Thursday, October 20, 2016

AAC Picks: Week 8

Posted By on Thu, Oct 20, 2016 at 8:00 AM

SEASON: 50-9

USF at Temple

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

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Oct 19, 2016 at 8:00 AM

• What an opportunity the Tigers have Saturday afternoon at Annapolis. There's no better way to build credibility in college football than to beat a Top-25 team on the road.  (It's been 23 years since the Tigers pulled this trick, an upset of 24th-ranked Mississippi State in the 1993 season opener.) Navy vaulted into the rankings (now 24th in the AP poll) by virtue of its upset of Houston on October 8th. The Midshipmen are 4-1, their only loss at Air Force. They have a pair of close wins over AAC rivals — UConn and Tulane — to their credit, but the Tigers will be a bigger test, one for which they've had two weeks to prepare.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell

Navy is ranked behind Memphis in both total offense (392 yards per game to the Tigers' 438.5) and total defense (398.6 yards allowed per game to the Tigers' 388.2). But toss the stats. We saw what the wishbone can do to a very good Memphis team just a year ago when touchdown-machine Keenan Reynolds came to town and helped carve the U of M defense for 374 rushing yards. (Navy has thrown a total of 60 passes this season.) Reynolds, of course, is now a receiver with the Baltimore Ravens. Will Worth now steers the Navy ship. He ran for 115 yards and a touchdown in the win over the Cougars and tossed a pair of touchdown passes in only five attempts. If the Tiger defense can't better control this head-spinning scheme, last year's 25-point beatdown could be repeated.

Welcome to the spotlight, Austin Hall. The Tigers' redshirt freshman — a Collierville High alum — earned Defensive Player of the Week honors from the American Athletic Conference after making 12 tackles (three behind the line of scrimmage) and recovering a fumble in the win at Tulane. Hall plays the critical STAR position (half-linebacker, half-safety) in defensive coordinator Chris Ball's scheme, meaning he'll be in the opponent's backfield as much as the Tiger secondary depending on down and yardage variables. It should be noted that Hall was not on the field last season when Navy's offense partied at the Liberty Bowl. Perhaps his presence this weekend will be a swing factor in the Tigers' favor. Tiger coach Mike Norvell sung Hall's praises at Monday's press luncheon: "He added some communication responsibilities this week. For a redshirt freshman against a very challenging offense, who presented so many formations and motions, he played at an extremely high level. He capitalized on his opportunities."

• There was a time when 5-1 starts (or better) were fairly regular in the Tiger program. It happened to be a half-century ago. Memphis had no more than a single loss through six games in 1961, ’62, ’63, ’66, and ’67. Over the 49 seasons since 1968, though, Memphis has been 5-1 (or better) exactly three times: 2004, 2015, and now. With Navy, USF, Cincinnati, and Houston left to play, the second half of the 2016 season will be a steeper challenge for the U of M than the first. But let's not take 5-1 starts for granted. There are 13-year-old Tiger fans who have seen as many of these as those with gray in their beards.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Tigers 24, Tulane 14

Posted By on Fri, Oct 14, 2016 at 10:33 PM

Freshman tailback Darrell Henderson scored a pair of touchdowns — each covering more than 40 yards — and the Tigers earned their tenth straight win over the Green Wave in a series that dates back to the teams' longtime memberships in Conference USA. The victory improves Memphis to 5-1 on the season and 2-0 in American Athletic Conference play, setting up a showdown at Navy (3-0 in the AAC) next Saturday for first place in the league's West division. The win is the Tigers' first of the season away from the Liberty Bowl.

Tulane drops to 3-3 with the loss (0-2 in the AAC).

The U of M trailed 7-6 with just over a minute to play before halftime when Henderson took a short pass from Tiger quarterback Riley Ferguson then cut across the field and down the right sideline for a 46-yard touchdown. On the Tigers' third possession of the second half, senior kicker Jake Elliott connected on a 50-yard field goal, extending the Memphis lead to 16-7 and tying Stephen Gostkowski atop the U of M career field goals chart with 70.

