Thursday, November 26, 2020

Western Kentucky 75, Tigers 69

Posted By on Thu, Nov 26, 2020 at 1:21 PM

Playing their second game in 24 hours, the Tigers came up short in the semifinals of the Crossover Classic Thursday afternoon in Sioux Falls. Charles Bassey (21 points, 14 rebounds, 6 blocks) and Carson Williams (14 points, 9 rebounds) proved too much for Memphis to handle in a game that featured 10 lead changes. The Tigers reduced a seven-point deficit to two points over the game's final three minutes, but the Hilltoppers' Kenny Cooper hit a pair of clinching free throws with 4.1 seconds on the clock after a Landers Nolley three-pointer made the score 71-69.
  • Dave Eggen/Inertia
  • Landers Nolley

Nolley led Memphis with 25 points and hit six of ten three-point attempts. Sophomore guard Boogie Ellis added 14 points off the bench, ten fewer than he scored in Wednesday's quarterfinal win over Saint Mary's. D.J. Jeffries led the Tigers with 10 rebounds but scored only six points.

The Hilltoppers shot 44 percent from the field and hit 19 of 24 free throws. The Tigers shot 42 percent and made six of 11 from the foul line. Thanks largely to Bassey, Western Kentucky dominated on the glass with 44 rebounds to the Tigers' 31.

“That was a very tough one,” said Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway. “Right now, we’re just a new team. We played an older team that knows how to win. In those games, we have to impose our will on them first, which we did, but we have to keep it on them the entire game, and we didn’t do that. I’ll learn from this, and we will get better.”

Now 1-1, Memphis will play the loser of the second semifinal (VCU and 15th-ranked West Virginia) in a consolation game Friday.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Tigers 73, Saint Mary's 56

Posted By on Wed, Nov 25, 2020 at 3:12 PM

Boogie Ellis hit all six of his three-point attempts — including a buzzer-beating bank shot from just inside the half-court line to end the first half — to lead the Tigers to a season-opening win over Saint Mary's in the quarterfinals of the Crossover Classic in Sioux Falls. The sophomore guard came off the bench and scored a career-high 24 points to help Memphis advance to the semifinals of the tournament, where they'll play the winner of today's Northern Iowa-Western Kentucky game on Thanksgiving.
  • Dave Eggen/Inertia
  • Boogie Ellis

The Tigers fell behind 8-0, but took the lead on a putback layup by freshman center Moussa Cisse midway through the first half. They would not trail again. Ellis's circus shot gave the U of M a 42-26 lead at the break and the margin grew beyond 20 points (49-28) three minutes into the second half.

Cisse scored  10 points and pulled down seven rebounds in his Tiger debut. Transfer Landers Nolley also started in his first game for Memphis, scoring 11 points. Sophomore guard Damion Baugh added 10 points off the bench.

After leading the country in field-goal-percentage defense last season, the Tigers put the clamps on the Gaels, forcing 17 misses among 18 three-point attempts. Overall, Saint Mary's shot 34 percent from the field while Memphis converted 43 percent of its shots.

Matthias Tass led the Gaels with 15 points.

“We are trying to be the number-one team in the country in opponent field goal percentage,” said Tiger coach Penny Hardaway, having started his third straight season with a victory. “That is something that we want to be at the very top in every year. For the most part, I am proud of the defense in holding that team to 56 points. With the way they like to play, that says a lot. We want to be the best defensive team in the country for sure.”

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Monday, November 23, 2020

2020-21 Tiger Hoops Preview

Posted By on Mon, Nov 23, 2020 at 8:16 AM

If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.

If the Almighty pays any attention to college basketball, He must have lost His breath by the end of the Memphis Tigers' 2019-20 season. Penny Hardaway's second winter as head coach was to be the revival of a once-proud program, and then some. The country's most heralded recruiting class arrived. Surely a deep NCAA-tournament run awaited come March.

HA! The country's top freshman — James Wiseman — departed the program after three games, neck deep in NCAA investigative eyes after a financial exchange between Hardaway (then East High School's coach) and Wiseman's family in 2017. The team's second-leading scorer, D.J. Jeffries, went down with a knee injury the first week in February. Then just as the Tigers completed a second straight season in fifth place among American Athletic Conference teams . . . a pandemic eliminated March Madness. Pin that among your Memphis basketball seasons to remember.
Landers Nolley II
  • Landers Nolley II

But Tiger basketball is back, pandemic be damned. Gone, of course, is Wiseman, along with Precious Achiuwa, the electric forward who became the first Tiger freshman to earn conference Player of the Year honors. (Wiseman and Achiuwa were the 2nd and 20th selections, respectively, in last week's NBA draft, the first former Tigers chosen since 2012.) The U of M's top three-point shooter over the last two seasons — Tyler Harris — transferred to Iowa State, two seasons of Hardaway's tutelage enough for his ambitions. When the Tigers open play Wednesday in the Crossover Classic in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, they'll do so against the Saint Mary's Gaels and not the Ohio State Buckeyes, the latter having pulled out of the event over, you guessed it, coronavirus concerns. (Duke also pulled out of the tournament. Positivity rates in South Dakota have recently topped 50 percent.)

