The University of Memphis has been playing football since 1912, and the program has had its share of struggles, suiting up plenty of teams that were, if not down right sorry, quite forgettable. But not since 1924 had the Tigers given up more than 40 points in each of their first two games. (Hendrix College and Arkansas College outscored Zach Curlin's boys by a combined score of 100-0 a few weeks before President Calvin Coolidge was re-elected.) Then came the start of the 2008 season: Ole Miss 41, Memphis 24 and Rice 42, Memphis 35.
While the opening loss at Oxford may have been disappointing to head coach Tommy West, his team, and the growing legion of Tiger fans who've come to embrace this era of Memphis football, the late-game collapse against Rice Saturday at the Liberty Bowl carried the kind of heartbreak that can shape a season. Having emphasized the character of his recruits for eight years now, West will see if the current team is staggered by the loss to an Owl squad it should have beaten, or inspired by what could have been.
The manner by which an apparent win was given away -- Rice scored three touchdowns in the last seven minutes, including a game-winning 69-yard interception return -- was eerily similar to gut-wrenching home losses to Cincinnati in 2002 (a season finale that cost Memphis a winning season and bowl game) and to Arkansas State in 2006 (a crusher followed by five consecutive losses). Behind the arm of rookie quarterback Arkelon Hall -- his 373 yards passing against Rice is the fourth highest single-game total in Memphis history -- the Tigers took a 35-20 lead over a Rice team that had lit up SMU with 56 points in their opener a week earlier. Alas, it's the pass intercepted by Chris Jammer and returned for Rice's final touchdown that will stand out from Hall's first performance at the Liberty Bowl.
This was a bigger game, in some respects, than the more ballyhooed opener at Ole Miss. With an expressed goal of contending for the Conference USA championship, the Tigers need to beat the likes of Rice (picked by league coaches to finish fourth in C-USA's West Division). Hall matched Rice's all-conference quarterback Chase Clement pass for pass (Clement wound up with 318 yards but two picks of his own), and the Tigers held all-conference wideout Jarett Dillard to a fairly pedestrian eight receptions for 66 yards. But clamping down on Dillard merely opened gaps in the Tiger defense for Owl tight end James Casey, whose 11 catches were good for an astonishing 208 yards (which don't even include the game-tying two-point conversion with under two minutes to play).
Two of the three most important stat lines in football are first downs and penalties. The team that wins these categories typically wins a game. Rice had 24 first downs to the Tigers' 22 and the Owls were penalized but three times for 20 yards, while Memphis had six infractions that cost them 48 yards. (In the third critical area -- turnovers -- each team had two.) A week earlier, Memphis had twice the penalties (eight) of their opponent, and a pair of turnovers (to none for Ole Miss) offset the first-down advantage Memphis held (28 to 19). It's a cliche, of course, but the honest truth: when Memphis protects the football and avoids penalties, the Tigers will start winning games.
Next up for the Tigers is a trip to Huntington, West Virginia, for a tilt with Marshall. The Thundering Herd was manhandled by Wisconsin last weekend, but pounded Illinois State in its opener. The game is now a must-win for the U of M, as the 2008 schedule gets tougher with every 50 points scored by Louisville and every major upset pulled off by East Carolina. (Can the Pirates be the 2008 BCS-busters we saw in Boise State two years ago and Hawaii in 2007?) For a winning season, the Tigers are going to have to find a three-game winning streak (minimum) on that schedule. With Marshall followed by Nicholls State and Arkansas State at home, then a road game against a beatable UAB team, Memphis may well determine how high the bar for this season can be raised before the nationally televised showdown with the Cardinals on October 10th. The first aim next weekend, you can be certain, is to keep the Herd under 40 points.