Just over three minutes into the fourth quarter, Henderson took a handoff and pranced down the right sideline once again, this time from 45 yards. Sam Craft took a shotgun snap and ran into the end zone for a two-point conversion to give the Tigers an insurmountable 24-7 lead.

Henderson finished the game with 142 total yards (75 on the ground, 67 on four receptions). Doroland Dorceus ran for 81 yards on just seven carries, 61 coming on a jaunt from the Tiger one-yard line in the fourth quarter. Ferguson completed 21 of 34 passes for 236 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. 

The U of M outgained Tulane, 413 yards to 318. Each team turned the ball over three times.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

AAC Picks: Week 7

Posted By on Thu, Oct 13, 2016 at 9:04 AM

SEASON: 46-9

Memphis at Tulane

Temple at UCF
UConn at USF
Tulsa at Houston

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Oct 12, 2016 at 8:00 AM

Tony Pollard's epic kickoff return against Temple would not have happened with Justin Fuente on the sideline. Fumbling the football was a hate crime under Fuente, and Pollard coughed up his first return last Thursday night, inside the Tigers' 10-yard line. The Memphis defense rose to the occasion and minimized the damage, holding Temple to a field goal (and a 6-0 lead at the time). One reporter Tweeted, "Freshmen who fumble on kickoff returns don't become sophomore kickoff returners." (That wise guy was me.) Ask Brandon Hayes or Doroland Dorceus — starting tailbacks both — about the Fuente's wrath when the pigskin gets slippery. And for a redshirt-freshman to commit the crime?

Pollard, of course, returned to the field for Temple's very next kickoff. And he now lives in Tiger history for ending a kickoff-return-touchdown drought that stretched 19 years and 11 months, since Kevin Cobb's ESPY-winning return in the upset of Tennessee on November 9, 1996. In addition to his 95-yard jaunt, Pollard had 46 yards on three other returns. He was an integral part of the Tigers' 7-point win. Better yet, Pollard's heroics prove there is, in fact, a place for forgiveness in college football.

  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Anthony Miller
• Remember when the Tigers could win a football game if they played a perfect game? Mistake-free in all three phases, with a big play here or a key turnover there. As recently as 2013, Memphis needed what amounts to an A+ performance to earn a W.

Last week at the Liberty Bowl, the Tigers beat a solid Temple team . . . and didn't play anywhere near a perfect game. The first half featured four punts, a missed field goal (by Jake Elliott!), Pollard's fumble, and three consecutive series that ended after three plays. For the game, Temple ran 88 plays to the Tigers' 58. The Owls accumulated 531 yards of offense to the Tigers' 323. Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson had a pedestrian outing (17 completions, 174 yards, no touchdowns, sacked four times) and the U of M's top playmaker, Anthony Miller, caught exactly one pass . . . for a single yard. Stack up all those numbers . . . and we have a Memphis victory? This is big-picture progress. Coaches like to teach — and players like to learn — after wins.

• With his 71-yard touchdown gallop against Temple, Doroland Dorceus moved into a tie for sixth place in Memphis history with 21 career touchdowns. With three more, he'll pass Carlos Singleton and Curtis Steele and move into fourth on the chart. (He's reached the end zone in each of the Tigers' five games this season.) His 1,414 career yards now rank 18th in Tiger history and he can crack the top 10 with 400 more this season. Look for a big game from Dorceus Friday night at Tulane. He was born in New Orleans.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Tigers 34, Temple 27

