If character is doing the right thing when nobody's watching, pride must be playing college football with very little to gain. Having seen their high hopes of a first Conference USA championship go up in smoke in a 17-16 defeat at Marshall last weekend, the Memphis Tigers are now staring at nine games and a steep climb to respectability. With two conference losses already and the program's first 0-3 start in a decade, silver linings are hard to come by. But we'll give it a shot.
For the first time this season, Memphis held its opponent under 40 points. But considering the Thundering Herd still amassed more than 400 yards of total offense, this was more a reflection of Marshall's offensive ineptitude than it was any solidifying of the Tiger D. On the offensive side of the ball, the U of M passing attack is proving to be as dangerous as advertised. Quarterback Arkelon Hall threw for 364 yards a week after compiling 373 against Rice. Junior Carlos Singleton was on the receiving end of 11 passes, good for 158 yards. But despite all the aerial movement, Memphis reached the end zone but once (on a four-yard pass from backup quarterback Will Hudgens to Earnest Williams).
More silver linings? The Tigers held the ball slightly longer than did Marshall. They committed fewer penalties and had ten more first downs (26 to 16) than did their opponent. All of which makes coach Tommy West's job that much more difficult in identifying how quickly the 2008 season turned sour, and how he and his staff might find some sweetener for the two-plus months of season that remains.
Next up Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl is the Tigers' annual schedule-filler against Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) competition. Instead of Chattanooga or Tennessee Tech, Nicholls State comes to town in what will be the Colonels' season opener, their first two games having been postponed by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. The closest thing to a cream puff Memphis will see this fall, Nicholls State may be salve to a wounded collective psyche on the Tiger side of the field. If ever West has needed a week to experiment with his depth chart and make some in-game alterations, this will be the one. But the home crowd -- will there be as many as 30,000 to see if the Tigers can scratch the win column? -- had better not count any chickens with these Colonels in town. A year ago, this FCS team beat the Rice Owls.
Wins are accumulated one at a time, of course. Schedule-gazing and dreaming of brighter lights are afterthoughts for the 2008 Tigers. Now, it's simply a matter of pride.
Considering how high Memphis Tiger basketball has risen in the nation's Q ratings, the upcoming home schedule has to be considered a disappointment. After a 2007-08 season that welcomed the likes of Arizona, Georgetown, Tennessee, and Gonzaga to FedExForum, the upcoming season's nonconference home highlights will be Massachusetts (November 17th), Syracuse (December 20th), and Cincinnati (December 29th). While the Tigers will face the Vols and Zags again on the road, Lamar is the only nonconference opponent visiting FEF after New Year's Day. And while UMass will carry sentimental value -- as Calipari's former stomping grounds, now under the guidance of longtime Memphis assistant Derek Kellogg -- the Tigers will be considerable favorites, just as they will against the Orange and Bearcats. You'll likely witness the most dramatic moments of the upcoming season in your living room.
Last week, Ryan Ludwick became the second St. Louis Cardinal to drive in 100 runs a year after playing for the Memphis Redbirds. (The first was none other than Albert Pujols.) The 30-year-old outfielder remains among the best baseball stories of 2008. Entering the 2007 season, Ludwick had played in 104 big-league games (with a total of 44 RBIs) and 520 minor-league contests over his eight-year professional career. He lit up Pacific Coast League pitching last year, hitting .340 with 36 RBIs in only 29 games for Memphis. Promoted to St. Louis in May '07, Ludwick hit 14 homers and drove in 52 runs as a reserve for the Cardinals. After making his first All-Star appearance this past July, Ludwick will receive a few MVP votes at season's end. No player on the planet will have earned them more.