at the line of scrimmage. When I turned around, the ball was already in the air. It was just react, throw your hands up. It stuck.” Powers says he caught the back half of the football, an epic play literally inches from being merely an overthrow.

“I remembered it wasn’t over,” says Powers, when asked about the pandemonium that ensued. Manning would get another chance with the ball. Powers describes a tackle by Tavares Newsom (a freshman reserve linebacker) on the Tennessee kick return that may well have saved the game. “He transferred a year or two later,” says Powers. “That return would have gone a long way. It was a big play that nobody knows about.” Time expired when Manning was sacked a comfortable distance from the Tiger end zone.

Powers celebrated that night at Newby’s on the Highland strip, and later Neon Moon. He and a few teammates had gotten in trouble earlier that season for sneaking into the Liberty Bowl. (Imagine: Football players breaking into a football stadium.) They’d been under a strict curfew for several weeks, a curfew Memphis coach Rip Scherer removed after the goalposts came down.

The Tigers had two weeks to celebrate the takedown of mighty Tennessee, but came out flat in their season finale, losing to East Carolina. A 4-7 season followed in 1997, then a 2-9 struggle in 1998, the year a man still famous for playing tight end snapped the ball on Saturdays. Powers saw the move to center as a challenge, and still takes pride in having learned such a bruising position on the fly. He played the position at no more than 270 pounds. “My technique was pretty good,” he says, “and I was quick.”
Chris and Ashley Powers with sons Harrison (left) and Hayes.
  • Chris and Ashley Powers with sons Harrison (left) and Hayes.

Does Chris Powers miss football today? His answer echoes that of most men who once shared a uniform with teammates. “I miss the guys,” he says. “I miss the relationships with the guys. You’re in a situation where, like it or not, you’re with your best friends almost all the time, every day. I miss the process of everybody having a goal, and you get the feedback immediately, whether you won or lost.”
Powers remains close with Ron Sells, an offensive lineman in ’96, and Drew Pairamore, a punter (and now also a pilot).

Memphis will beat Tennessee on the gridiron again. (Yes, it will happen.) Powers likes the fact his 1996 Tiger team will always, though, be the first to beat the Volunteers. “I was part of that team, and played a significant role,” he says. “No matter what happens with Memphis football, that’ll always be the first time [we beat Tennessee]. With Peyton Manning, arguably the best quarterback to ever play the game. They were number six in the country. On national TV. Put it all together, and it’s one of those days I can look back on and enjoy the role I played. I made a play that helped all my buddies — my teammates — beat Tennessee.”

Cobb’s kickoff return recently aired during a Tiger broadcast, a game Powers watched at home with his family. Little Harrison pointed at the TV screen as he’s learning to recognize the look and sounds of football. Powers grabbed his remote, rewound the play, and paused as that wedge came into focus. He grabbed his firstborn, pointed at the screen himself this time, and shouted, “Look at Daddy!”

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Tigers 51, SMU 7

Posted By on Sat, Nov 5, 2016 at 6:21 PM

The Memphis Tigers are going bowling a third consecutive season. In thoroughly ruining SMU's homecoming today in Dallas, the Tigers earned their sixth win of the season and ended a two-game losing streak. Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson threw for 288 yards and four touchdowns (all of them in the first half) and junior wide receiver Anthony Miller followed up his record-breaking game last week against Tulsa with 102 yards and two touchdowns against the Mustangs.

The win improves the Tigers to 6-3 for the season (3-2 in the American Athletic Conference), while SMU falls to 4-5 (2-3), its two-game winning streak having ended with a thud.

The Tigers scored a pair of touchdowns in the game's first five minutes, the first a 50-yard Ferguson-to-Miller connection, followed by a four-yard toss from Ferguson to reserve tight end Joey Magnifico. After SMU closed within seven points (14-7), Darrell Henderson set a new Memphis record with a 99-yard kickoff return, the Tigers' third such touchdown this season after going nearly 20 years without one. Ferguson hit tight end Daniel Montiel and Miller for second-quarter touchdowns to put the game out of reach by halftime, 38-7.