Posted By on Fri, Oct 7, 2016 at 12:14 AM

Had you sent your first email on November 9, 1996? Placed your first call with a cell phone? Let it be said technology has evolved a few generations since Kevin Cobb's epic kickoff return for a touchdown to help the Memphis Tigers upset mighty Tennessee during Peyton Manning's junior season. Thursday night at the Liberty Bowl — almost precisely 19 years and 11 months later — a Tiger finally returned another kickoff to pay dirt. After fumbling his first return of the night, redshirt-freshman Tony Pollard galloped 95 yards to answer a Temple touchdown that had closed a Tiger lead to 27-20 with 6:47 left to play. The drought-ending jaunt provided the winning margin as the Tigers won their American Athletic Conference opener and improved to 4-1 on the season.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson
"Hats off to Temple," said Memphis coach Mike Norvell following the game. "They played extremely tough. We had some setbacks in the first half; wasn't the way we wanted to start the game. But our defense battled. We talk all the time: it matters how we start, but it's all about how we finish. We came out in the second half and played at an exceptionally high level."

Norvell acknowledged Pollard's touchdown was the biggest play of the game as it answered the previous scoring punch by Temple. But it was a game — particularly a second half — of big plays for Memphis. With just over two minutes to play in the third quarter and the Tigers trailing 13-6, junior tailback Doroland Dorceus took a hand-off around the left tackle and broke through for a 71-yard game-tying touchdown, the 21st score of Dorceus's college career.

"We ran a play to the [left] edge," said Dorceus, "and we saw the look they gave us. Coach called the same play, they showed the same look, I saw the hole, made a man miss, and got up the field. We needed a big play. It's no-panic mode at all times. Something's gonna pop. Nobody's gonna stop us. Only we stop us."

On Temple's next possession, Memphis defensive tackle Jonathan Wilson flattened Temple quarterback Phillip Walker inside the Owls' 10-yard line, a play that may or may not have contributed to Walker's next pass being intercepted by linebacker Genard Avery, who returned the pick 23 yards for a touchdown to give the Tigers their first lead of the game (20-13).

"They did what they had to do in the first half," said Avery. "We answered in the second half and came up with the win." Avery led Memphis with eight solo tackles and added a sack to the interception on his stat line. Haason Reddick led Temple with 11 tackles (8 solo) including five tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

A 28-yard touchdown run by Darrell Henderson extended the lead to 14 (27-13) midway through the fourth quarter, but Pollard's kickoff return would still be needed to seal the Tigers' fourth home victory of the season. Punter Nick Jacobs drew a running-into-the-kicker penalty late in the fourth quarter to extend a Memphis drive and senior cornerback Chauncey Lanier picked off Walker's final pass of the night to clinch the win.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Genard Avery

"Our defense was put in some tough situations early," said Norvell, "and to hold them to a couple of field goals allowed us to stay in the game. We used a lot of different faces. Our defense played 38 minutes, and that's difficult. And Chauncey Lanier, what a big play by an incredible young man. So proud of him."

In the first half, the Tiger offense looked like a unit playing its second game in six days. The Tigers managed only five first downs, 111 yards, and three points over the game's first 30 minutes and trailed by 10 (13-3) at the break. Jacobs and Spencer Smith combined for seven punts in the game and Memphis ran a total of 58 plays, compared with 88 (for 531 yards) by Temple. Tiger quarterback Riley Ferguson (17 of 26 for 174 yards) was outplayed by Walker (36 of 59 for 445) and the Owls' Jahad Thomas caught six passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns, one of them a 61-yarder. Dorceus finished with 93 yards on seven carries.

"We've got to clean up our mistakes," emphasized Norvell. "We've got to do better with our execution. This was a championship-level game. Their quarterback has been struggling early, but he made some plays, played like a four-year starter. I'm so proud of our guys, the way they finished."

In scoring 10 points, senior kicker Jake Elliott broke Stephen Gostkowski's career scoring record at Memphis. Now with 371 for his career, Elliott — twice the AAC's Special Teams Player of the Year — will likely become the first Tiger to reach the 400-point mark.

