University of Memphis football coach Tommy West was barely in his seat for his post-game comments last Saturday when he burst forth with a summary of how his Tigers beat Arkansas State, 29-17, at the Liberty Bowl. Said West, "[Our defense] came out for the second half, and listen to this: punt, punt, punt, punt, turnover, turnover, punt, out on downs. And that against an offense that's been playing pretty dang good."
Led by four sacks from senior defensive tackle Clinton McDonald and, not incidentally, 203 rushing yards from junior tailback Curtis Steele, Memphis ended a two-game losing streak to the newly christened Red Wolves with their second straight win. And it could be a corner turned for the 2008 season, as the Tigers pulled away in the fourth quarter of a game that had four lead changes. Three factors will determine if this was, in fact, a big win or merely a distracting sign of life for a struggling program.
• The Tigers beat a (seemingly) good team. The days of considering ASU a gimme on the schedule are over. The Red Wolves opened their season by winning at Texas A & M, then scored 83 points (no typo) in their home opener against Texas Southern (and not their basketball team). They lost by a field goal to perennial C-USA contender Southern Miss, then whipped MTSU, 31-14.
West described ASU quarterback Corey Leonard as being as "good as we've seen this year." The Red Wolves entered Saturday's game with two running backs already over 350 yards for the season. If Arkansas State proves to be the class of the Sun Belt Conference, the Tigers may look back on September 27th as being a highlight of this campaign.
• Three weeks, three rivals. The Tigers travel next to Birmingham for a Thursday-night tilt with a very beatable UAB team. Then they host ancient rival Louisville on Friday, October 10th, in what would be the biggest home game of the season, regardless of what's at stake for either squad. (The Cardinals will enter the game 2-2, having lost last weekend to Connecticut.) Like it or not — and SEC-centric Mid-South fans may not — Tiger football can claim four chief rivalries, and three of them are across the field over this single three-week stretch. (Memphis won't face Southern Miss until October 25th.)
If the Tigers can run the table against the Red Wolves, Blazers, and Cardinals, they'll not only find themselves with a record of 4-3, but with a renewed sense of the competitive spirit that fuels the college football industry. A loss to Marshall fades in the memory bank when that bronzed rack of ribs is lifted after a victory over UAB.
• Defending their Liberty. There's a word (actually, a few) for college football teams that can't win at home: pushover. In winning their second straight home game, the Tigers have established some backbone in front of their loyal fans. Attendance last weekend was 26,376, so you can count on at least 10,000 more seats being filled for the prime-time affair with Louisville. Three of the Tigers' last four games this season will be at the Liberty Bowl, so another late-season drive for bowl eligibility isn't out of the question.
Of course, these factors become moot — and fast — if Memphis can't build on its first decent win of 2008. And West recognizes the twin rails along which his train is riding. "We won this game defensively," he emphasized late Saturday afternoon. "We won with our running game, because we weren't very good throwing it. We also made it hard on their quarterback today, and he's an outstanding player. When we needed to make plays today, we made plays. I'm excited about the improvement we've made."
Not to be ignored from last Saturday's coming-out party were the three field goals converted by reserve walk-on kicker Vinny Zaccario. With Matt Reagan nursing a hip-flexor injury, West turned to a kid his players know about as well as Tiger fans. "I introduced him to our team [after the game]," chuckled West. "I said, 'There's the guy who kicked the field goals.'"
It wouldn't be the first time a hidden jewel has turned a season around.
Frank Murtaugh writes the "From My Seat" column for memphisflyer.com.