Memphis rolled up 474 yards of offense for the game while holding the Mustangs to 305, the best defensive showing for the Tigers since a win over Bowling Green on September 24th. The Tigers forced three turnovers and sacked SMU quarterback Ben Hicks three times. (Memphis entered the game with seven sacks on the entire season.) Doroland Dorceus led the Tiger ground game with 77 yards rushing and a touchdown, the 22nd of his career.

The Tigers return to the Liberty Bowl next Saturday to face USF, a contender for the AAC championship. The Bulls are 7-2 (4-1) and enjoyed a bye this week. Memphis now has the luxury of finishing a rugged schedule — against USF, Cincinnati, and Houston — without bowl eligibility in the balance.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

AAC Picks: Week 10

Posted By on Thu, Nov 3, 2016 at 8:00 AM

SEASON: 60-11

Temple at UConn

Memphis at SMU
Tulane at UCF
BYU at Cincinnati
East Carolina at Tulsa
Navy vs. Notre Dame

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Nov 2, 2016 at 8:00 AM

Something is rotten in the state of defense at the University of Memphis. The last two games — losses to Navy and Tulsa — have exposed weaknesses that lay dormant through the Tigers' 5-1 start. After allowing 6.8 yards per play (78 of them) in Annapolis, the Tigers gave up 6.8 yards per play (87 of them) last Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl. This is not the kind of consistency any Tiger coach is preaching. (In four of the Tigers' five wins, Memphis gave up less than 4.5 yards per play.) Combine a nonexistent pass rush with an inability to stop the run — 447 rushing yards by Navy, 362 by Tulsa — and you allow, on average, 50 points as Memphis has the last two weeks.

Here's the challenge for head coach Mike Norvell and defensive coordinator Chris Ball: Is the problem related to personnel or scheme? It's almost surely a combination of the two. Ernest Suttles, Jonathan Wilson, Donald Pennington and their friends on the Tiger defensive line are not pressuring opposing quarterbacks. Worse, they're not filling gaps when an opponent runs the ball. And the Tigers' 3-4 alignment is clearly not built to withstand the push from the best American Athletic Conference teams. Norvell is cutting his teeth when it comes to involvement on the defensive side of the ball. Over the next four games, we'll see if adjustments — large-scale — can be made to save a season currently in free-fall.

• One of the most famous records in sports history was the long-jump mark Bob Beamon established at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. When he flew through the air for 29 feet, two-and-a-half inches, Beamon broke the previous record by almost two feet, or seven percent. His record stood for 23 years.
Mike Norvell and Matt Dillon - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell and Matt Dillon

Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl, Anthony Miller broke a U of M record that had stood for 51 years . . . and by 34 percent. In catching 12 passes for 250 yards, Miller erased the single-game Tiger mark of 186 yards through the air, set by Bob Sherlag on October 23, 1965, against Mississippi State at the Liberty Bowl (during the stadium's inaugural season). Miller now needs just 178 yards to become the second Tiger receiver to top 1,000 yards in a season. (Isaac Bruce's U of M record is 1,054, set in 1993.)

But what about Mr. Sherlag? Not exactly a name that rolls off the tongue in casual chats about Memphis football history. I asked Tiger sideline reporter Matt Dillon — the Professor himself — about Sherlag, and enjoyed the lesson. Sherlag's heroics helped an 0-3 Memphis team upset an undefeated (4-0), 9th-ranked Bulldog squad, 33-13. Sherlag caught passes from Billy Fletcher, a graduate of Southside High School in Memphis who became the first Tiger quarterback to pass for 1,000 yards in a season. Three of Sherlag's ten catches that day were for touchdowns, which tied the Tiger record at the time. He was chosen in the sixth round of the 1966 NFL draft by Philadelphia, but saw his only action as a pro with the Atlanta Falcons, for whom he caught four passes for 53 yards.