The Tigers will have seven full days to prepare for their next game, at Tulane on Friday, October 14th.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

AAC Picks: Week 6

Posted By on Thu, Oct 6, 2016 at 8:00 AM

SEASON: 43-7

Temple at Memphis

SMU at Tulsa

Cincinnati at UConn
East Carolina at USF
Houston at Navy

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Oct 5, 2016 at 8:00 AM

Thursday night feels big. The Tigers' American Athletic Conference opener. A second nationally televised game in six days. The defending AAC East Division champs in town with the conference's reigning Defensive Player of the Week. (Temple defensive end Haason Reddick caused a pair of fumbles and had two sacks in the Owls' win over SMU last weekend.) The short week will have its effects (particularly on the traveling team), but it will be good for the Tigers to leap right back into action after being slapped around late in the Ole Miss loss. Temple enters the game with a record of 3-2 (losses to Army and Penn State), its offense ranked 11th out of 12 AAC teams (350.2 yards per game). Quarterback Phillip Walker has completed only 55 percent of his passes and thrown more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (6). Meanwhile, Tiger quarterback Riley Ferguson is second only to Houston's Heisman candidate, Greg Ward Jr., in AAC pass efficiency (rating of 158.3 to Ward's 166.2). The Tigers are 1-2 against the Owls since the AAC began play in 2013 and took it on the chin last year in Philadelphia (31-12). Motivation should be at a premium for the home team.
  • Larry Kuzniewski

There's a reasonable chance Memphis kicker Jake Elliott will break Stephen Gostkowski's career scoring record Thursday night. The senior from Illinois enters the game with 361 career points, one behind DeAngelo Williams and eight shy of Gostkowski's mark (set from 2002 to 2005). Perspective? Elliott's next point will give him 100 more than Joe Allison accumulated, and Allison merely won the Lou Groza Award in 1992. As for Gostkowski, the longtime New England Patriots kicker is one of two men (along with Hall of Famer Don Hutson) to win five NFL scoring titles. Barring injury, Elliott will soon become the first Memphis player to accumulate 400 points.

• It didn't look all that strong last Saturday night, but the Tiger defense is improved from a year ago and one of the primary differences is safety Jonathan Cook. The junior transfer — Cook played at Alabama in 2013 and ’14 — leads Memphis with 27 tackles (22 solo), good for 11th in the AAC. Along with the impact cornerback Arthur Maulet has made (five pass break-ups and two interceptions), Cook has transformed the Tiger secondary into a playmaking group, a point of emphasis upon coach Mike Norvell's arrival. Even with the lopsided score in Oxford, the Memphis defense is second in the AAC in points allowed (18.8 per game) and fifth in total defense (371.2 yards per game). 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Ole Miss 48, Tigers 28

Posted By on Sat, Oct 1, 2016 at 9:38 PM

A new month finally brought a competitive opponent for the Tigers, and then some. The Ole Miss Rebels showed the kind of talent that has a team ranked 17th in the country despite two losses in September. After falling behind 24-7 in the first half, the Tigers scored a pair of third-quarter touchdowns to close within six points (27-21), but the Rebels answered with three second-half touchdowns to avenge last season's loss at the Liberty Bowl and improve to 3-2 for the season. 

Playing their first road game of the season, the Tigers fell behind 14-0 late in the first quarter when Zedrick Woods returned an interception of a Riley Ferguson toss 31 yards for a touchdown. (Memphis tight end Daniel Montiel didn't turn around on the timing play.) A 64-yard Tiger drive ensued, capped by a 6-yard run by wideout Anthony Miller.

Reserve cornerback Jahmahl Pardner dropped an interception opportunity in the second quarter, allowing Ole Miss to convert a field goal. On the next Memphis possession, Ferguson fumbled as he was hit from behind with the Tigers in field goal range. Reserve quarterback Jason Pellerin ran for his second touchdown of the game on the ensuing possession to secure that 24-7 halftime lead.

A brilliantly executed fake punt — a throw from punter Spencer Smith to Arthur Maulet as he crossed laterally — spurred the Tigers in the third quarter. A 42-yard Ferguson-to-Miller pass led to an 11-yard touchdown run by Doroland Dorceus, the 20th score of the junior's college career. On their next possession, the Tigers took advantage of an Ole Miss pass-interference penalty to march 99 yards, Ferguson scoring himself from the one to make the score 27-21. 

