Last Friday night at the Liberty Bowl, University of Memphis quarterback Arkelon Hall awoke memories of the "triple threat" hero of college football days gone by. Opposing the Louisville Cardinals in front of 40,248 fans and a national television audience, Hall passed for two touchdowns, ran for a third, and actually caught a fourth (courtesy of wideout Maurice Jones, who took a handoff from Hall on an apparent end-around, only to sling the ball back across the field and into the end zone). Alas, it was the fifth touchdown Hall was responsible for — a fumble recovered by the Cardinals' Johnny Patrick and returned 21 yards to paydirt — that made the difference in Louisville's 35-28 victory.
Even with Hall's heroics, this showdown between arch rivals was shaped more by the shortcomings of the Tigers' special teams. Immediately following that touchdown reception by Hall — which gave Memphis a 14-7 lead midway through the second quarter — Louisville's Trent Guy took the kickoff 95 yards for a deflating equalizer. And in the waning seconds of the first half, down 21-14, the home team lined up for a 37-yard field-goal attempt, only to see the kick blocked — by the supremely opportunistic Patrick — and returned 60 yards for a touchdown by Brandon Heath.
"We are not gonna beat a good team playing special teams like that," said Memphis coach Tommy West after the game. "Offensively and defensively, I don't know if I've ever been more proud of a football team, because we played hard tonight. Outside our special teams, which didn't show up at all, we dominated the game. I challenged them to step up. I told them it was going to be a grown man's game, and it was — but our special teams didn't show up. There's no way to sugarcoat it, and we have to find a way to correct that. We have four or five guys who this game was too big for."
It's hard to argue with West's take. Memphis outgained Louisville 481 yards to 299. The Tigers gained 27 first downs to the Cardinals' 13, held the ball seven minutes longer, and were penalized 19 fewer yards. If anything, the Memphis coaching staff shifted too heavily to Hall's hot passing hand, as the Tigers threw the ball 56 times compared with only 30 rushing attempts. Which brings up this season's chicken-or-egg statistic:
Seven games into the 2008 campaign, when the Memphis Tigers pass more than they run, they lose (to Ole Miss, Rice, Marshall, and Louisville). When they run more than they pass, they win (over Nicholls State, Arkansas State, and UAB). Whether or not this is a game-changing strategic decision by West or a trend built on the score of Tiger games — teams generally throw more when trailing — is worth a debate. But having reeled off three straight 100-yard games (all Tiger wins), Curtis Steele averaged 5.0 yards a carry Friday night, but only got the ball 16 times. There were third-and-short plays in which Memphis lined up with five receivers, Hall alone in the backfield. (One of these was the Jones-to-Hall touchdown pass.) On fourth-and-one at the Louisville two in the first quarter, Steele got the ball on a direct snap, but not until Hall had turned to the official to fake that he was calling timeout. (The Tigers converted, and Hall scored on the next play.) Trickery seemed to be emphasized Friday night. Perhaps it was the bright lights of the ESPN cameras.
"That's what I've thought this team can be," West said, "but you can't make the errors that we made."
The Tigers played most of the game without star defensive tackle Clinton McDonald — he of seven sacks over the last three games — who left the game in the second quarter with an injury to his left foot. Linebacker Greg Jackson and safety Alton Starr (nine solo tackles and five assists) led the Memphis defense in McDonald's absence.
The Tigers remain three wins shy of the six necessary for bowl eligibility, with five to play. After traveling to East Carolina next Saturday, three of the season's final four contests will be played at the Liberty Bowl, with the fourth at Conference USA cellar-dweller SMU. Plenty to play for, but now with what would have been the biggest win of the season deep-sixed by two or three game-turning plays with a kicker on the field.
"You know, I've won games that I haven't been happy with," West said. "I really am proud of the way our offense and defense played. I have to find a way to get our special teams better. We'll bounce back. There's no doubt in my mind."