Last year's acclaimed freshmen — at least the five who remain — are now sophomores: guards Boogie Ellis, Lester Quinones, and Damion Baugh, and forwards Jeffries and Malcolm Dandridge. Hardaway expects, with a season behind them, these young veterans will make a larger impact than they did as college rookies. Add to this group a pair of significant transfers: sophomore Landers Nolley II (from Virginia Tech) and DeAndre Williams (from Evansville, pending NCAA approval to play this season). Nolley averaged 15.5 points per game for the Hokies last season and will be asked to fill the sharp-shooting role vacated by Harris. He hit 68 three-pointers as a freshman, but shot an underwhelming 32 percent from long distance. Williams started 15 games for the Purple Aces and averaged 15.2 points.

A pair of juniors — guard Alex Lomax and forward Lance Thomas — bring more experience to the floor for Memphis, though neither has found the consistency Hardaway would like to see. Having played for Hardaway since middle school, Lomax has adopted the "glue guy" role and will be expected to blanket opposing ball-handlers and shooters. Thomas teases with his height (6'9") but averaged only 2.5 rebounds in 15 minutes per game last season. (He made 13 starts.)
Moussa Cisse
  • Moussa Cisse

The star of Hardaway's third recruiting class is center Moussa Cisse. A native of Guinea, the 6'10" Cisse averaged 18.4 points, 15.3 rebounds, and 9.2 blocks in leading Lausanne Collegiate School to a 2020 state championship. He was the top-ranked prospect in Tennessee after reclassifying last summer to the 2020 class. He's the kind of interior defensive presence the Tiger program has lacked, for the most part, over the last decade. And nothing starts a fast break better than a blocked shot.

The Tigers are projected to finish second (behind Houston) in the preseason AAC coaches poll. They did not place a player on the first-team preseason all-conference squad (Jeffries and Nolley made the second team), and they are outside the Top 25 looking in. Cisse is picked to win the league's Rookie of the Year honor, but Hardaway, needless to say, is aiming for loftier achievements.

"It's refreshing to have [last year's] freshmen understand their roles now," says Hardaway. "They put a lot of pressure on themselves last season. And to see how good Landers and DeAndre are . . . they're great additions. We feel like we have the talent, but we haven't proven anything yet. We're going to have to earn everything."

After three games in Sioux Falls, the Tigers will open their home schedule December 2nd when Arkansas State visits FedExForum. (Attendance will be limited to between 3,000 and 3,500 fans, at least at the season's outset.) There will be only two other nonconference foes (Mississippi Valley State and Auburn) before the Tigers embark, fingers firmly crossed, on a 20-game league gauntlet.

"The two years I've coached [at this level] have taught me a lot," says Hardaway. "I don't think anything we'll surprise me. We're ready for every situation, any scenario. After two years, I've seen what I need to do as a coach. In the beginning, I was fast-tracking everything. But I'm caught up, and looking at things better on and off the court."

The University Memphis has somehow played six seasons without reaching the Big Dance, and the program hasn't gone seven years without proper Madness since the days when the tournament invited fewer than 30 teams (1963-72). Will there be a 2021 NCAA tournament? Will it be played in a single-city "bubble" for pandemic protection? A bigger question for a long-frustrated Tiger fan base: Would a return to the tournament bring jubilation, or merely a sigh of relief? Take a few deep breaths and grab your face coverings, because we're about to find out.

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Saturday, November 21, 2020

Tigers 56, SFA 14

Posted By on Sat, Nov 21, 2020 at 4:18 PM

The Memphis Tigers secured their annual victory over FCS competition Saturday afternoon at the Liberty Bowl with a drubbing of Stephen F. Austin. (SFA replaced UT-Martin on the U of M schedule when the latter canceled its visit to the Liberty Bowl amid coronavirus concerns before the season.) The game featured a degree of tension for the small home crowd, as the Tigers' lead was merely six points (20-14) late in the third quarter. But Memphis scored five touchdowns over the game's final 18 minutes to extend its home winning streak to 14 games, a record for the program's 56 years at the Liberty Bowl. Among current home winning streaks, the Tigers' is the fifth-longest in the country. Memphis improved to 5-2 for the season while SFA's six-game winning streak ended, dropping the Lumberjacks' record to 6-4.
  • Joe Murphy

The Lumberjacks' Brevin Randle picked off a Brady White pass and returned it 30 yards early in the second quarter to cut an early 14-0 Tiger lead in half. SFA scored again in the final minute before halftime — a seven-yard pass from Trae Self to Xavier Gipson — to make the score 20-14, Tigers, at halftime.

White snuck the ball in from a yard out with 2:55 to play in the third quarter and with a two-point conversion, Memphis led 28-14. Less than two minutes later, Calvin Austin returned a punt 64 yards to essentially put the game out of reach. Asa Martin (six yards), Marquavius Weaver (four yards), and Tim Taylor (47 yards) each had fourth-quarter touchdown runs to give Memphis its largest margin of victory this season.

White completed 18 of 31 passes for 269 yards and established a new Tiger record with his 82nd career touchdown pass, a 48-yard connection with Tahj Washington in the first quarter. (White now needs 293 yards to become the second Memphis quarterback to top 10,000 yards for his career.)