Ole Miss scored on its next two possessions, though, helped by a shanked punt off the foot of Smith. A Maulet interception of a Chad Kelly pass and a second Ferguson touchdown kept the Tigers' hopes alive, but only until Rebel tailback Eugene Brazley scampered 32 yards (on third-and-15) for a touchdown with five minutes to play for a 48-28 Rebel lead.

Memphis entered the game allowing an average of 287 yards but gave up 620 to the balanced Rebel attack.
Kelly completed 30 of 44 passes for 361 yards for the Rebels, while Ferguson completed 30 of 46 for 343 with three interceptions (he had two in his first three games). Miller caught 10 passes for 132 yards and Dorceus led the Tiger ground game with 72 yards on 14 carries. Brazley (124) and Akeem Judd (108) each topped 100 yards rushing for Ole Miss.

The loss drops the Tigers to 3-1 on the season. They'll open American Athletic Conference play Thursday night, when Temple (3-2) visits the Liberty Bowl. Ole Miss enjoys a bye week then resumes SEC play on October 15th when the Rebels travel to Arkansas to face the Razorbacks.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

AAC Picks: Week 5

Posted By on Thu, Sep 29, 2016 at 8:00 AM

SEASON: 37-6

UConn at Houston

Memphis at Ole Miss
UCF at East Carolina
USF at Cincinnati
SMU at Temple
Navy at Air Force
Tulane at UMass

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 28, 2016 at 8:00 AM

• Since upsetting 6th-ranked Tennessee on November 9th, 1996 — 20th anniversary in a few short weeks — the Memphis Tigers are 3-26 against the SEC. By SEC, I mean Tennessee (0-7), Mississippi State (0-9), Arkansas (0-1), and Ole Miss (3-9). I've long contended that the U of M harms its football program (twice) by scheduling SEC foes. In addition to a mark in the loss column, the Tiger program is outed as inferior by measure of the region's recruits. Is such damage worth a packed Liberty Bowl now and then? A fat check for traveling to Oxford or Knoxville?
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell

The Tigers are, of course, 1-0 against the SEC since 2015. And Memphis played a 10th-ranked Rebel team much tighter than expected two years ago in Oxford, an early indication of the turn-around we've seen over the course of 26 games since. This Saturday's contest will be the most talked-about Memphis game of the season, and by some distance. We will — finally — see Mike Norvell tested as a head coach, his roster measured against players who have already gone rounds with Florida State, Alabama, and Georgia. Will this be good for the Memphis program? The Tigers really have nothing to lose. If they're beaten, it will be in the stadium of a Top-20 team and they'll open conference play next week with a 3-1 record, a mark rarely seen in these parts. Should the Tiger offense continue to sling points like Jackson Pollock in a paint shop, Memphis may come home with its first win at Oxford in 12 years. Either way, it'll be worth watching, and fuel more debate on the value of SEC villains on the Tiger schedule. [Memphis will play Missouri in 2018 and 2023, Mississippi State in 2021 and 2022, and Ole Miss again in 2019.]

• You approach a fellow Tiger fan in your favorite watering hole this week. You ask him, "Did you see the touchdown number 6 scored Saturday night?" That friend — if he's the Tiger fan you think he is — would then ask, "Which number 6?" And you would slap the table in front of you, smile from ear to ear, and answer, "Both!"

Yes, Memphis suits up two players in number-6 uniforms: linebacker Genard Avery and running back Patrick Taylor. And they both scored against the Bowling Green. The scoring became so crazed last Saturday night that the Tigers seemed to run out of distinct digits for those who reached the end zone. Go to enough football games and you'll see 77 points scored again. But don't count on seeing 11 different players scoring touchdowns in the same game. (The total matched the number of Memphis players to score in the entire 2013 season.) Three seniors, six juniors, and a pair of freshmen reached pay dirt in the "901" helmets. And if you wore number 6 in black-and-blue you finished the game tied . . . with six points each.