Let's hope Saturday's game in Dallas isn't the crossing of two programs going in opposite directions. After a 2-4 start, SMU has won two straight, including a thorough (38-16) beating of once-mighty Houston on October 22nd. The Tigers and Mustangs have faced three common opponents. They've both beaten Tulane. SMU lost big at Temple, while Memphis beat the Owls at the Liberty Bowl. And they've both lost to Tulsa, though SMU fell in overtime to a team that just beat the Tigers like a yard dog (in their own yard). Memphis destroyed SMU in their last two meetings by a combined score of 111-10. I don't get the sense this Saturday's game will be a blowout, one way or the other. SMU remains two wins shy of bowl eligibility (4-4), so motivation will be at a premium on both sides of the field.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Tulsa 59, Tigers 30

Posted By on Sun, Oct 30, 2016 at 12:11 AM

Halloween arrived two days early for the Tiger football team, particularly those players responsible for slowing an opponent's offense. A week after being gashed by Navy for 532 yards, the Memphis defense allowed 596 to Tulsa and made a star of Golden Hurricane tailback James Flanders. Filling in for the injured D'Angelo Brewer, Flanders ran for 249 yards and set a Tulsa record with five touchdowns. (Flanders and Brewer now each have more than 800 yards rushing on the season.) Tulsa improves to 6-2 on the season (3-1 in the American Athletic Conference) and virtually eliminates Memphis (5-3, 2-2) from contention for the AAC West division title. The Tigers have lost consecutive games for the first time under rookie coach Mike Norvell.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Trevon Tate

"Congratulations to Coach [Philip] Montgomery and his team," said Norvell after the game. "They dominated in every phase. Tonight, we're not a very good football team. We had a lot of mistakes, a lot of things to correct. That starts with me. The only thing I know to do is focus and get back to work. I believe in the young men in [that locker room], but you can't go out and play like we did tonight and be very successful."

The Tigers turned the ball over four times (two fumbles and a pair of Riley Ferguson interceptions) and committed 12 penalties for 115 yards. Just as damaging, the U of M defense put no pressure on Tulsa quarterback Dane Evans, who completed 20 of 33 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns. In eight games this season, Memphis has a total of seven sacks. The Tigers had two tackles behind the line of scrimmage compared with eight such hits for the Golden Hurricane.

"We gotta win gaps, both offensively and defensively," said Norvell. "We didn't get that done tonight. We turned the ball over. Mistake after mistake. And it's a good team we played; they capitalized."

The Tigers played from behind throughout the game, down 14-0 barely five minutes into the game and 28-14 after a 1-yard Flanders run midway through the second quarter. The only consecutive scores Memphis enjoyed flanked halftime, a 40-yard field goal by Jake Elliott with 1:31 left in the first half, and a 3-yard touchdown reception by Anthony Miller early in the third quarter that closed the Tulsa lead to 35-30 (after a failed two-point attempt).

The Tigers held Tulsa to a field goal after the Miller score, but were forced to punt on their next two possessions. Flanders galloped 48 yards for his fourth touchdown with 3:06 left in the third quarter, then scored for the final time on a 7-yard run after Tulsa recovered a Tiger fumble, putting the game out of reach at 52-30.

The lopsided defeat made a footnote out of a historic night by Miller, who broke a 51-year-old Memphis record with 250 receiving yards. (Bob Sherlag had a 186-yard game in 1965.) The junior from Christian Brothers High School caught 12 passes, scored two touchdowns, and now has 822 yards for the season. Only Isaac Bruce has reached the 1,000-yard milestone for Memphis (in 1993), and his season-record of 1,054 yards is well within Miller's reach with at least four games left to play.

The Tigers went pink with their logo in support of the fight to beat breast cancer. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • The Tigers went pink with their logo in support of the fight to beat breast cancer.
Ferguson completed 19 of 41 passes for 349 yards and three touchdowns, though he lost a fumble, threw the two picks and was sacked three times. Freshman Patrick Taylor led the Tigers' ground attack with 92 rushing yards.