Kylan Watkins rushed for 100 yards on 11 carries to lead a Tiger ground attack that put up a total of 305 yards. Weaver added 94 yards on eight carries. Austin caught a total of 10 passes for 173 yards and now has 820 yards for the season.

The Memphis defense held the Lumberjacks to 55 yards on the ground and a total of 224 for the game.

The Tigers' three remaining regular-season games have all been rescheduled since the opener in September. Memphis plays at Navy next Saturday, at Tulane on December 5th, and hosts Houston on December 12th. Two more wins would give Memphis seven victories in seven consecutive seasons, an unprecedented stretch in the program's 108-year history.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Tigers 34, USF 33

Posted By on Sat, Nov 7, 2020 at 2:54 PM

The Memphis Tigers erased a 13-point deficit in the final five minutes of their game Saturday at the Liberty Bowl to beat the USF Bulls and earn their 13th-straight home win, a record in the stadium where they've played since 1965. Tiger quarterback Brady White threw four touchdown passes — including the game-winner to Calvin Austin with just over a minute to play – to tie Danny Wimprine's career record (81) and set a new mark for wins by a Memphis quarterback (24). The victory improves the Tigers' record to 4-2 (3-2 in the American Athletic Conference) while USF falls to 1-6 (0-5).
Brady White - JOE MURPHY
  • Joe Murphy
  • Brady White

Playing in front of a pandemic-reduced crowd of just over 10,000, the Tigers struggled throughout the first half, with three series ending on downs and USF's Daquan Evans returning an interception of White 51 yards for an early 13-6 Bulls lead. The only Memphis touchdown before halftime came on a White-to-Austin 65-yard pass connection. But USF scored touchdowns on each of its next two possessions to take a 27-13 lead at the break.

White found tight end Sean Dykes for a five-yard touchdown strike on the Tigers' first possession of the third quarter to reduce the USF lead to 27-20, but the U of M's next two possessions ended with punts. A Spencer Shrader field goal (his fourth of the game) from 46 yards gave USF a 33-20 lead with just 4:36 left in the game.

Memphis marched 72 yards in just over a minute and reduced the deficit to 33-27 when White connected with Dykes again, this time from 10 yards with 3:19 left on the clock. A maligned Memphis defense then managed to stop the Bulls, forcing a punt that set up what proved to be the game-winning drive. White completed six straight passes (after an incompletion) to complete the comeback, finding Kylan Watkins (three times), Tahj Washington, and Kameron Wilson before hitting Austin for the decisive score.

White completed 30 of 50 passes for 437 yards, his favorite target being Dykes (7 catches for 147 yards). Austin caught five passes for 102 yards.

The Memphis defense held USF to 330 yards, considerably lower than the average for Tiger opponents this season. Memphis gained a total of 535 yards.

The Tigers are scheduled to travel to Annapolis, Maryland, next week to face Navy. (The Midshipmen are 3-4 and had their game against Tulsa today postponed because of Covid cases at the Naval Academy.) Memphis returns to the Liberty Bowl on November 21st when Stephen F. Austin comes to town.

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Monday, November 2, 2020

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Mon, Nov 2, 2020 at 8:29 AM

• The Tigers are better than they looked at Cincinnati. They couldn't have looked much worse, particularly after the no-call on what appeared to be pass interference in the Bearcat end zone early in the second half. (A Memphis touchdown would have closed the Cincinnati lead to four points.) You're forgiven if you suffered a "Larry Porter flashback" on Halloween, 39-point losses once being more customary in these parts. But this ain't 2011, Ryan Silverfield isn't Larry Porter, and there's too much talent on the Tiger roster for last weekend's result to suggest anything more than a very good team (Cincinnati is now ranked 6th in the country), motivated to the shoulder pads (Memphis beat the Bearcats twice last season, including for the conference championship) finding its groove on home turf.
  • Jason Whitman/Memphis Athletics

Few football teams win without a ground game, and the Cincinnati defense eliminated half of the Tiger attack, allowing merely five yards(!) on 29 carries by Memphis running backs. It's easy to miss Kenneth Gainwell (the sophomore opted out of the season instead of attempting to repeat his 1,000-yard 2019 campaign). But it's a good time to look carefully at the Tiger offensive line and measure its strengths (and weaknesses) with half a season yet to play. Right tackle Dylan Parham is an all-conference candidate and left tackle Obinna Eze was one of Mike Norvell's highest-ranked recruits. Sophomore guards Isaac Ellis and Evan Fields have fewer than 10 career starts, and center Manuel Orona-Lopez was among those helping Brady White back to his feet after six sacks. These are the five players to watch this Saturday against USF. Cincinnati is the seventh-ranked defense (based on points allowed) in the country. USF is 77th. Should be a different story for the Tigers' O-line when they square off against the Bulls.

• We'll learn a lot about Ryan Silverfield's motivating skills over the next five weeks. For the first time since 2016 — Norvell's first season as the Tigers' head coach — Memphis isn't playing for the American Athletic Conference championship. Saddled with two league losses, it's highly improbable the Tigers can secure one of the league's top two spots in the standings. (Four teams have fewer than two losses, and another pair also have two in the loss column.) But an 8-2 record beats 7-3, and the Tigers have wins in reach. Their next two opponents (USF and Navy) have been outscored by more than 100 points each. Stephen F. Austin (November 21st) should be an FCS walkover. Then it's Tulane (currently 3-4) Thanksgiving weekend and the season finale at home against Houston (2-2). Memphis won't play in a New Year's Six bowl game this season. It's again the name on the front of their jerseys that should make the difference.

