Tommy West is the longest tenured football coach in Conference USA. Which makes it especially ironic that West -- in his ninth season at the Tiger helm -- has never won a C-USA opener. His Tigers, after dropping Saturday’s game to Marshall, 27-16, are 0-1 in league play for the ninth straight year. (The U of M beat Army in 2000, the last time the program could call itself undefeated in C-USA play.) Perhaps worse for West -- and his prospects for coaching another nine years in Memphis -- is the gap that seems to be growing between a second-tier conference and his program.
The Thundering Herd, by every measure, was a beatable team entering the Liberty Bowl. Picked by league coaches to finish fifth in C-USA’s East Division (two spots below Memphis), Marshall had beaten Southern Illinois and Bowling Green, but had been drubbed, 52-10, by Virginia Tech. They ranked seventh in C-USA in total offense (just above Memphis) and eighth in total defense (just below Memphis). Thanks largely to 203 rushing yards by the aptly named Darius Marshall, the Herd outgained the Tigers, 367 yards to 351. Dead-ball penalties, a miserable punt-coverage team, and some timid play-calling doomed the Tigers in front of an announced crowd of 20,063. At least the sun was shining for the first time in a fortnight.
“We are not a good enough offensive team to win football games now,” said West after the game. “Pour on top of that poor special teams, and you have a disaster.”
Marshall averaged a staggering 25.5 yards on four punt returns, one of which was returned 52 yards late in the third quarter to set up the visitors’ game-clinching touchdown. “We outkicked our coverage on a couple of those,” West admitted.
Down 11 points with just over eight minutes to play and the ball on the Herd eight-yard-line, the U of M faced fourth down with a yard to go. The Tigers tried to draw the defense offsides, but wound up burning the second of three timeouts before Matt Reagan kicked a 25-yard field goal. The ensuing kickoff went out of bounds and Marshall chewed up a short field to eat up all but 1:56 of the game’s balance.
“Offensively ... this is my responsibility,” said West. “Two motion penalties ... that lack of discipline is on me.” And the conservative play-calling near the game’s end? “I just don’t trust our power game,” said West. “Your offensive line has to take the load on their shoulders.” The coach acknowledged that star tailback Curtis Steele was missed (and that Steele is expected back next week against UCF). Backup T. J. Pitts was also sidelined in the fourth quarter, contributing to the decision to take a sure three points instead of gamble a single play in an effort for seven.
Sophomore quarterback Tyler Bass, starting his first game against Division I-A competition, passed for 232 yards (141 of them to Duke Calhoun) and led the Tigers on the ground with 64 yards. A pair of interceptions, though, were momentum-killers, particularly one in the Marshall end zone late in the first half. “He played against a veteran defense,” said West. “For the most part, I think he read coverage decently. He made a mistake in the red zone that we just can’t make.”
The Tigers will next travel to UCF to face a Knight squad that has lost its first two C-USA games, so the loser will take a stranglehold on the East Division cellar. The Tigers started the 2007 and 2008 seasons 1-3, then rallied to qualify for a bowl game. If they’re to do the same this fall, new difference-makers will have to emerge.
“I’m disappointed with where we are now,” West acknowledged. “We’re talented enough. I have to get our offensive line to rear up.” Too much season lies ahead for West and his staff to expect anything less.