Football teams often play an entire season without seeing a kicked ball hit an upright. But it happened twice — at either end of the field — in the first five minutes of this afternoon’s tilt between the Tigers and Southern Miss at the Liberty Bowl. And the symbolism for a game — and season — was painfully evident.
The 36-yard field-goal attempt by the Eagles’ Danny Hrapmann deflected sharply downward, but over the crossbar and between the uprights for the game’s first points (confirmed only after an official review). After Memphis scored a touchdown on its ensuing possession for one of the few leads it will hold this season, the point-after attempt by Paulo Henriques found the right upright and came crashing down to the turf . . . not over the crossbar. Lost point, lost game, lost season.
The Tigers held their 6-3 lead (courtesy of a 22-yard Marcus Rucker touchdown reception) for just over five minutes before Johndrick Morris caught a scoring pass from Southern Miss quarterback Austin Davis. Another Davis touchdown pass — to tailback Desmond Johnson — widened the gap to 17-6 as the first quarter expired, and the Tigers would never be closer on the scoreboard.
“We dug ourselves another hole,” said Tiger coach Larry Porter after the game. “We didn’t respond, and it was hard to overcome, the way we played offensively. We have to take a look at all the negatives, and address those so we can become a better football team.”
For the third straight game, the Tigers were unable to force a turnover (while the offense lost a pair of fumbles inside Memphis territory). Southern Miss outgained the Tigers, 515 yards to 269, with Kendrick Hardy rushing for 105 on only 11 carries (one of them a 59-yard scoring jaunt in the fourth quarter). The Tigers’ running game was nonexistent, Jerrell Rhodes and Greg Ray combining for 60 yards on 19 carries.
In addition to his early touchdown reception, Rucker hauled in an 81-yard scoring strike from Ryan Williams in the fourth quarter. A tandem Memphis fans hope to cheer through the 2012 season, Williams and Rucker connected on four passes for 155 yards. “He’s the one consistent guy we have at the receiver position,” said Porter. “We’ve got to find a way to continue to get him the ball. He had a good game today, but I still don’t think we have an established playmaker on offense. That’s why we tried to manufacture some ways today, to get guys in a situation where they could make some plays. We have to narrow our scope and focus on a few guys, and find ways to get them the ball.”
Senior linebacker Jamon Hughes was again a stalwart for the Memphis defense. He made a total of 21 tackles, a career high, and picked up his second sack of the season. “It’s a reflection of his commitment, his leadership,” stressed Porter. “He practices just as hard as he plays. We need to get some other guys seeing it that way.”
Porter said he and his staff would take advantage of the upcoming bye week as best they can. “We need it in a bad way,” he said. “We’ve got to settle our personnel, big time. So many injuries, guys in and out of the lineup, and it shows up on game day. When we send them out there, we hold them accountable. We need to redefine some of the techniques and fundamentals of football, and allow them to really and truly draw some confidence, so we can come out of the back end of this season an improved football team. We’ve got to settle our offense, in general.”
The Tigers return to the Liberty Bowl on October 30th for this year’s homecoming game against Houston.