• The Tiger D is . . . disheartening. For years now, Memphis has been able to get away with allowing 30 points, sometimes 40, because the program has featured one of the country's top-scoring offenses. We saw Saturday how things might look if the Tiger offensive machine blows a piston. With half the season behind us, Memphis ranks 101st in total defense (556.8 yards per game). That's out of 103 teams, and the two teams behind them (Minnesota and New Mexico) have played a combined three games. The case could be made that, right now, Memphis has the worst defense in the country. No one has more to gain (or perhaps lose) over the season's second half than defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre. His unit hasn't been good enough, not without the Memphis offense in highest gear. Personnel, scheme, play calls, whatever. Changes must be made.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

#7 Cincinnati 49, Memphis 10

Posted By on Sat, Oct 31, 2020 at 2:43 PM

In a rematch of last year's American Athletic Conference championship game, the Cincinnati Bearcats handed Memphis its worst loss in nine seasons to all but eliminate the Tigers from contention for a fourth consecutive appearance in the title game. Bearcat quarterback Desmond Ridder passed for three touchdowns and ran for a pair to help 7th-ranked Cincinnati improve to 5-0 (3-0 in the AAC) and end a five-game losing streak against Memphis. One of the top defenses in college football put the clamps on the Tiger attack, holding the U of M to just five yards rushing. The loss drops Memphis to 3-2 for the season (2-2 in the AAC). The Tigers were seeking the program's first win over a top-10 opponent since beating Tennessee in 1996.
  • Jason Whitman/Memphis Athletics
  • Tahj Washington

Freshman receiver Tahj Washington took a short Brady White pass and broke loose for a 92-yard touchdown late in the first quarter to tie the score at 7-7, but it was the last true highlight for the Tiger offense. A 13-yard run by Ridder and a 6-yard pass from Ridder to Michael Young made the score 21-7 before Riley Patterson connected on a 42-yard field goal just before halftime.

The Tigers' opening drive of the third quarter ended on a fourth-and-two play from the Cincinnati 10-yard line when a White pass to Sean Dykes in the end zone fell incomplete. It appeared Dykes was held by a Bearcat defender, but no flag was thrown, giving the Bearcats possession. Their ensuing drive ended with Ridder's second touchdown jaunt, putting the game out of reach midway through the third quarter.

In passing for 316 yards, White became only the second Memphis quarterback (after Danny Wimprine) to top 9,000 yards for his career. Both Washington (104 yards) and Calvin Austin (121) topped 100 yards receiving.

The Tigers return to the Liberty Bowl next Saturday when USF (0-4) comes to town. The Tigers handled the Bulls last season in Florida by the same score (49-10) as today's loss in southern Ohio.

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Monday, October 26, 2020

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Mon, Oct 26, 2020 at 8:31 AM

Ryan Silverfield is a balanced coach. It should be no surprise that the Memphis offense is putting up 40 points regularly, even in this disjointed season, under a new head coach. Silverfield served as Mike Norvell's right hand for four seasons, so no man on the planet knows more about what's worked at Memphis than the rookie now calling the shots. Particularly with a familiar quarterback (Brady White) climbing the program's passing charts, Silverfield's prime task has been to maximize his "skill position" players across the depth chart. Through four games, Memphis has run the ball 172 times and passed 164. The only game with a discrepancy of more than five between run and pass plays was the season-opening blowout of Arkansas State (48 runs, 36 passes).

Offensive coordinator Kevin Johns is in a luxurious position, knowing his team can attack both on the ground and through the air. Would departed tailback Kenneth Gainwell have rushed for 650 yards through four games? Perhaps. But Dreke Clark and Kylan Watkins have combined for that total, each averaging more than five yards per carry. More than enough to balance the Tigers' passing attack, which brings me to my second thought.
  • Joe Murphy/Memphis Athletics
  • Tahj Washington

• Damonte who? In pure "next man up" fashion, Memphis claims one of the finest pass-catching trios in the country. I was convinced the Tiger offense would suffer when senior Damonte Coxie announced before the UCF game that he was stepping aside to prepare for the NFL draft. That's because I hadn't seen Calvin Austin's speed split a secondary, or Tahj Washington's hands in traffic. I wasn't sure tight end Sean Dykes could be a weekly threat. Well, Austin has topped 150 yards receiving in each of the last two games and is on pace for a 1,000-yard season (424 through four games). Washington is averaging 15.1 yards per catch and stands the most to gain from Coxie's departure. And Dykes is second on the team with four touchdowns despite only one reception in the win over Temple.

For the Tigers to have so many skilled receivers within target range of a veteran quarterback, all they really need is some time in the pocket for White, and smart decisions by White to avoid turnovers. If the above-mentioned run-pass balance can be retained, gaps down field will be exploited by the Tiger passing game. And one glaring absence on the roster won't be nearly as glaring.