An early-season stat I like: +8 turnover margin. An early season stat I don't like: three sacks for the Memphis defense. It's an elementary football fact, but worth remembering: A turnover is a double bonus, as it provides one team an extra possession while denying the team's opponent a chance to score (offensively). The U of M leads the AAC in turnover margin, having picked off seven passes and recovered four fumbles while only conceding three turnovers (two of them interceptions). The Tigers' chances this Saturday would improve mightily with a margin of plus-two at Ole Miss. Memphis would also help its cause with pressure on Rebel quarterback Chad Kelly. The Tigers are 11th in the 12-team AAC in sacks. Jackson Dillon won't be walking through the door anytime soon. Time for other Memphis pass-rushers to seize a moment or two.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Tigers 77, Bowling Green 3

Posted By on Sat, Sep 24, 2016 at 11:50 PM

Ole Miss, here come the Tigers.

Memphis coach Mike Norvell and his team can hardly be accused of looking a week ahead. Coming off a pair of lopsided wins (over SEMO of the FCS and Big 12 bottom-feeder Kansas), the Tigers tied a program record with 56 first-half points on their way to a school-record 77 and will enter next Saturday's showdown in Oxford with a spotless 3-0 record. This week's sacrificial lamb happened to have played for the MAC championship each of the past three seasons.
  • Larry Kuzniewski

"I'm proud of how we prepared, how we performed," said first-year Memphis coach Mike Norvell. "We talked about starting fast, going up against a high-tempo offense. I liked our first drive. Then our defense came out, gave up a play, but got acclimated and held them to a field goal. It was a dominant performance all the way around. It was the best week of practice we had. I was hoping we'd see a complete game. We were plus-four in takeaways. My biggest disappointment were the nine penalties. That's not who we are."

Junior quarterback Riley Ferguson accounted for seven touchdowns (one of them rushing) in the first half, completing 20 of 27 passes for 359 yards before being replaced by Jason Stewart after halftime. His touchdown passes went to six different teammates: Daniel Montiel, Phil Mayhue (40 yards), Sam Craft (43 yards), Tony Pollard, Anthony Miller (60 yards), and Roderick Proctor. The Tigers needed no more than 2:14 on any of their seven scoring drives in the first half and capitalized on three interceptions of Falcon quarterback James Knapke. Junior linebacker Genard Avery returned a pick 28 yards for a touchdown midway through the first quarter.

And the onslaught continued after halftime, Doroland Dorceus adding a touchdown (the 19th of his career) and the Tigers reaching 70 points for the first time since a win over Tampa on September 23, 1949. Eleven different Tigers scored the 11 touchdowns (a total not reached over the first six games of the 2011 season).

For the contest, Memphis totaled 635 yards of offense (8.2 yards per play) and held Bowling Green to 294 (3.9). Dorceus ran for 117 yards as the Memphis ground game gained some traction (240 yards). In addition to Avery's pick-six, Chris Morley and Dontrel Nelson had interceptions for the U of M. A crowd of 38,713 witnessed the scoring display.
Doroland Dorceus - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Doroland Dorceus

Norvell acknowledged growth in his quarterback, Ferguson adjusting nicely in his first year at the FBS level. "He was calm, patient, and went through his full progressions," said Norvell. "His confidence . . . he's improving, and we need to continue to have that to accomplish what we want to accomplish. Every week, they're going to get bigger and get better."

With 11 extra points, Memphis kicker Jake Elliott now has 357 for his career, 12 shy of Stephen Gostkowski's Tiger record. The Memphis offense was so surgical, so precise that Elliott did not attempt a field goal the entire game.

As for next week, Norvell noted that even in two losses (to Florida State and Alabama), Ole Miss had big leads. "They are arguably the most talented team in the country," he said. "It's going to be a great challenge. We'll come to work in the morning and focus on us." Memphis will be aiming to beat the Rebels in consecutive years for the first time since 2003 and 2004. Ole Miss beat Georgia handily earlier Saturday.