"It's a challenge," emphasized Norvell, "when you have a plan and you go out and don't execute to the level that's necessary to be successful. Our guys are sick; I'm sick. Opportunities are there, and we have to capitalize. I felt confident. They jumped up 14-0. A key play early: we had a personal-foul penalty on a third-down stop on their first drive. We did not play the way I expected we would. Each man — including myself — needs to get better. All the things that are the true core of who we are . . . we didn't get done tonight."

The Tigers will travel to Dallas next Saturday to face SMU, winners over Tulane Saturday and Houston on October 22nd. They remain a win shy of bowl eligibility with four games (two at home) left to play.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

AAC Picks: Week 9

Posted By on Thu, Oct 27, 2016 at 8:00 PM

SEASON: 54-11

Navy at USF

Tulsa at Memphis
UCF at Houston
Cincinnati at Temple
UConn at East Carolina
SMU at Tulane

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Oct 26, 2016 at 8:00 AM

• On October 6th at the Liberty Bowl, the Tigers' opponent ran 88 plays (to the Tigers' 58) and held the ball for 38:15 (essentially two-thirds of the game). The Memphis defense allowed 531 yards (208 more than the Tiger offense gained) . . . and Memphis won the football game. Last Saturday in Annapolis, the Tigers' opponent ran 78 plays and held the ball for 39:48. The Memphis defense allowed 532 yards . . . and Memphis lost the football game.

What gives? I'm vexed by time of possession, at least when it comes to this Memphis team. The difference between the 7-point win over Temple and the 14-point loss to Navy (which seemed worse): three turnovers forced by the Tiger defense against the Owls, including a pick-six by linebacker Genard Avery. The Tigers only forced one turnover against the Midshipmen, that bizarre play on which Navy quarterback Will Worth fumbled as he attempted to reach the ball into the end zone (he dropped the pigskin when it hit the front pylon). Memphis somehow snapped the ball 71 times in its 20 minutes of possession time, a reflection of the speed coach Mike Norvell insists upon. But you have to wonder: Is the speed — frequency of plays — truly tiring defenses? Or might the Tiger defense be suffering from spending two-thirds of a game in the trenches (or chasing down triple-option quarterbacks)?

"I have been really pleased with the way our defense has played," said Norvell at Monday's press luncheon. "I think stats don't always tell the full story. When you look at the Temple game I thought our defense was dominant, while being put in tough situations. Temple threw the ball around and had some yards passing but for the majority of the game, even though they weren't put in the best situation, I thought our defense did a really nice job." As for the Navy game? "Last week was a setback," he said. "We stubbed our toe a little bit and didn't play up to the standards of what I think our guys are capable of and I know they are going to respond."
  • Larry Kuzniewski

Tulsa is going to score a lot of points. Head coach Philip Montgomery has some of the American Athletic Conference's most dangerous offensive weapons at his disposal, including the AAC's leading rusher: D'Angelo Brewer (114.7 yards per game). Toss out a blowout loss to Ohio State and the Golden Hurricane (5-2) has hit the following point totals: 45, 58, 48, 43, 31, 50. Tulsa's only other loss came at Houston (that 31-point game). With only one AAC loss and Navy still on its schedule, Tulsa retains hope for reaching the league championship game. So how might Memphis slow this storm system? Let's go back to that first thought: Seems the Tigers would do well to keep the ball away from the Tulsa offense, meaning control the ball for lengthier (in terms of time) possessions. You gotta believe Tulsa remembers the 66-42 embarrassment the U of M administered last season in Oklahoma. Could get nasty — one direction or another — Saturday night.

• By one statistical measure — sacks — the Tigers are losing battles at the line of scrimmage. The Memphis defense has sacked the opposing quarterback only seven times (11th among 12 AAC teams). This is particularly troubling when you consider the defense spent almost 40 minutes on the field against both Temple and Navy. And on the other side of the ball, U of M quarterback Riley Ferguson has been sacked 22 times, the most in the AAC. And Ferguson is not exactly stationary in the pocket. The Tigers' remaining schedule does not include a weak sister. The trenches figure to be brutal against the likes of Tulsa, USF, and Houston. Memphis needs to flex muscle between the tackles for the Tigers to win as many as eight games.

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