When the Tigers take the field at 7th-ranked Cincinnati, they'll be seeking only the fourth upset of a Top-10 team in the history of the program. Memphis fans of a certain age vividly remember the stunning win over 6th-ranked Tennessee (quarterbacked by Peyton Manning) at the Liberty Bowl in 1996. The Tigers knocked off 7th-ranked Auburn in 1975 and 10th-ranked Mississippi State in 1965. And that's it. Memphis has played 30 other games against Top-10 opponents and the best the Tigers can claim are ties against 2nd-ranked Ole Miss (a 0-0 affair in 1963) and 6th-ranked Florida State (in 1984). Saturday's game will be only the Tigers' seventh against a Top-10 team since the upset of UT 24 years ago, and only the second such program they'll face from the American Athletic Conference (the Tigers fell twice against UCF in 2018). History is there to be made, against a team Memphis beat twice a year ago (including the AAC championship game at the Liberty Bowl). Better yet, the Bearcats and Tigers go back well before the formation of the AAC, having played 36 times since first meeting in 1966. (Memphis leads the series, 23-13.) Halloween is gonna be some scary fun for a pair of teams still in the running for a conference title.

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Saturday, October 24, 2020

Tigers 41, Temple 29

Posted By on Sat, Oct 24, 2020 at 2:58 PM

Brady White threw four touchdown passes and Rodney Owens intercepted a pair of passes by Temple quarterback Anthony Russo Saturday afternoon at the Liberty Bowl to help the Memphis Tigers avenge their only regular-season loss of 2019. Playing in conditions more common to Philadelphia this time of year, the Tigers overcame a pair of first-half turnovers and came from behind twice on the scoreboard to improve to 3-1 for the season and 2-1 in American Athletic Conference play. The Owls fall to 1-2 with the loss.
  • Joe Murphy/Memphis Athletics
  • Brady White

White connected with Tahj Washington to finish an 80-yard drive with 5:29 left in the first quarter to give Memphis a 7-0 lead. But fumbles on the Tigers' next two possessions gave the ball to Temple and Owls capitalized, taking a 9-7 lead midway through the second quarter on a touchdown pass from Russo to Jadan Blue (Blue's first of three scores in the game). Memphis linebacker Xavier Cullens blocked the extra-point attempt.

Senior kicker Riley Patterson connected on a 42-yard field goal to regain the lead for Memphis (10-9) with 3:34 left in the second quarter, but Temple responded with another touchdown drive, capped by a 10-yard pass from Russo to Branden Mack for a 15-10 Owls lead at the half.

The Tigers scored 17 points in the first nine minutes of the third quarter, White hitting Calvin Austin for a 65-yard touchdown then finding Washington again (for 26 yards) for a 27-15 lead. Russo found Blue for a 32-yard scoring strike to close the Tiger advantage to 27-22 late in the third quarter.

Following Owens's second interception early in the fourth quarter, the Tigers converted a fourth-and-six attempt with a completion from White to Austin. White then found freshman Javon Ivory for a seven-yard touchdown and a 34-22 lead. Blue's third touchdown of the contest closed the lead to five points (34-29), but the Memphis defense forced punts on consecutive Temple possessions. When Kylan Watkins dashed 15 yards to the end zone with just over two minutes to play, the Tigers clinched their second consecutive win in the first back-to-back weekends of play they've enjoyed this season.

White completed 17 of 36 passes for 313 yards and now has 76 touchdown passes for his Tiger career, five shy of Danny Wimprine's program record. Austin compiled 184 yards on his six catches and sophomore tailback Dreke Clark rushed for 106 yards on 22 carries. Washington caught five passes for 77 yards.

The Tigers face perhaps their biggest test of the season next Saturday when they travel to Cincinnati to face the 9th-ranked Bearcats. (Cincinnati plays at SMU Saturday night.) The game will be a rematch of last season's AAC championship, a battle won by Memphis at the Liberty Bowl.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Oct 21, 2020 at 9:23 AM

• Five minutes into the third quarter of last Saturday's game at the Liberty Bowl, it appeared stories about the event would focus more on what was missing for Memphis — star receiver Damonte Coxie and a pass defense — than anything the Tigers actually did well on the field. Turns out, we saw the first huge win of the Ryan Silverfield era. In erasing a 35-14 deficit over the game's final 20 minutes, the Tigers established themselves as legitimate rivals to the UCF Knights (winners of the team's previous 13 meetings) and kept alive hopes of a fourth straight appearance in the American Athletic Conference championship game.
  • Joe Murphy

Minus Coxie, Tiger quarterback Brady White merely earned Walter Camp National Offensive Player of the Week honors by passing for 486 yards and six touchdowns. The Ph.D. candidate made stars of Coxie's replacements, Calvin Austin hauling in nine passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns, Tahj Washington catching seven passes for 131 yards. With 217 yards on the ground (112 courtesy Dreke Clark), Memphis managed to outscore an opponent the Tiger defense couldn't contain, that final, misdirected field-goal attempt by UCF's Daniel Obarski a rare 2020 blessing. An early-season comeback win does wonders for the collective psyche of a football team. When the Tigers find themselves down this Saturday, or the next Saturday, or the one after that … remember the UCF game.