NOTE: Linebacker DeMarco Montgomery was ejected for targeting early in the second half. He will not be eligible to play in the first half at Ole Miss.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

AAC Picks: Week 4

Posted By on Thu, Sep 22, 2016 at 8:00 AM

SEASON: 28-4


Bowling Green at Memphis
UCF at Florida International
Miami (OH) at Cincinnati
Syracuse at UConn
East Carolina at Virginia Tech
Florida State at USF
Charlotte at Temple
Houston at Texas State
UL-Lafayette at Tulane
Tulsa at Fresno State

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 21, 2016 at 10:42 AM

• The Tigers are 2-0, having run roughshod over an FCS team and the hapless Kansas Jayhawks. When have we seen this before? Why, just last year, so you're forgiven the sense of deja vu. Are there any distinctions we can make, though, about this year's start, relative to the 2015 version (beyond a bye week splitting the two wins this month)? The Tigers won its first two games last year by a total of 88 points and averaged 585 yards in total offense. This year, the blowouts added up to "only" 54 points and Memphis averaged "merely" 400 yards of total offense. On the defensive side, the Tigers allowed an average of 242 yards last season and 283.5 this year.

Tigers QB Riley Ferguson - GOTIGERSGO.COM
  • Tigers QB Riley Ferguson
The Tiger ground game hasn't gained traction yet this season, most of its 205 yards against Kansas coming after halftime with the outcome already decided. Even with Paxton Lynch calling the signals last year, the Tigers ran for 317 yards against Missouri State and 281 at Kansas. Let's keep an eye on the Memphis offensive line and see what kind of push it can create in the next two games. If Sam Craft (hamstring) can return to action and supplement the efforts of Doroland Dorceus, Patrick Taylor, and a presumably healthy Darrell Henderson, the Tigers may ease the pressure on quarterback Riley Ferguson and the air attack.

• The most memorable game of the Tigers' 2015 season was the win over Ole Miss, but the victory at Bowling Green was the first indication that Memphis had a special team developing. The Tigers fell behind the Falcons on the scoreboard five different times (7-0, 14-7, 21-17, 34-27, and 41-34), before taking the lead on a Jake Elliott field goal with 7:35 to play and somehow holding BG quarterback Matt Johnson and friends scoreless the rest of the way. The Tigers 541 yards of offense were impressive until you considered the Falcons' 579. Johnson and Lynch combined to throw 84 passes without a single interception. Neither team lost a fumble. It was that great a football game.

Johnson will not be in uniform Saturday at the Liberty Bowl. Bowling Green's new quarterback, senior James Knapke, has completed barely 50 percent of his passes and thrown twice as many interceptions (6) as touchdowns (3) over the Falcons' first three games (two of them losses). The Falcons have allowed an average of 48 points and 533 yards to Ohio State, North Dakota, and Middle Tennessee. (A 77-10 loss to the Buckeyes skewed these numbers to "extra ugly.") Don't look for the kind of game we saw last season between Memphis and Bowling Green. But the Falcons will be superior to the Tigers' first two foes and, for good or ill, the team's best tune-up for Ole Miss on October 1st. 

• Quarterback Riley Ferguson appears to be where a talented-but-raw signal-caller should be in his first season at the FBS level. He's completed 64 percent of his passes for 484 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions. He also landed on his back more than he'd like in last Saturday's win over Kansas. "I don't like seeing our quarterback on the ground five times in a game," noted Tiger coach Mike Norvell at Monday's press luncheon.

After the game, Ferguson told me he's still working on achieving the high-speed tempo Norvell is preaching, starting with the relay of signals from the sideline after a play is blown dead. (Easier to do when not on your back.) Don't underestimate the offensive line's role in achieving this tempo. From tackle to tackle, five players must receive, understand, and execute their assignments — in sync — for the offense to gain full (and steady) speed. This brings us back to the need for progress with the running game. Ferguson will be tested in the weeks ahead and he'll determine how dangerous the Memphis offense can be. But that O-line, people. It will determine how dangerous Mr. Ferguson can be.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Tigers 43, Kansas 7

Posted By on Sat, Sep 17, 2016 at 3:52 PM

Rock, chalk, cake walk.