The Temple game is one best served cold. It's hard to come up with a "revenge game"  following a 12-2 season like Memphis enjoyed in 2019. But had a late reception by Tiger tight end Joey Magnifico in Philadelphia last year not been ruled incomplete (after a dubious video review), Memphis may have pulled off an undefeated regular season. Instead the Tigers absorbed a two-point loss to the Owls and are now 2-3 against Temple since the programs became AAC rivals in 2013.

It seems silly, this being each team's third conference game of the season, but it's essentially a play-in game for the AAC championship. Each team is already saddled with a league loss (Temple fell to Navy), and it's highly unlikely that a two-loss team will play for the league title. The Owls can light up a scoreboard, but no more so than the UCF Knights. Another winnable home game for Memphis, with the trip to 9th-ranked Cincinnati looming. And yes, the Tigers have the revenge factor. Should be fun.

The Tigers will miss Damonte Coxie the rest of this season, but his decision to leave the program is understandable. Brady White's favorite target leaves the program with 185 career receptions (third in Memphis history) and 2,948 yards (also third). No team loses a playmaker like that without feeling some sting. But in the year 2020, fans (and columnists) require a form of empathy when it comes to prominent athletes that hasn't been called upon before. From major-league stars like Buster Posey to prominent college athletes like Coxie and Kansas running back Pooka Williams, athletes are "opting out" for reasons more personal than even they could have envisioned a year ago. And under pandemic conditions, it's really not anyone's business why a person feels called to priorities larger than a playing field.

I haven't had the chance to visit with Coxie about his decision. I know he and White have a friendship that runs deeper than football, one that will last, hopefully, the rest of their lives. Coxie emphasized, via social media, that he intends to earn his degree at the University of Memphis, not an incidental decision even for a man likely to put away some cash as an NFL receiver. Coxie was part of the greatest season in Tiger history and should be saluted for the impact he made for what is now one of the most prolific offenses in college football. As for the months ahead, in navigating his life with the coronavirus still running rampant, we must wish Coxie and his family all the best. And look forward to the next time we see him on a football field.

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Monday, October 12, 2020

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Mon, Oct 12, 2020 at 8:53 AM

• When Memphis takes the field this Saturday at the Liberty Bowl, the Tigers will have played one football game in six weeks. The program hasn't had a "season" as much as a pair of one-off teasers to open the months of September (a win over Arkansas State) and October (a loss at SMU). Few sports are structured more rhythmically than football, with each day of "Game Week" devoted to different components of preparation, be it film review, injury treatment, or the institution of a game plan. With the exception of injury treatment — a single game in six weeks does wonders for sprains, bruises, and such — the Tigers will play what amounts to a third opening game of their 2020 season when UCF comes to town.
  • George Walker/University of Memphis
  • Dreke Clark

But the fun starts Saturday. At least if Memphis and eight other programs can keep the coronavirus outside the room. The Tigers will play eight games in eight weeks, all conference affairs with the exception of Stephen F. Austin on November 21st (an FCS opponent that replaced UT-Martin on the schedule). Three of the next four will be at the Liberty Bowl (the only road game being at Cincinnati on Halloween). With more fans gradually allowed to attend games (12,500 are expected this Saturday), that feel for football season may finally arrive in the Mid-South. Just mask up and keep your distance till game day, fellas. After all, teams face two opponents every week in 2020.

Memphis has to get over the UCF hump. The Tigers have played the Knights 13 times since 2005, and lost 13 times. They've faced UCF in the American Athletic Conference championship game twice, and lost both times. Memphis has lost to UCF in one-win seasons (2010) and Memphis has lost to UCF in 10-win seasons (twice in 2017). In other words, the Tiger program has reached new heights over the last decade . . . but still has a daddy.

Josh Heupel's team will visit Memphis already saddled with a league loss (to Tulsa), so the game has enormous implications as teams jockey for the top two spots in the AAC (no divisions this year to determine combatants for the championship game). The Knights scored 49 points in a win over Georgia Tech and 51 in beating East Carolina. (The Golden Hurricane held them to 26, and in Orlando.) McKenzie Milton may not be quarterbacking the UCF attack (sophomore Dillon Gabriel is now behind center), but the Tiger defense will be tasked with forcing just enough punts or turnovers for the Memphis offense to outscore this longtime nemesis. Even in an abbreviated, interrupted season, a Tiger victory this weekend would be historic.

Everywhere you look on NFL Sundays, you see Memphis Tigers. There's no greater validation for the rise of the Tiger program than to see former stars in blue-and-gray now making an impact with "the shield" on their jerseys. Anthony Miller is catching passes for the Chicago Bears while Antonio Gibson is scoring touchdowns for Washington's team. Bobby McCain is starting at safety in his sixth season with the Miami Dolphins while Chris Claybrooks is finding his way onto the field as a rookie with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Tony Pollard is returning kicks and taking handoffs for the Dallas Cowboys while Dontari Poe plays defensive tackle in Big D. Darrell Henderson leads the L.A. Rams with 260 rushing yards while Jake Elliott (Philadelphia Eagles) and Stephen Gostkowski (Tennessee Titans) have each won Super Bowls kicking field goals, the latter now 12th on the NFL's all-time scoring chart. Recruiting is the lifeblood of college football, and top recruits have their sights set on playing beyond their college years. Memphis has developed an NFL highlight reel few programs outside the "Power Five" can offer these days. Bodes well for both future Saturdays and Sundays in Tiger Nation.

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Saturday, October 3, 2020

SMU 30, #25 Tigers 27

Posted By on Sat, Oct 3, 2020 at 6:38 PM

What a difference 336 days make. Especially the last 28.

Eleven months after beating SMU in one of the most scintillating games in the program's history, the Memphis Tigers took the field in Dallas for the rematch . . . their first game in four weeks due to a Covid-19 outbreak that shut down operations for much of September. Playing in front of a small, scattered audience in Gerald J. Ford Stadium, the Tigers erased a 21-point deficit with a scoring frenzy that bridged the second and third quarters. But shortly after a fumble by Tiger quarterback Brady White gave the Mustangs possession, SMU kicker Chris Naggar drilled a 43-yard field goal to help his team improve to 4-0 for the season and end a six-game losing streak to Memphis. The Tigers are now 1-1 (0-1 in the American Athletic Conference) and will have another semi-extended break before hosting UCF at the Liberty Bowl on October 17th.
Marquavius Weaver takes a handoff from Brady White. - U OF M ATHLETICS
  • U of M Athletics
  • Marquavius Weaver takes a handoff from Brady White.

SMU won despite losing a pair of impact offensive players. Running back T.J. McDaniel had to be helped off the field after violently twisting his lower left leg on the Mustangs' first play from scrimmage. Then late in the third quarter — after making a lengthy pass reception — senior receiver Reggie Roberson left the game on a cart after injuring his left knee. Roberson's play was decisive, though, as he scored on plays that covered 70 and 85 yards on his way to 243 yards for the game.

Down 24-3 after Roberson's second touchdown, the Tigers began their climb back with a White-to-Calvin Austin touchdown pass covering eight yards midway through the second quarter. White found Sean Dykes for a touchdown less than four minutes later and senior kicker Riley Patterson connected on a 56-yard field goal on the last play before halftime to make the score 24-20, SMU, at the break.

Naggar connected on a 25-yard field goal early in the third quarter, but Memphis answered with a 92-yard drive, capped by a five-yard touchdown pass from White to freshman Tahj Washington. The score remained tied for the remainder of the game, until Naggar's game-winning kick with nine seconds on the clock. The Tigers' three fourth-quarter possessions resulted in two punts and White's fumble.

White completed 29 of 42 passes for 380 yards and three touchdowns, but tossed a pair of interceptions in addition to his late fumble. Dreke Clark gained 98 yards on 16 carries, while Damonte Coxie starred in the passing game, hauling in eight passes for 169 yards. Dykes caught six passes for 85 yards.

Just like their 2019 shootout at the Liberty Bowl — a 54-48 Memphis win that followed ESPN's GameDay presentation from Beale Street — both teams topped 500 yards in total offense (Memphis 585, SMU 549). The Tiger defense allowed 474 of those yards through the air.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Tue, Sep 8, 2020 at 9:09 AM

• No Norvell, No Gainwell, No Crowd . . . No Problem.

The Memphis Tigers won their season-opener. It's what they do — seven straight years now, after losing nine consecutive openers from 2005 to 2013. Star tailback Kenneth Gainwell shook up the roster by announcing his opt-out a week before kick-off, so sophomore Rodrigues Clark rushes for 109 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. Offensive wizard Mike Norvell departed for Florida State, so Ryan Silverfield takes command of a team that tops 500 yards (yet again), converts nine of 17 third-down snaps and a fourth down via fake punt, defensive lineman Joseph Dorceus (?!?) scampering 25 yards to retain possession . . . with Memphis up 17 points.
Rodrigues Clark takes the ball from Brady White. - JOE MURPHY
  • Joe Murphy
  • Rodrigues Clark takes the ball from Brady White.

Oh, and the Tigers' passing game seems to be in capable hands. Senior Ph.D. candidate Brady White completed 26 of 36 passes and tossed four touchdowns, in so doing becoming only the third Memphis quarterback with 60 touchdown connections. Damonte Coxie caught eight passes for 90 yards (ho-hum), but tight end Sean Dykes did his best Travis Kelce impression, hauling in 10 passes for 137 yards and a pair of scores. It all felt normal, formulaic even. A primetime win on national TV for the University of Memphis? We've been here before.

• Pandemic football stinks . . . but it's the best we've got.

Football was made for television. From the dimensions of the field to the contrast and collision of uniform colors, the sport provides an aesthetic — if such can exist in a game so violent — unlike any other. But there's a sadness to football in 2020, starting with the virtually empty parking lots as kickoff nears. And no sound system can replicate the noise of a crowd (even as "small" as 20,000) celebrating a big touchdown. The pandemic conditions are especially cruel for the Memphis program, which has seen nights when fewer than 10,000 people chose to attend a game. (The Larry Porter jokes were flying over social media last Saturday night.) Here's hoping college football finds ways to safely and gradually welcome more fans to stadiums across the country. Seems like a long shot, and against the grain in a world where college students are studying as much from dorm rooms as lecture halls. But let's hang on to hope. In the year we'll remember as 2020, it's the best and only approach.

• Arkansas State felt right . . . but the Tiger program can do better.