There was irony in the Tigers' thorough man-handling of Kansas Saturday afternoon at the Liberty Bowl. The University of Memphis — along with virtually its entire fan base — continues to aspire admission into one of college football's elite "Power Five" conferences. One of those leagues, of course, is the Big 12, longtime home to KU. But the Jayhawk football team, let it be said, displays nothing that remotely suggests "power." Woody Allen would appreciate the blurred standard between the club of Big 12 schools and one that would boast Kansas football as a member.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson

Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson connected with Anthony Miller for an 84-yard touchdown along the left sideline just over four minutes into the game and the rout was on. Two Jake Elliott field goals and a Doroland Dorceus touchdown run of six yards made the score 19-0 two minutes into the second quarter. The Jayhawks' only highlight of the contest came on a 66-yard dash by Khalil Herbert with 12:28 to play before halftime. But the Tigers responded with two more touchdowns before the break, one a Ferguson-to-Phil Mayhue timing route in the right corner of the end zone and then a 61-yard interception return by freshman defensive lineman Jonathan Wilson. 

Among the Jayhawks' ten first-half possessions, they had four three-and-out "drives," three lost fumbles, and the Wilson interception. It was as ugly as football often is at basketball schools. But it counts in the win column and gives Memphis consecutive 2-0 starts for the first time since the 2003 and 2004 seasons.

"We were coming off a bye week, and we've practiced 38 times," said Tiger coach Mike Norvell in opening his postgame press conference. "You can try and simulate the game, but you really can't get to that point until you kick it off. We talked a lot about starting fast. The defense did an incredible job; totally dominated. We got beaten on one unique play; they got us. Six take-aways. That's who we want to be as a football team. I was really pleased by the way the guys worked."
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Anthony Miller

When asked if the Tiger offense had made progress since the opener two weeks ago, Norvell noted the larger impact of his running game. "We ran the ball better, and it showed up. There are still some things we have to correct. Our tempo is not where it needs to be, [not fast enough]. I don't think we protected as well as we can. We're playing a lot of young faces. It's probably where we should be [at this stage of the season]." Ferguson was sacked five times and Kansas had ten tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

The Tigers gained 205 yards on the ground (much of it after the game was decided as a clock-eating device) and 189 through the air. Freshman Patrick Taylor led the running game with 88 yards on 13 carries. (Fellow freshman Darrell Henderson was sidelined with an illness.) Miller caught five passes for 93 yards.

Freshman linebacker Austin Hall and junior safety Jonathan Cook led the Memphis defense with eight tackles each, two of Hall's coming in the Jayhawk backfield. Senior defensive tackle Michael Edwards recovered two Kansas fumbles. Norvell said he hopes his defense can achieve a form of swagger, that the combination of fundamentals, technique, and belief in the system could distinguish the group.

"I want these guys to push," said Norvell. "I want them to be the best they've ever been. You have to put guys in adverse situations. The game of football is so wonderful; you see the highs and the lows. How do you respond? Today it was the defense. The defense had to step up after some miscues by the offense."

Ferguson agreed with his coach, that there's work to do in achieving the offense's desired tempo. "We need to make sure we're getting the signals faster from the sideline," said the junior quarterback after completing 15 of his 24 passes. "That's mostly on me, making sure the linemen are down, getting us going. There were times the defense was tired. We could have gone faster."

The early connection with Miller sparked Ferguson, and he suggests there's more to come. "I just put it up where he could go get it," said Ferguson. "He made an unbelievable play. Since I've been here, Anthony and I have had a really good connection, going all the way back to spring. We've built on that. It's going to get even better."

The Tigers return to the Liberty Bowl next Saturday night to host Bowling Green. The Falcons (1-2) lost to Middle Tennessee (at home) today, 41-21

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