Not that long ago, it seemed like former Memphis coach Justin Fuente and I were the only men in town not interested in seeing an SEC program on the Tigers' schedule. (The year was 2013.) It was nice to see the Red Wolves (merely a Sun Belt foe) back in town for the first time in seven years, but Tiger athletic director Laird Veatch should aim higher, and ambitiously. It's a crime against Mid-South football culture that the Tigers haven't played the Arkansas Razorbacks in 22 years. The programs will meet again, but not until we have a new U.S. president (one way or another), in the year 2025. Mississippi State will visit the Liberty Bowl next year, but Ole Miss has fallen off future Tiger schedules and Memphis hasn't faced Tennessee in a decade. (Imagine what the Memphis winning streak might be against the Vols.) One of these four programs should meet Memphis every season. Could be an eight-year rotation (home and away for each). The marquee home game on this year's Tiger schedule is UCF (October 17th), a legitimate conference rival for Memphis. But the kind of game that could fill the Liberty Bowl to capacity (remember those days)? Hardly.  

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Sunday, March 8, 2020

#21 Houston 64, Tigers 57

Posted By on Sun, Mar 8, 2020 at 1:30 PM

Quentin Grimes took over for the Houston Cougars Saturday afternoon, scoring eight straight points midway through the second half to erase a two-point (41-39) Tiger lead. The transfer from Kansas (Grimes played for the Jayhawks last season) scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half to put the Cougars (23-8) in position to win the American Athletic Conference's regular-season championship (with a Tulsa loss Sunday). The Tigers dropped to 21-10 (10-8 in the AAC) and will receive a bye in next week's conference tourney only if Connecticut and Wichita State both lose Sunday.

Despite missing 12 of their first 14 shots, the Tigers led at halftime (30-26) and well into the second half before Grimes found his range from long distance. Precious Achiuwa established a new record for Memphis freshmen with his 18th double-double (25 points and 14 rebounds) and moved within 11 points of becoming the 10th Tiger freshman to score 500. But he had little offensive support. Only Lester Quinones scored as many as 10 points among Achiuwa's teammates and Memphis only got nine points from its bench.

The Tigers will likely have to reach the AAC tourney final for any consideration of an NCAA tournament berth. (The league champion receives an automatic bid.) Unless they receive a bye, the Tigers' opening game in Fort Worth will be on Thursday.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Tigers 68, Wichita State 60

Posted By on Thu, Mar 5, 2020 at 11:36 PM

If Precious Achiuwa played his final home game as a Memphis Tiger Thursday night, he delivered a happy parting gift to the FedExForum faithful. The freshman small forward — one of five finalists for the Julius Erving Award — scored 14 points and pulled down 16 rebounds for his 17th double-double of the season, matching the freshman total of Tiger great Keith Lee. Along with a season-high 19 points from Tyler Harris, Achiuwa's performance sparked Memphis to a win over Wichita State that keeps NCAA tournament hopes alive and sets up the Tigers for a possible bye into the quarterfinals of next week's American Athletic Conference tourney. The U of M improved to 21-9 on the season (10-7 in the AAC), while the Shockers dropped to 22-8 (10-7).
Precious Achiuwa - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Precious Achiuwa

"I'm very proud of the team tonight," said Memphis coach Penny Hardaway. "They stuck to the game plan for 40 minutes and made it really hard for Wichita State. A total team effort. The bench came in and played phenomenal. We didn't start strong, but the bench calmed things down and we stayed in control for the rest of the game. Only seven turnovers . . . that was major for us."

The Tigers didn't score until Lance Thomas hit a three-pointer four minutes into the game. But a 13-0 run erased a 7-0 Shocker lead and the Tigers built a nine-point cushion before settling for a 29-24 halftime advantage (courtesy of a Harris trey at the buzzer).

Harris hit three-pointers on consecutive possessions midway through the second half to give the Tigers a 12-point lead (54-42). By the time Achiuwa threw down dunks on consecutive possessions (the latter at the 5:00 mark), the game was all but decided.

"We talked about taking care of the ball, and getting back on defense," said Achiuwa. "Keeping it simple, playing solid."

"It was a must-win," added Harris. "Everybody was locked in."

On a night Isaiah Maurice was saluted as the team's only departing senior, Achiuwa deflected a question about the possibility of his own departure. "I'm focused on finishing out the season," he said, "and putting my team in a position to achieve our goals."

Goals are easier to achieve when turnovers are limited and your opponent shoots merely 34 percent from the field (and 26 percent from long range). "They did a great job of pressing our guards," said Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall. "We had chances, but we could never make the play to put pressure on them."

The win avenges a Tiger loss at Wichita State two months ago and sets up a showdown at Houston Sunday. Should Memphis beat the Cougars, the Tigers will secure fourth place in the AAC standings and that precious bye in the opening round of the league tournament at Fort Worth. Houston lost to Connecticut Thursday night and will enter the game with a record of 22-8 (12-5).

With news hovering around the program about an independent infractions investigation (related to James Wiseman's suspension and his playing three games last November), Hardaway welcomed the win as reinforcement of the mission he continues to sell. "We're going to keep going, no matter what," he emphasized. "Nothing's going to stop us from understanding what we're trying to do. This is a family. We've supported each other through everything we've gone through this year. We're not going to stop now."

Sunday's game at Houston is scheduled to tip-off at 11 a.m. and will be televised on CBS.

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